- - Monday, May 21, 2018

The Unknowns: The Untold Story of America’s Unknown Soldier and WWI’s Most Decorated Soldiers Who Brought Him Home

By Patrick K. O’Donnell

Grove Atlantic, $27, 288 pages

On a wintry day in October 1921, Army Lt. Arthur E. Dewey knelt on the muddy turf alongside one of the hundreds of crosses in a U.S. military burial ground in Thiaucourt, France.

He and a supervisory embalmer began a grisly task: “painstakingly sorting through the remains buried in the plot, searching for anything that could identify the man who had been interred on the site. Pieces of fabric and undoubtedly rotting flesh fell away as [they] carefully exhumed the dead soldier.”

They sifted through the damp dirt with their fingers, “searching for dog tags, photographs, scraps of paper or anything else that could possibly identify who the man had been in life.” Finding nothing, they wrapped the body and placed it in a waiting casket.

Similar scenes were unfolding at three other cemeteries across France. And eventually four caskets were brought to a building at the village of Chalons.

A squad of soldiers shuffled around the caskets so no one could tell from which cemetery they came. Then everyone left the room save two embalmers who opened the caskets and shifted the remains from one coffin to another.

As Patrick O’Donnell writes, “Thus the chances of ever identifying any of the four Unknowns was forever eliminated.”

The final choice was made by Sgt. Edward Younger, an oft-wounded combat veteran of many battles. He circled the four coffins several times. “I was numb. I couldn’t choose,” he said. Then something drew him to a coffin to his right.

“I was numb. I wouldn’t move. It seemed as if God raised my hand and guided me as I placed the roses on that casket . This, then, was America’s Unknown Soldier, and by that simple act I had started him on his road to destiny.”

To this reader, the described scene is the most dramatic — and touching — in a gripping story told by Mr. O’Donnell, who is emerging as one of the best military historians of his generation. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is now a centerpiece of Arlington National Cemetery.

The path from France to Virginia was tortured. Although the British and French built memorials soon after peace, the American army chief of staff, Gen. Peyton March, thought doing so for an American was a “terrible idea.” He felt all the American dead would eventually be identified. (At least 2,148 remains from the war are unknown to this day.)

But Marie Meloney, editor of the popular Delineator magazine, pushed the idea, writing, “It is the kind of thing which should have found birth in America.” Rep. Hamilton Fish, New York Republican, himself a war veteran, promoted a bill which President Wilson signed.

Much discussion followed as to where the Unknown Soldier should be buried. Some congressmen pushed for a crypt beneath the Capitol originally intended for George Washington’s burial site. Central Park in New York was also mentioned. But Arlington National Cemetery proved to be the logical choice.

To further honor those fought in the war, an honor guard of eight holders of the Medal of Honor — termed “The Bearers” — were named to escort the casket from France to the final resting place.

Mr. O’Donnell devotes a chapter to each man, telling how they came to be cited for extraordinary bravery. These pages capture the horrifying nature of warfare, and Mr. O’Donnell’s descriptions catch the raw bravery that can emerge from men thrust into combat.

Consider Gunnery Sgt. Ernest Janson, a Marine who spotted a German detachment moving through underbrush to ambush his company. As Mr. O’Donnell writes, “Janson leapt into the infiltrating column of Germans who had positioned five machine guns to annihilate the 49th Company. He impaled the belly of the first soldier and twisted the bayonet’s keen blade, eviscerating him.

“Withdrawing his bayonet, the gunny lunged again, penetrating the torso of the next field-gray-clad soldier.”

Each of the Bearers demonstrated similar courage in battle.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier began as a simple stone marker. In 1926 Congress authorized a more fitting marble monument, made from a 56-ton block of marble from Colorado. The inscription reads: “HERE RESTS IN HONORED GLORY AN AMERICAN SOLDIER KNOWN BUT TO GOD.”

The first Unknown has now been joined by bodies from World War II, Korea and Vietnam. In due course DNA evidence permitted the latter two to be identified.

Thus, as Mr. O’Donnell observes, “In this day of technological advances, the servicemen and women who fall in combat can almost always be identified. We may never again have the need — nor the honor — of burying another soldier in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.”

Millions of Americans visit the Tomb annually, “silently offering our gratitude to those who died so that we might be free.”

As President Reagan said at the Tomb in 1984, “Thank you, dear son. May God cradle you in His loving arms.”

• Joseph C. Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and military matters.

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