- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 9, 2021

The first Unknown Soldier almost didn’t make it back to U.S. soil at all.

Too big to fit through the doors into the USS Olympia, the ship designated to carry the remains back from France, the casket was tied to the deck. But when the Olympia plowed through the remnants of a hurricane, tossed by 20-foot waves, it seemed chancy whether the ship would make it, much less the remains stay on board.

At one point, the captain asked a Navy chaplain, a Catholic priest, to hold a prayer service asking God to preserve ship and soldier.

Capt. Henry Lake Wyman managed to keep the ship afloat, and members of the Marine Corps Honor Guard, which maintained constant watch throughout the storm, lashed themselves to the deck to stay on duty. They even preserved the roses that had been placed on the casket in France, according to historian Patrick K. O’Donnell’s account in “The Unknowns,” a history of the war and the tomb.

One hundred years ago Tuesday, the Olympia pulled into the Washington Navy Yard to deliver the remains to an anxious public.

The soldier would lie in state at the U.S. Capitol and be interred two days later, on Nov. 11, 1921, three years after the end of what was supposed to be the War to End All Wars, transforming Arlington National Cemetery from a beautiful but unassuming military cemetery — just one of many — into the country’s premier military burial spot and focal point for national grief.

Arlington this week is commemorating the 100 years with a reenactment of the original journey and entombment in what amounts to a rededication of the resting place for unknown soldiers from World War I, World War II and the Korean conflict.

“They’re capturing a crucial point in our history,” Mr. O’Donnell told The Washington Times. “They’re re-memorializing this incredibly important event that’s as important now as it was then.”

Along the way, the cemetery and the Society of the Honor Guard have delved into the history of the first soldier and fleshed out the details of that first journey.

That includes asking Robert B. Martin Jr., president of the American Rose Society, to track down the type of roses Sgt. Edward F. Younger used to designate which of the four sets of remains dug up from military cemeteries in France would become the Unknown Soldier. Putting together the location, time of year and photos, Mr. Martin concluded that Younger used Niphetos, a type of white tea rose.

Historians also recompiled details of the Olympia’s journey to bring the body back from France and the procession of the remains to the Capitol and then to Arlington. They also dug into the history of the other “unknowns” from other conflicts.

“As a tomb guard, I thought I knew everything there was to know about the tomb, and that is not the case,” said Gavin L. McIlvenna, president of the Society of the Honor Guard for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. “There’s more to the story of the Unknown Soldier than what is buried in Arlington. There are so many organizations, veterans, Gold Star families that have an interest or a tie or a bond with the Unknown Soldier.”

Arlington began as a graveyard for Union troops from Virginia battlefields, and the property near the former mansion of Robert E. Lee was designated a national cemetery in 1864. The fact that it belonged to the commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, which bedeviled the capital, made the decision even more delicious for Northerners.

In 1866, a memorial was dedicated over a mass grave containing the remains of 2,111 soldiers from Manassas and surrounding areas, marking the cemetery’s first monument to unidentified troops.

The Civil War also ushered in modern warfare, with weapons powerful enough to pulverize bodies beyond recognition. The sheer size of the armies involved in World War I took that to new extremes.

In 1924, Col. Harry F. Rethers, chief of the American Graves Registration Service in Europe, testified to Congress that about 2% of U.S. war dead were still unidentified. Some were mutilated too badly to identify, but Rethers told lawmakers that most went unknown because they weren’t found wearing ID tags, which were required but still relatively new to troops in World War I.

Rethers said the rates in France and Britain were much higher, at perhaps 30%.

In the wake of the conflict, a movement swept through the victors to honor a single one of those soldiers as symbolic of the sacrifice. France and Britain entombed unknowns on Nov. 11, 1920, under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and at Westminster Abbey in London.

Kyle Hatzinger, an Army major who wrote his doctoral degree dissertation on burials of World War I dead, said the huge armies and the horrific death toll — few British or French families escaped unscathed — helped create the movement for a new kind of commemoration.

The idea was such a hit in France and Britain, where it is known as the Unknown Warrior, that it was quickly picked up in America.

The Army’s chief of staff was opposed. The U.S. had made huge strides in identifying its unknown dead, and there was little consensus on where a burial might take place. New York’s Victory Hall and Philadelphia’s Independence Hall were suggested as sites, Maj. Hatzinger said, as was the crypt at the U.S. Capitol, designed for George Washington but left empty after he made clear he wanted his remains to stay at Mount Vernon.

