The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

This week, small towns and big cities across the country will hold parades and other festivities in honor of their veterans. One of the most poignant and meaningful of these ceremonies will take place at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. During this year’s Veteran’s Day Memorial, Arlington Cemetery will recreate part of the ceremony that took place 100 years ago.

Every year, thousands of Americans gather at the grave in solemn recognition of the enormous debt we owe to our soldiers and women. There, at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the annual wreath-laying takes place on the exact anniversary of the end of the First World War.

It is a gripping, sacred event that every American should experience at least once in his or her life. But it is only a faint shadow of the awe-inspiring, intensely meaningful ceremony that took place when the unknown soldier was first laid to rest on November 11, 1921.

I’ll retell the story of that Armistice Day and the events leading up to it in my bestselling book, The Unknowns: The Untold Story of America’s Unknown Soldier and WWI’s Most Decorated Heroes Who Brought Him Home.

It follows eight American heroes who achieved extraordinary feats in some of the most important battles of the war. As a result of their bravery, these eight men were recruited – Sergeant Samuel Woodfill of the Infantry, Sergeant Harry Taylor of the Cavalry, Sergeant Thomas D. Saunders of the Combat Engineers, Sergeant Louis Razga of the Coast Artillery Corps, Staff Sergeant James W. Dell of the Field Artillery, Chief Torpedoman James Delaney of the US Navy, Chief Water Tender Charles Leo O’Connor of the US Navy and Sergeant Major Ernest A. Janson of the Marine Corps – were selected to serve as body carriers for the unknown soldier.

By the time they returned to the United States, the body of the unknown soldier had already undergone an extensive selection process, and the French had shown their respect at numerous memorial events, where thousands of ordinary French citizens came out to express their gratitude to the U.S. military.

The unknown soldier arrived home on Wednesday, November 9, 1921, a gray, rainy day in Washington, DC, when the USS Olympia slowly slipped into her bunk, an honor guard waiting at the pier. The sailors became aware of the deck when the ship rang “eight bells,” the signal to four o’clock, and the bugles summoned the crew into formation. At the head of the gangway stood four sidekicks and a boatman carrying his pipe, ready to acknowledge the departure of the unknown soldier – their presence an honor usually reserved for admirals.

Navy band on board Olympia played Chopin’s funeral march and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” while the eight body-carriers slowly carried the flag-draped coffin to the waiting gunbox pulled by six black horses.

A mounted band then took over the musical duties and beat up “Onward, Christian Soldiers” as a regiment of cavalry officers accompanied the unknown soldier on its slow, winding journey through the streets to the US Capitol. Along each step of the route, Marines stood along the road, standing at attention to honor the unknown soldier and all the strangers buried in Europe.

The clipping of the horses’ hooves on the wet pavement ended abruptly when the procession arrived in the capital. The cavalrymen wheeled their horses in two lines and pulled their sabers, creating a path for the fallen hero.

The tomb of the unknown soldier is carried through the capital. USMC Photo — Public Domain

Once again, the bodyguards raised the coffin to their shoulders and marched it up the granite staircase into the Capitol Rotunda. As they entered the majestic building, their footsteps echoed eerily through the dimly lit, almost empty space. An honor guard took up positions around the coffin just moments before the arrival of the first visitors: President Warren Harding and his wife, Florence. The cavalrymen quickly drew their sabers, and the president and first lady passed quietly under the canopy of the sword.

They laid a ribbon and some flowers on the coffin, and a few other seniors did the same. Then they left the body to the silent protection of his guard of honor until the next day.

On November 10, light and glorious arrived with not a cloud in the sky. By 8 a.m., thousands of civilians had gathered outside the Capitol, lined up along the rope-draped poles to wait their turn to get past the unknown soldier. A male choir sang “America the Beautiful,” as the first mourners passed by, and many of them left signs of respect and remembrance beside the coffin.

During the day, a few civic speeches were given pre-planned speeches, but most of the time was left to the citizens who wanted to remember their lost loved ones. Fathers, brothers, sisters, grandparents, and mothers broke down in tears as they mourned those who had not returned home.

Capitol police estimated that between 90,000 and 96,000 paid their respects to the unknown soldier that day – the flower piles around the coffin grew ever taller until the scent of the flowers became almost overwhelming. It was almost midnight before the last mourner passed through the great hall under the dome, but outside stood people who had to be rejected. The Associated Press report painted the scene as the day of mourning neared its end: “The lights in the vaulted chamber faded and died to a faint glow, the great bronze doors were closed, and again alone with the tireless comrades who kept the last watch with him, “America’s Unknown from France was left to wait until dawn and get off the procession, where the president and all the highest figures in American national life will go humbly to carry him to the grave.”

Friday, Nov. 11, began with a thunderous boom as soldiers fired the large cannons at Fort Myer. At 8 a.m. an army corps began to play, and the body-carriers slowly carried the coffin down the stairs to the black-draped kaisson pulled by six black horses.

A magnificent procession marched through the streets of Washington. Several officers led on horseback, followed by an army and drum corps, an infantry regiment, a field artillery battalion, a troop of cavalry and four chaplains. Then came the horse-drawn caisson with the unknown soldier.

In a place of honor behind the coffin went President Harding and General John Pershing, who had led the American expeditionary forces in France. Other high-ranking officials followed on foot, and former President Wilson, unable to walk after a stroke, drove in an old-fashioned carriage. Then came another drum corps followed by some of America’s most heroic warriors: the soldiers who had received the medal of honor. Other veterans followed them, along with nurses and some representatives of various civilian organizations. Last, and most sad of all, came a phalanx of Gold Star mothers, the women who had lost sons in battle.

Tens of thousands of people stood along the streets, many of them waving alternately with small flags and dried tears. The procession slowed somewhat as some could not cope with the entire five-kilometer journey on foot, but eventually the cavalcade reached Arlington.

The United States Marine Band played a slow lament as the body of the unknown soldier approached the amphitheater where the funeral would be held. Once again, Woodfill, Taylor, Razga, Saunders, Dell, Delaney, Janson, and O’Connor gently lifted the coffin of the unknown soldier over their shoulders. Step by step, they carried him through the colonnade with tall pillars. In front, they laid the unknown reverently on a high platform engulfed in flowers.

Music, prayers and short speeches followed. Just before noon, church bells rang across the city – and resounded across the country – while the entire nation kept two minutes of silence.

President Harding spoke to both those in the amphitheater and Americans listening in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. Technology similar to the telephone service sent his voice via wire to amplifiers at designated gathering places in the cities where people gathered to hear their president speak. He became eloquent for several minutes before concluding: “When we return this poor clay to its mother earth, guaranteed by love and covered with the decorations that only nations can give, I can sense the prayers of our people, all people, that this Armistice Day will mark the beginning of a new and lasting era of peace on earth, goodwill among the people. ” He then led the entire nation in Our Father before attaching the Distinguished Service Cross and Medal of Honor to the coffin.

One hundred years later, as a new generation of Americans remember the sacrifices and bravery of the unknown, it is more important than ever to celebrate and honor America’s historic commitment to fight for freedom around the world and to leave no countrymen behind.

Patrick K. O’Donnell is a bestseller, critically acclaimed military historian and expert on elite units. He is the author of twelve books, including The indispensable, which appears nationally on Barnes & Noble, Washington’s immortals, and The unknown. O’Donnell served as a combat historian in a naval rifle division during the Battle of Fallujah and often talks about espionage, special operations and counter-insurgency. He has provided historical advice for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers and documentaries produced by the BBC, History Channel and Discovery. @kamphistoriker

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