Unknown soldier -- but not forgotten Honor: On Nov. 11, 1921, the remains of an unidentified serviceman were buried, with solemn ceremony, in a new tomb at Arlington National Cemetery. President Warren G. Harding delivered the eulogy.

Way Back When

November 14, 1998|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Calm fell. From heaven distilled a clemency;

There was peace on earth, and silence in the sky;

Some could, some could not, shake off misery:

The Sinister Spirit sneered: 'It had to be!'

And again the Spirit of Pity whispered, 'Why?'

-- Thomas Hardy

By the time the guns fell silent along the Western Front at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, more than 9 million soldiers, sailors and airmen had been killed.

Another 5 million noncombatants perished in World War I. Included in these casualty figures are 1,721 Marylanders who fell in battle or later died of wounds.

In 1921, Congress authorized the establishment of a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. On his last day in office, President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill that would bring the remains of an unknown soldier home for burial in Washington's Arlington National Cemetery.

One unidentified body was exhumed from each of the four cemeteries that constituted the major American fronts: the Meuse-Argonne, Belleau Wood, the Somme and St. Mihiel.

They were taken to Chalons-sur-Marne, where on Oct. 23, 1921, Sgt. Edward F. Younger, a highly decorated soldier of Headquarters Co., Second Battalion, Fiftieth Infantry, who had been selected to choose the Unknown Soldier, entered the room where the remains of the four doughboys rested.

After slowly walking around the caskets he stopped, and placed a spray of white flowers on the top of one of them. "It was as though something had pulled me," he later said.

At Le Havre, the Unknown Soldier was placed aboard the cruiser USS Olympia, the famed flagship of Adm. George E. Dewey, who had led the attack on Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War, for transport to Washington.

Arriving at the Navy Yard on Nov. 9, the remains were taken to the U.S. Capitol, where they rested beneath the Rotunda for two days. An estimated 90,000 people slowly passed by the catafalque to pay homage to the fallen hero.

"America's Unknown Soldier will sleep this night beneath the dome of the Capitol," reported The Evening Sun.

Gov. Albert C. Ritchie and Baltimore Mayor William Broening led a delegation of the Maryland Veterans of Foreign Wars and Gold Star Mothers, which placed a floral wreath beside the casket as a bugler sounded taps.

"The Governor then spoke on behalf of Maryland, telling how Maryland had 'played her full part in the titanic struggle, sending forth her best,' and asking that 'we may gain the determination to emulate that loyalty, patriotism, devotion and self-sacrifice exemplified in this Unknown Soldier,' " reported the newspaper.

On a gray and misty Nov. 11, as official and unofficial Washington lined the streets and avenues, the sound of muffled drums and fifes could be heard in the distance.

"Now soldiers lift the great flag-covered casket and carry it slowly and reverently out the east front of the Capitol. There sounds the clatter of many hoofs on the asphalt. The cavalry escort leads the way," reported The Evening Sun.

At the foot of the hill, the procession was met by President Warren G. Harding and his military aides, who marched as far as the White House, where they boarded automobiles for the trip to Arlington.

Behind Harding marched Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing, Commander of the Armies; the justices of the Supreme Court; the Cabinet; and members of the House and Senate.

"The Commander-in-Chief, marching on foot, does honor to the unknown private soldier, symbol of all that gay, profane, heroic, commonplace and marvelous multitude of boys whose battle cry was 'Let's go' -- and who shamed the world with their unthinking valor," reported The Evening Sun.

Arlington's great white marble amphitheater was filled with flowers from 10 military trucks. Ceremonies were broadcast over a nationwide radio hookup as the casket was placed on the catafalque.

In his eulogy, Harding said, "We are met today to pay the impersonal tribute. The name of him whose body lies before us took flight with his imperishable soul. We know not whence he came, but only that his death marks him with the everlasting glory of an American dying for his country. . . . It is fitting to say that his sacrifice, and that of the millions of dead, shall not be in vain. There must be, there shall be, the commanding voice of a conscious civilization against armed warfare."

After the president awarded the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross to the Unknown Soldier, the casket was slowly lowered into the crypt and covered with soil from the battlefields of France.

A hymn, "The Supreme Sacrifice," was performed by a quartet from the Metropolitan Opera Company of New York, which included the voice of a youthful Rosa Ponselle.

Pub Date: 11/14/98

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