Thursday, November 05, 2009

The First Unknown Soldier: Symbol of Another Great Generation


This year the holiday known as Veterans Day, formerly called Armistice Day, will be observed on Wednesday, November 11, 2009. Although the date is widely observed, many are unfamiliar with its origins. It commemorates the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front on November 11, 1918. Marking the end of World War One, the armistice between the Allies and Germany was signed in a railway car at Rethondes, France, and took effect at the "eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month."

Declared a national holiday in many allied nations to remember those members of the armed forces who were killed during war, an exception is Italy, where the end of the war is commemorated on November 4 as the Armistice of Villa Giusti. After World War Two, the name of the holiday was changed to Veterans Day in the United States and to Remembrance Day in countries of the British Commonwealth of Nations. Armistice Day (Jour de l'Armistice) remains an official holiday in France. It is also an official holiday in Belgium, where it is also known as the Day of Peace. In many parts of the world people observe a two-minute moment of silence at 11:00 a.m. as a sign of respect for the approximately 20 milliom who died in the war.

Praise has been heaped deservedly on the generation of Americans that endured the trials and hardships of the Second World War. To single it out and call it "The Greatest Generation," however, does a disservice to other great generations and their sacrifices. The contributions of this newest "greatest generation," of which this writer is a member, have been closely examined in countless books and articles. But we should not overlook how much was sacrificed when an earlier "great generation" fought and died in the blood bath of the First World War. The account that follows is a tribute to the now-dwindling great generation I was brought up to honor and to remember.

The American Expeditionary Force that sailed for Europe and a war to end all war suffered grievous losses in the short space of time the United States participated--19 months: 53,513 battle deaths, 63,195 other deaths and 204,002 wounded. Even so, it did not take very long for the old men who create the wars that young men must fight to stir up another one. In fact, the peace bought by the generation that fought and died in the First World War lasted only from 1918 to 1939--a mere twenty-one years. Twenty years is about what demographers regard as the interval between generations, and another generation had come along ready for the slaughter.

On April 6, 1917, when the U.S. declared war against Germany, its regular army was on a par with that of Chile, Denmark and the Netherlands. All four countries shared 17th place among nations in tables of army size. By the standards of the armies fighting in Europe, the U.S. Army was unimpressive both in size and training. It was led by elderly officers who had achieved fame as Indian fighters and were close to retirement. Few of the 5,000 officers and 120,000 enlisted men had ever fired a shot in anger. The country also had a National Guard consisting of some 80,000 ill-trained and poorly equipped officers and enlisted men, many of whom regarded it as a social organization.

By the time of the Armistice, the United States had mobilized 58 divisions, of which 43 had been shipped overseas. Twelve were not active as combat units but were used to provide replacements in France. American divisions had some 27,000 combat troops, and were twice the nominal size of British, French or German divisions--mainly because of a lack of trained junior officers.

Two out of every three American soldiers who reached France took part in action of some kind. In addition to the threat of being smashed and ripped apart by shrapnel from an incoming shell or cut down by merciless machine-gun fire, the average "doughboy" was perpetually at the mercy of the elements, the mud and the degradation of living in rat-infested tunnels and trenches into which poison gas could seep; his diet was unhealthy and his body was unwashed--grime and filth were everywhere, along with the stench of rotting dead bodies and the ubiquitous "cootie," or body louse, that infested his clothing.

Nevertheless, high-spirited American troops provided the fresh enthusiasm and surge of power needed by the battle-weary French and British soldiers to break the German Hindenburg Line. The process of turning America's paltry regular army into the strongest army on the European continent had been remarkable. Through careful planning, sheer determination and hard work, its small combat force grew tremendously. By the Armistice, a total of 1,962,767 American troops were in France, including 1,253,330 combatants. In a brief time, the United States had gone from a nation whose tiny army was not ready for battle to a world power.

In the 200 days between April 25, 1918--when the 1st Division entered the front line in Picardy--until the Armistice on November 11th, American forces participated in 13 battles as part of six major campaigns, and 136,516 Americans died. This number includes 4,452 who were counted as missing in action and whose remains were never found or could be identified. One of that number rests beneath a white marble tomb in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

The conclusion of the First World War gave birth to the holiday originally known as Armistice Day, now called Veterans Day. The celebration of that holiday had its origin in ceremonies that took place in Washington on November 11, 1921.

