Wednesday, 10 November 2010
The Eleventh Hour
Most Americans with any family history in the Armed Forces of the United States are familiar with the above inscription on the Tomb of the Unknowns (formerly Unknown Soldier) at Arlington National Cemetery near the Pentagon. They also may know that a special detachment of Soldiers of the “Old Guard,” 3rd Infantry Regiment, proudly walks guard at that tomb twenty-four hours a day, every day and night of the year, in weather fair and foul. Many also recall that the remains of unknowns from World War II and Korea also are buried there, but that the remains of the unknown from Vietnam (an Air Force first lieutenant) were identified and returned to his family for burial in his hometown, St. Louis, Missouri, in 1998. But most are a bit hazy as to when the first unknown was buried and how he was selected, and few realize that the tomb, with the above inscription, was not completed until 1932. Here, on the day before Veterans Day, formerly known as Armistice Day (the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month), is the rest of the story.
The Great War took a terrible toll—nine million Soldiers killed; some twenty million wounded; and civilian casualties in the ten millions. American forces joined the Allies in 1918 and fought under General of the Armies “Black Jack” Pershing, Class of 1886, in the Second Battle of the Marne on 15 July 1918. On 12 September, American forces helped reduce the St. Mihiel Salient, and on 26 September the Meusse-Argonne Offensive began. Over 100,000 American Soldiers were killed and another 200,000 wounded, but Germany and France each lost almost 80% of their male population of military age (15-49). On 7 November 1918, the German chancellor, Prince Max von Baden, sent delegates to Compiegne, France, to negotiate an armistice to end the war. On the morning of 11 November at 5:10 a.m., it was signed in the railroad car used by Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch, commander in chief of all Allied forces on the Western Front. Foch telegraphed his commanders: "Hostilities will cease on the entire front on November 11 at 11 a.m. French time."
Erich Maria Remarque, born of French lineage in Saxony, enlisted in the German army, fought on the Western Front, and was wounded five times, the last time seriously. On 10 November 1928, the first installment of his classic novel, Im Westen nichts Neues, was published in serialized form in a popular German magazine. As a book, it was a best seller. Under its English title, All Quiet on the Western Front, it has been the subject of two American motion pictures (1930 with Lew Ayres and 1979 with Richard Thomas).
On 11 November 1920, Unknown Soldiers of France and Britain, selected at random, were buried at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and in the nave of Westminster Abbey in London to represent the realities of that war: thousands upon thousands of British, French and German Soldiers were buried in mass graves on the battlefield where they fell. In the autumn of 1920, however, only 1,237 of the American dead of World War I remained unidentified. Four caskets were brought to the French village of Charlon-sur-Marne, and on 24 October, one of the pallbearers, a highly decorated Infantry Soldier, SGT Edward F. Younger, was chosen to determine which unknown would be returned to the United States. The young non-commissioned officer circled the remains several times until he felt that one of the caskets held a friend of his. He selected that casket by placing a single white rose upon it. The selected remains were taken to the port of Le Havre and transported to Washington, DC, by the American cruiser U.S.S. Olympia. The remains lay in state at the Capitol rotunda while over 90,000 mourners slowly filed past. Many nations sent floral tributes, and honor guards representing the five services stood silent watch.
The following day, the unknown was transported to Arlington National Cemetery for interment. President Harding and a host of high-ranking officials led the procession. General officers served as pallbearers and non-commissioned officers served as body bearers. Medal of Honor recipients and other veterans likewise marched. At the time of interment, the unknown was awarded the Medal of Honor, and this practice was repeated for the unknowns of World War II, Korea and Viet Nam. In a reversal of the placing of soil from the United States in Lafayette’s burial site in Paris, soil from France was placed under the casket of the unknown from World War I, so that he might forever lie on the soil of the country that he fell defending. The original tomb consisted of a marble base plate that stood no more than 30 inches high. It always was meant to be temporary, but it was not until 3 July 1926 that Congress authorized completion of the tomb based upon a design to be selected by means of a competition.
The winning design, submitted by Thomas Hudson Jones, sculptor, and Lorimer Rich, Architect, of New York City, was a simple, white marble sarcophagus, about eleven feet in height and twelve feet in length. The end panel facing the Potomac River depicts the spirit of the Allies with three figures: Victory, Valor and Peace. On the end panel facing the amphitheater are the words quoted above. The Yule marble for the tomb was quarried from the Yule Quarry, Vermont Marble Company, in the town of Marble, Colorado, in 1931. The full tomb was not completed until 9 April 1932.
In 1925 a civilian guard was placed on the original tomb, followed by a military sentinel in 1926, but only during the hours that the cemetery was open to the public. On 1 July 1937, guard duty at the larger tomb was extended to 24 hours. The sentinels walk precisely 21 steps, execute a facing movement towards the tomb, face the tomb for 21 seconds, execute another facing movement, change the shoulder upon which the rifle is carried to the shoulder away from the tomb, march precisely 21 steps back, and repeat. As of this writing, the sentinels never have failed to perform their duty, in spite of heat, storms, cold, and snow, since mid-1937.
In addition to the Tomb of the Unknowns, there are almost 5,000 other graves marked “Unknown” at Arlington. Many more countries now honor their unknown soldiers in a similar manner.
Don’t forget to spend a few moments of silence tomorrow remembering all who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the armed forces of the United States, have served in harm’s way in the past, and those who continue to serve in harm’s way this very day.
Your humble servant, J. Phoenix, Esquire.
Please forward guest articles, comments and suggestions for future topics to JPhoenix@wpaog.org
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