Friday, November 04, 2011

Veterans Day: More Wars, More Unknowns


Among the 136,516 Americans who died in the 19 months that America participated in the First World War, the next-of-kin of 101,143 dead servicemen chose to have their remains returned to the United States for burial.
The next-of-kin of 30,921 war dead elected to have their remains buried in Europe.
Remains that could not be identified were also buried in Europe. The names of the missing in action were memorialized on plaques in military cemeteries.
Last week’s article, “Armistice Day and the Unknown Soldier,” described how one unidentified body was chosen for burial in Arlington National Cemetery in 1921. That story continues here.
Bearing the Unknown Soldier’s casket under constant guard, the cruiser Olympia departed from the French port of Le Havre on October 25th for the journey home. The venerable ship had served as Admiral Dewey’s flagship at the battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War. On November 9th, she steamed up the Potomac to a dock at the Washington Navy Yard, after a trans-Atlantic voyage of 15 days.
As the casket was carried down the gangplank on that dark and rainy afternoon, the ship's band played the national anthem. Waiting to escort the Unknown Soldier to the Capitol were Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing and other military and civilian dignitaries.
The flag-covered casket was placed on a black horse-drawn caisson. Playing the hymn "Onward Christian Soldiers,” the 3rd Cavalry band led the cortege from the Navy Yard. Two squadrons of cavalry and the officials in their automobiles followed the caisson to the Capitol, where the casket was placed at the center of the Rotunda.
 The catafalque holding the casket was the same stand that had borne the remains of assassinated Presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley. The body lay in state overnight under a guard of honor composed of selected enlisted men of the Army, Navy and Marine Corps standing with heads bowed and rifles reversed.
The bronze doors of the Rotunda--a gift from France in the early days of the Republic--were unlocked at eight o'clock the next morning. An endless stream of mourners entered four abreast and passed before the casket to honor the Unknown Soldier. When the doors were closed at midnight, it was estimated that 90,000 persons had filed past the casket. For them, many of whom had lost someone in the war, the Unknown Soldier symbolized the 4,452 unidentified dead or missing in action in the conflict that had ended three years before.

To Arlington

At 8:30 on the morning of November 11th, the flag-draped casket was taken from the Capitol and again placed on a black caisson for the journey through the streets of Washington to the Memorial Amphitheater in Arlington National Cemetery.
In the cortege walking behind the caisson were President Warren G. Harding, Vice-President Calvin Coolidge, ex-President and newly appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William Howard Taft,  associate justices, members of the diplomatic corps, Medal of Honor recipients, members of Congress, and various generals and admirals. Bringing up the rear were representatives of 44 patriotic, fraternal and welfare organizations.
A field artillery battery near the Washington Monument began firing "minute guns" at one-minute intervals. Their booming salvos would reverberate throughout Washington until the conclusion of the funeral ceremony at Arlington. At the White House, the President, the other politicians and the judiciary left the procession and traveled by automobile to Arlington.
At the Amphitheater, the casket was placed on a black-draped catafalque. The President and Mrs. Harding arrived at 11:55 a.m., and the ceremonies began with the playing of the national anthem by the Marine Corps band. The audience sang "America," after which President Harding, slightly flustered by his late arrival, delivered an address paying tribute to the Unknown Soldier and pleading for an end to war.
The President then conferred upon the Unknown Soldier the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross. Representatives of foreign governments in turn awarded the Unknown Soldier the highest military decorations of their nations. These included Belgium, Britain, France, Italy, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Romania. Congressman Fish, who had introduced the legislation to memorialize the unknown American dead, laid a wreath at the tomb. Among others who paid tribute was Crow Indian Chief Plenty Coups. Representing Native Americans, he placed his war bonnet and coup stick at the tomb.
The bottom of the crypt had been covered with a layer of French soil from the American cemetery at Suresnes. As the casket was lowered into the crypt, the saluting battery fired three salvos. A bugler then sounded Taps, and the artillery battery fired 21 guns to salute the Unknown Soldier.

Belated Recognition of Armistice Day

The awful carnage of World War I ended with an armistice on November 11, 1918. Yet Congress did not get around to recognizing that event as Armistice Day until June 4, 1926, when it passed a resolution asking the President to issue a formal proclamation calling upon people to display the flag and observe November 11th with appropriate ceremonies.
By then, 27 states were already observing the date as a legal holiday. Congress also was slow in making it a federal holiday. That did not happen until May 13, 1938. On June 4, 1954--after the Second World War and the Korean War--Congress amended the 1938 legislation and substituted Veterans Day for Armistice Day.
In 1968, a Uniform Holiday bill was signed on June 28, giving federal employees a three-day weekend by celebrating four national holidays on Mondays: Washington's Birthday, Memorial Day, Veterans Day and Columbus Day.
The idea was that extended weekends would encourage travel and recreational activities. The hope was that it would stimulate industry and commerce. It achieved none of these goals and only diverted attention from the significance of the holiday. Many states refused to accept this unwelcome change and continued to celebrate the four holidays on their original dates.
The first Veterans Day under the new law was observed on Monday, October 25, 1971, with much confusion and dissatisfaction. Many patriotic and veterans organizations were unhappy with the change. However, it would take five years before their discontent had an effect. On September 20, 1975, President Gerald R. Ford signed a new law returning Veterans Day to November 11th--to become effective the following year. Veterans Day has been celebrated on November 11th ever since.