Rep. Hamilton Fish, a New Yorker and war veteran — he was a White officer in a regiment of mostly Black volunteers — wrote the legislation establishing the tomb, and he backed Arlington as the resting place. President Wilson signed the bill on his last day in office.

Mr. O’Donnell said the war and the tomb symbolized America’s coming of age.

“It was a sense that we’re now an international power. It’s the real beginning of the American century and the beginning of America as a great power. It changes everything. It changes our Marine Corps, it changes the Army into a modern force, it changes the Navy into a modern force,” he said. “It changes the world. We’re recognizing that in this memorial, our involvement in changing this world.”

At a time when America was deeply stratified along racial and ethnic lines, the interment was a stunningly unifying moment, fueled in part by the anonymity of the body.

Black parents could imagine it was their son, and the NAACP sent a delegation to the Capitol, where the body lay in state before entombment.

At a time when the Civil War was still raw for some, Northerners and Southerners could see one of them in the casket. Even more recent were the Indian wars, which made the choice of Chief Plenty Coups of the Crow Nation as the finale to the interment at Arlington all the more striking.

The chief stepped forward, removed the war bonnet from his head and placed it and his warrior’s coup stick on the sarcophagus to commemorate the American Indians who served a country that just a couple of decades earlier was at war with them, Mr. O’Donnell wrote in his history.

“The choice of Chief Plenty Coups was really remarkable because it was also a way of healing the wounds of those conflicts with Native Americans. I think that was incredibly important to bring him into the fold,” the historian said.

H.G Wells, credited with coining World War I’s nickname with his 1914 book “The War That Will End War,” attended the American ceremony.

He said it had a different feel from the commemorations a year earlier in London and Paris. Unlike Europe, where the war erased a generation of men, it was more a glancing blow to the communal family in America.

“For most of the gathering that coffin under the great flag held nothing they had ever touched personally; it was not America’s lost treasure of youth, but rather a warning of the fate that may yet overtake the youth of America if war is not to end,” he wrote in a piece for the New York World.

The original Arlington interment was in a stone vault, under a raised platform. The sarcophagus was added later. On July 2, 1937, the Old Guard took up sentinel duty, manning around-the-clock watch that continues to this day.

Unknown Soldiers from World War II, the conflict in Korea and the conflict in Vietnam were added later.

In 1998, 14 years after the Vietnam-era soldier’s entombment, he was exhumed and positively identified as Air Force Lt. Michael J. Blassie. His remains were returned to his family for reburial in Missouri amid claims that the Reagan administration had strongly suspected his identity at the time he was entombed.

Now, 100 years after the first entombment, Blassie’s exhumation is part of a broader challenge to “the nationalist ideology” that the tombs represent, said Michael J. Allen, a history professor at Northwestern University.

“U.S. defeat in the Vietnam War, and the political and sociological divisions the war inflamed, were among the most important early challenges to popular nationalism. But there have been many others since, from All-Volunteer Force (itself a product of the Vietnam War) to the Bush administration’s misleading response to 9/11 to growing political partisanship and wealth inequality during the war on terror, all of which have corroded the idea of wartime sacrifice as a noble and unifying force, the lesson the Tomb was designed to teach,” Mr. Allen said in an email.

Yet Maj. Hatzinger said the tomb remains a “special, sacred place,” even if its meaning to Americans today isn’t what it was in 1921, when mothers and war widows for more than 1,000 never-recovered troops saw it as their grave.

For him, the meaning comes from the inscription on the cenotaph where Blassie’s body had lain: “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.” Maj. Hatzinger said that marks a new solemn promise that America, no matter the cost, won’t leave its dead buried in unknown or unmarked graves.

“These words are backed up by deeds, as we see war dead being found, identified and returned to their families for burial,” he said.

The tomb will always be different from the war memorials and monuments spread across Civil War battlefields or in town squares throughout the country because it’s a gravesite, Mr. McIlvenna said. The Tomb Guards help renew the meaning of the grave with each step of the 21-step walk alongside the tomb.

“We as Tomb Guards, we see this today. We get people saying thank you for guarding my son, my father, my loved one. They believe this,” he said. “There’s a lot of unknowns buried in Arlington National Cemetery. There’s more than the one we guard. … But that one individual represents all of them.”

Mr. McIlvenna’s organization is encouraging Americans to bring the meaning of the tomb home to their communities with Never Forget Gardens. The hope is that others will see them, and they will start conversations about the tomb and the mission it represents.

“We’re so divided right now,” Mr. McIlvenna said. “We can still come together as a united people honoring one thing, which is service and sacrifice. These Unknown Soldiers gave everything.”

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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