When the first Unknown Soldier was laid to rest in Arlington, General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force in WWI, seleted eight of America’s most decorated, battle-hardened veterans to serve as Body Bearers. For the first time O’Donnell portrays their heroics on the battlefield one hundred years ago, thereby animating the Tomb by giving voice to all who have served. The Body Bearers appropriately spanned America’s service branches and specialties. Their ranks include a cowboy who relived the charge of the light brigade, an American Indian who heroically breached mountains of German barbed wire, a salty New Englander who dueled a U-boat for hours in a fierce gunfight, a tough New Yorker who sacrificed his body to save his ship, and an indomitable gunner who, though blinded by gas, nonetheless overcame five machine-gun nests. Their stories slip easily into the larger narrative of America’s involvement in the conflict, transporting readers into the midst of dramatic battles during 1917–1918 that ultimately decided the Great War.
Celebrated military historian and bestselling author Patrick O’Donnell illuminates the saga behind the creation of the Tomb itself and recreates the moving ceremony during which it was consecrated and the eight Body Bearers, and the sergeant who had chosen the one body to be interred, solemnly united. Brilliantly researched, vividly told, The Unknowns is a timeless tale of heeding the calls of duty and brotherhood, and humanizes the most consequential event of the twentieth century, which still casts a shadow a century later.
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With flawless precision, a testament to their expert horsemanship and endless days of drilling in the saddle, a regiment of cavalrymen wheeled their mounts to form two lines flanking the entrance to the US Capitol. The sharp ring of cold steel echoed off the pavement and marble buildings as they drew their blades in unison.
While drizzly rain dripped from their hats and soaked into their dress uniforms, eight men slowly lifted a flag-draped coffin off the caisson. Sergeant Samuel Woodfill of the US Army infantry, Sergeant Harry Taylor of the cavalry, Sergeant Thomas D. Saunders of the engineers, Sergeant Louis Razga of the coast artillery, Sergeant James W. Dell of the field artillery, Chief Torpedo Man James Delaney of the Navy, Chief Water Tender Charles Lee O’Connor of the US Navy, and Gunnery Sergeant Ernest A. Janson of the US Marine Corps elevated the body of the Unknown Soldier to shoulder height and marched beneath the upraised cavalry sabers and up the long flight of granite steps.
Beneath the day’s fading light spilling from windows high above, they gingerly placed the body upon the specially prepared platform in the Rotunda. Here the Unknown Soldier would lie in state before the final journey to his eternal resting place in Arlington National Cemetery.
Within minutes, some of the most powerful men in the country joined the Body Bearers to pay their respects to this exemplar of America’s fallen heroes. The president, vice president, speaker of the house, chief justice, secretary of war and secretary of the navy all laid flowers around the platform. But in the minds of the military men who formed an honor guard around the body, likely the most important visitor that night was the last.
In solemn silence, General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing strode across the rotunda in his dress uniform. Having witnessed firsthand the terrible carnage of World War I, he understood the price of victory in a way that the other dignitaries could only begin to imagine. He tenderly laid a large wreath of pink chrysanthemums in tribute to the Unknown Soldier, who had fought and died at his command. Then, the general stepped back and drew himself up to his full height before snapping a sharp military salute.
Pershing, the Body Bearers, and the Unknown Soldier had come full circle. They had left America’s shores years earlier, prepared to sacrifice, yet not fully comprehending the true cost of war. One had paid the ultimate price, but each had come home forever changed by battles won and friends lost.
Table of Contents
Dramatis Personae xxi
I America Goes To War, 1917
Chapter 1 Getting Over There 3
Chapter 2 The Kaiser's Killing Machine 12
Chapter 3 James Delaney and the SS Campana 16
Chapter 4 Q Ships and Depth Charges: Das Boot 24
II Buildup, 1917-1918
Chapter 5 Pershing and the AEF 41
Chapter 6 Ernest August Janson: First to Fight 56
Chapter 7 Trench Warfare 81
III Defending Paris, 1918
Chapter 8 Belleau Wood 91
Chapter 9 Hill 142 98
Chapter 10 "The Marines Are Fighting Like Trojans" 111
Chapter 11 Edward Younger: Vaux 121
IV Counteroffensive, 1918
Chapter 12 Turning Point: Soissons 129
V By Sea, 1918
Chapter 13 Charles Leo O'Connor: USS Mount Vernon 147
Chapter 14 James Dehmey: Brandenburg 159
VI Offensive, 1918
Chapter 15 St. Mihiel 167
Chapter 16 Thomas Daniel Saunders: Breaching the Wire 172
Chapter 17 The Skies Above and Victory 183
Chapter 18 "A Natural Fortress … Beside Which the Wilderness in Winch Grant Fought Lee Was a Park": The Meuse-Argonne 188
Chapter 19 Harry Taylor and the Wild West Division 194
Chapter 20 The Charge of the Light Brigade at Gesnes 200
Chapter 21 Mission Impossible: Blanc Mont Ridge 209
Chapter 32 Woodfill of the Regulars 222
Chapter 23 "I Got a Few" 234
Chapter 24 Louis Razga: The Big Guns 244
VII The Final Battles and Coming Home
Chapter 25 The Final Push 251
Chapter 26 The Bridge 261
Chapter 27 Occupation 267
VIII America's Unknown Soldier
Chapter 28 The Unknown 285
Chapter 29 Coming Home 295
Afterword: The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier 311