Choosing the First Unknown Soldier
The idea of honoring the unknown dead of the First World War originated in Europe. In 1921, America had still not formally honored its war dead. The year before, the British had already interred an unknown "Tommy" in Westminster Abbey to represent the hundreds of thousands that had perished in that conflict. Similarly, the French had honored an unknown "poilu" at the Arc de Triomphe.

When Brig. Gen. William D. Connor, commanding general of American forces in Europe, first learned of the French plans, he proposed a similar project to the U.S. Army's chief of staff, Gen. Peyton C. March. General March was not enthusiastic about the proposal, thinking it premature. Although the French and British had a great many unknown dead, he felt that the American Army's Graves Registration Service would eventually identify all American unknowns. He had been told by the Quartermaster General that only 1,271 American dead were still unidentified, and these were still being studied. General March's concern was that haste could result in the selection of a body that might later be identified.

On December 21, 1920, Congressman Hamilton Fish, Jr., of Putnam County, New York, had introduced a resolution in Congress calling for the return of the body of an unknown American soldier from France for burial with appropriate ceremonies in a tomb to be constructed at the Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery. The measure was approved on March 4, 1921. Congressman Fish wanted ceremonies to be held on Memorial Day of 1921, but Secretary of War Newton D. Baker thought the date too early. The Congressman tried again through the new Secretary of War, John W. Weeks, who replaced Baker on March 4, 1921, when President Warren G. Harding took office.

Four coffins were exhumed, one from each of four American military cemeteries, Aisne-Marne, Meuse-Argonne, Somme and St. Mihiel, and were taken by truck to the city hall at Chalons-sur-Marne. A large group awaited them, including officers of the French Army, officials of Chalons-sur-Marne, the U.S. Army's Quartermaster General, and the chief of the Graves Registration Services in Europe. Major Robert P. Harbold was the officer in charge of the ceremony. Chalons-sur-Marne officials had prepared the city hall for the ceremony. The outside of the building had been draped with French and American flags. Inside, the halls and corridors were ornamented with potted palms and more flags. A catafalque--the stand on which a casket is placed--had been set up in the main hall. Another room was decorated to hold the caskets of the four unknown soldiers, and a third room was prepared in which the chosen Unknown Soldier would be transferred to a bronze casket shipped from the United States.

French troops carried the four shipping cases from the trucks to the city hall. The four caskets were then removed, set on top of the shipping cases and draped with American flags. Six American soldiers arrived from American headquarters in Coblenz, Germany. Early on the morning of October 24, Major Harbold, aided by French and American soldiers, rearranged the caskets so each rested on a shipping case other than the one in which it had arrived. Now there was little chance that anyone would know the cemetery from which the unidentified remains came.

Originally, a commissioned officer was to make the selection. The plan was changed when the Americans learned that the French had selected an enlisted man to choose their Unknown Soldier. Major Harbold selected Sergeant Younger, one of the men who had arrived from Coblenz, to perform that duty. Sgt. Younger had enlisted in the U.S. Army in February of 1917, two months before America entered the war. He had taken part in several engagements, including Chateau Thierry, the Somme, St. Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne offensive, and had received the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart. At the end of the war, he reenlisted. After Sergeant Younger was mustered out of the Army in 1922, he often spoke before veterans groups about what happened in Chalons-sur-Marne. Returning to the Chicago area, he lived there until he died of a heart attack in 1942.

This is Sgt. Younger's story: "At first we (the six soldiers) had the idea that we were to be just pall bearers," Sgt. Younger said. "But when we lined up in the little makeshift chapel, Major Harbold, the officer in charge of graves registration, told us, 'One of you men is to be given the honor of selecting the body of the Unknown Soldier.' He had a large bouquet of pink and white roses in his arms. He finally handed the roses to me." The bouquet had been presented by a Frenchman who had lost two sons in the war. Younger was left alone in the quiet of the chapel with the four identical and unmarked coffins that fateful day, the 24th of October. "The one I placed the roses on was the one brought home and placed in the national shrine. I walked around the coffins three times, then suddenly I stopped. What caused me to stop, I don't know. It was as if something had pulled me. I placed the roses on the coffin in front of me." He concluded, "I can still remember the awed feeling I had, standing there alone." The caskets of the three unchosen unknowns were placed in shipping cases and taken by truck to the Meuse-Argonne American Military Cemetery for immediate reburial.

