The Unknowns: The Untold Story of America's Unknown Soldier and WWI's Most Decorated Heroes Who Brought Him Home

The Unknowns: The Untold Story of America's Unknown Soldier and WWI's Most Decorated Heroes Who Brought Him Home

by Patrick K. O'Donnell


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The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is sacred ground at Arlington National Cemetery. Originally constructed in 1921 to hold one of the thousands of unidentified American soldiers lost in World War I, it now also contains unknowns from World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and receives millions of visitors each year who pay silent tribute.

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802128331
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 05/22/2018
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 163,975
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Patrick K. O’Donnell is a bestselling, critically acclaimed military historian and an expert on elite units. He is the author of eleven books, including Washington’s Immortals, We Were One, and Dog Company, and he is the recipient of several national awards. He served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah and speaks often on espionage, special operations, and counterinsurgency. He has provided historical consulting for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers and for documentaries produced by the BBC, the History Channel, Fox News, and Discovery.

Read an Excerpt

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

Preface xiii

Prologue xvii

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

Epilogue 317

Acknowledgments 325

Notes 327

Index 351

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