The Tomb Through the Years

During the tomb's early years after 1921, only a civilian watchman protected the site. In 1926, a formal military guard was established--but only during daylight hours when the cemetery was open to the public. The original intention was for the simple white marble sarcophagus to be the base for an appropriate monument. It was not until July 3, 1926, that Congress authorized the completion of the tomb.
A competition was held among architects. Seventy-four designs were submitted anonymously, with the names of each architect in a sealed envelope. Five were chosen as finalists and one was selected. The successful design turned out to be that of architect Lorimer Rich. It called for a tomb measuring 11 feet in height, 8 feet in width and almost 14 feet in length.
Constructed of glaring white marble, the tomb weighs 79 tons. It is sometimes described as being made of Vermont marble. The stone actually came from the Yule quarry in Marble, Colorado, and was shipped to Vermont, where sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones carved the designs and figures on the tomb components before they were shipped to Virginia. The severity of the design was relieved by Doric pilasters in low relief at the corners and carved motifs along the sides.
Jones completed his work on December 31, 1931. On the front are three figures representing Peace, Valor and Victory. Six inverted mourning wreaths on the sides mark the six major campaigns of the war in which American troops participated. The simple sentiment, "HERE RESTS IN HONORED GLORY AN AMERICAN SOLDIER KNOWN BUT TO GOD" also appears. This replicates the words carved on the gravestones of all unknown dead in American military cemeteries in Europe.
The first 24-hour military guard began in 1937 and continues to this day. The "spit-and-polish" 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) assumed responsibility for guarding the tomb in 1948. The first female sentinel appeared at the tomb on March 25, 1996.

More Unknowns
After the Second World War, planning began for the interment of a second Unknown Soldier. This tomb, an identical copy of the original, was to be located on the mall area of the cemetery in 1951. Unfortunately, the Korean War interfered with these plans, and selection of an unknown serviceman from World War II was deferred.
Following the ceasefire in Korea in 1953, Congress authorized the honoring of two unknown dead--one from World War II and one from the Korean War. President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the enabling legislation on August 3, 1956.
The remains of 8,526 World War II dead had been buried as unidentifiable. Adhering to the precedent established after the First World War, one body was selected from 13 unidentified bodies exhumed from military cemeteries in the European Theater of World War II. A second body was selected from among six bodies from cemeteries in the Pacific Theater. From these two bodies one unknown World War II serviceman was selected.
Similarly, the remains of 848 Korean War dead had been buried as unidentifiable. One body was selected from among four unidentified dead exhumed from military cemeteries.
In ceremonies held on May 30, 1958, the World War II and Korean War Unknown Soldiers were interred in separate crypts on the plaza near the original 1921 interment.
Following the end of the Vietnam War in 1973, Congress authorized the interment of an unknown serviceman from that conflict. A new crypt was to be constructed between the graves of the World War II and Korean War Unknowns. However, plans for a burial were suspended because sophisticated identification techniques were resulting in the identification of almost all remains returned from Vietnam.
It was not until 1984 that one body was certified as unidentifiable. These remains arrived in Washington on May 25 and lay in state in the Capitol for three days. On May 28, 1984, the remains were borne by horse-drawn caisson to Arlington National Cemetery. President Ronald Reagan presented the Medal of Honor to this unknown Vietnam War serviceman.

An Unexpected Reversal
Paradoxically, further advances in DNA testing led to the disinterment of the Vietnam War Unknown four years later in a solemn ceremony on May 14, 1988. Forensic tests confirmed the remains to be those of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie, an Air Force Academy graduate shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. At the request of his family, Lieutenant Blassie's remains were transferred to the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in Missouri.
A decision was made for the crypt of the Vietnam Unknown to remain empty as a reminder of all those who were missing in action or whose bodies were never recovered. The cover on the Vietnam War crypt was rededicated September 17, 1999.
A black granite wall in Washington bears incised in its smooth surface the names of the 58,272 who sacrificed their lives in that conflict. It includes the names of some 1,200 missing in action whose bodies have never been recovered or were prisoners of war.


Since the end of the Second World War, we have endured a series of undeclared wars with uncertain aims. Today we find ourselves engaged in a nebulous and unending “global war on terrorism” against a shadowy, tenacious enemy.
Billions of dollars that could have been invested in this country's rapidly deteriorating infrastructure have been wasted, with little to show in return.
Thousands of service members have been killed or wounded in Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan.
In our continuing time of travail, we can all resolve that these sacrifices shall not have been in vain. We must take steps to end the parade of unidentified dead or missing in action from wars in which we have no national interest.


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