Coming home
The body Sgt. Younger had chosen as the Unknown Soldier lay in state for several hours, watched over by the small contingent of American and French soldiers. After brief tributes by the mayor of Chalons-sur-Marne and other officials, the casket was placed on a flag-draped gun carriage and escorted by French and American troops along the Rue de Marne to the railroad station. Unmounted French cavalry lined the route to the station. Still bearing the spray of roses, it was lifted aboard a special train for the journey to the port of Le Havre, by way of Paris. The train left Chalons-sur-Marne at 4:10 p.m. and arrived in Paris about three hours later. After ceremonies in Paris the next morning, the special train left Paris in midmorning and arrived at Le Havre about 1:00 p.m.

A procession took the body from the station to the Quai d'Escale, where the American cruiser Olympia was waiting. Launched in 1895, the Olympia, Admiral Dewey's flagship at the Battle of Manila Bay in the Spanish-American War, was capable of doing only 20 knots. Reverently, the casket was placed on the flower-bedecked stern of the Olympia for the voyage back to America. Escorted by the American destroyer Reuben James, which would later become the first American warship to be sunk in the Second World War, and eight French naval vessels, the Olympia put to sea. She received a 17-gun salute as she cleared the harbor and another as the French ships dropped astern outside French waters.

After a voyage of 15 days, on a rainy November 9th, the Olympia steamed up the Potomac and reached the Washington Navy Yard at four p.m. As the casket was carried down the gangplank, the ship's band played Chopin's "Funeral March." From the Navy Yard, the casket was placed on a horse-drawn caisson and escorted to the Capitol, with the band of the 3rd Cavalry playing "Onward Christian Soldiers." and placed in the rotunda on the catafalque that had held the remains of assassinated Presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley. The body lay in state under a guard of honor composed of selected enlisted men of the Army, Navy and Marine Corps. Throughout the next day, November 10th, thousands passed before the casket to honor the Unknown Soldier. For them, many of whom had lost someone in the war, he symbolized the thousands of unidentified dead and the missing in action in the war that had ended three years before.

To Arlington Cemetery
At 8:30 on the morning of November 11th, the casket was taken from the Capitol and placed on a gun carriage for the journey through the streets of Washington to the Memorial Amphitheater in Arlington National Cemetery. Following the caisson bearing the flag-draped coffin were the President, Warren G. Harding, the Vice-President, Calvin Coolidge, William Howard Taft, the ex-President and newly appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and the associate justices, members of the diplomatic corps, Medal of Honor wearers, members of Congress, and various generals and admirals.

A field artillery battery near the Washington Monument began firing "minute guns" at one-minute intervals. Their salvos reverberated throughout Washington until the conclusion of the funeral ceremony at Arlington. At the White House, the President, Vice President, Chief Justice and members of the Senate and House left the procession and traveled by automobile to Arlington National Cemetery. At the Amphitheater, the casket was again placed on the catafalque. The President and Mrs. Harding arrived at 11:55 a.m., and the ceremonies began. The Marine Band played the National Anthem. The audience sang "America," after which President Harding 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 conferred upon 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 Chief Plenty Coups, representing Native Americans, who placed his war bonnet and coup stick at the tomb.

As the casket was lowered into the crypt, the bottom of which had been covered with a layer of French soil, the saluting battery of guns fired three salvos. A bugler then sounded taps, and the battery fired 21 guns to salute the Unknown Soldier of the First World War.

America's Belated Recognition of Armistice Day
The awful carnage of World War I ended with an armistice at eleven o'clock on the morning 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 was also slow in making it a federal legal holiday. That did not happen until May 13, 1938. The holiday was intended to honor veterans of the First World War, but it was not until June 4, 1954--after the Second World War and the Korean War--that Congress amended the 1938 legislation, substituting the words 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 also was that it would stimulate greater industrial and commercial activity. 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 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.

Later History of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
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 should 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, from which group 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.

The tomb. of glaring white marble, weighs 79 tons. It is sometimes describes as being made of Vermont marble. The stone was actually quarried in Yule, Colorado. The error arises because the quarry was owned by the Vermont Marble Company. The severity of the design was relieved by Doric pilasters in low relief at the corners and carved motifs along the sides. Sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones carved the designs and figures on the tomb, completing 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 sentiment 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 (The Old Guard) assumed responsibility for guarding the tomb in 1948.

After the Second World War, planning began for the interment of a second Unknown. 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 cease fire 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 and 848 Korean War dead had been unidentifiable and buried as unknowns. Following 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 and one body from six bodies from cemeteries in the Pacific Theater. From these, the bodies of two and then one unknown World War II serviceman were selected. Almost simultaneously, an unknown from the Korean War was selected from among four exhumed from the unidentified dead of that war interred in military cemeteries. Ceremonies were held on May 30, 1958, and the two unknowns were interred in crypts near the original 1921 interment.

After the end of the Vietnam War in 1973, Congress authorized the interment of an unknown serviceman from that conflict. A new crypt was ordered to be constructed between the graves of the World War II and Korean War Unknowns. Plans for a burial were suspended, however, because sophisticated identification techniques had resulted 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 the unknown Vietnam War serviceman.

Paradoxically, advances in DNA testing led to the disinterment of the Vietnam War Unknown four years later in a solemn ceremony May 14, 1988. Forensic tests confirmed the remains to be those of Air Force 1st Lieutenant Michael Joseph Blassie, an Air Force Academy graduate, shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. At the request of his family, Lt. Blassie's remains were transferred to the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in Missouri. It was decided that the crypt of the Vietnam Unknown would remain empty as a reminder of the many servicemen who were missing in action or whose bodies were never recovered.

The cover on the Vietnam crypt was rededicated September 17, 1999. The first female sentinel appeared at the tomb on March 25, 1996.

Since the end of the Second World War, we have endured a number of undeclared wars with unclear aims. Most notable among these is the Vietnam War. A black granite wall bears in its smooth surface the names of 58,195 who sacrificed their lives. It includes the names of 2,504 missing in action whose bodies have never been recovered.

We again find ourselves engaged in another war, this time against a shadowy, tenacious enemy. Other than "ridding the world of terrorism," our aims are unclear, This generation has already suffered thousands of innocents killed or missing in New York and Washington; 40,000 more service members have been killed and wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. Who is there among us who will deny that this generation has already shown itself to be another great generation? Now, and in our continuing time of trial, we can all resolve that these sacrifices shall not have been in vain, recalling the fourth verse of "For the Fallen," a poem by British poet Lawrence Binyon. When the war the British still denominate as "the Great War" began in 1914, Binyon was working in the British Museum. He later served as a Red Cross orderly on the Western Front. His words are timeless.

They shall not grow old,
As we who are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them,
Nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun
And in the morning
We will remember them.

Appendix: The Human Cost of America's Participation in World War One

The following table shows the numbers of dead buried in the eight World War One American Military Cemeteries in Europe. Each cemetery has a chapel on whose walls are inscribed the names of those who were missing in action or whose remains could not be identified. As the numbers of living World War One veterans and their next-of-kin dwindle, these cemeteries attract fewer visitors each year. The graves, marked by white marble crosses and Stars of David, are carefully tended.

Among the 136,516 Americans who died in the 19 months that America participated in the First World War, 4,452 were declared missing in action; their remans could not be identified or were never found. 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.

A Directory of First World War American Cemeteries in Europe

The following information is from the American Battle Monuments Commission:

Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery
Romagne-sous-Montfaucon (Meuse), about 160 miles from Paris
14,246 graves; 954 MIA

Oise-Aisne American Cemetery
Fere-en-Tardenois (Aisne), about 60 miles from Paris
6,012 graves; 241 MIA

St. Mihiel American Cemetery
Thiaucourt (Meurthe-et-Moselle), about 20 miles from Metz
4,153 graves; 284 MIA

Aisne-Marne American Cemetery
Belleau (Aisne), about 60 miles from Paris
2,289 graves, 1,060 MIA

Somme American Cemetery
Bony (Aisne), about 100 miles from Paris
1,844 graves; 333 MIA

Suresnes American Cemetery
Suresnes (Seine), 5 miles west of Paris
1,541 graves, 974 MIA, or lost or buried at sea

Flanders Field American Cemetery
Waregem, Belgium, 46 miles west of Brussels
368 graves; 43 MIA

Brookwood American Cemetery
Brookwood, England, about 28 miles from London
468 graves; 563 MIA, or lost or buried at sea

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