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The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier


The Unknown Soldier was laid to rest, in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, on November 11, 1921, Armistice Day. Before coming home to the United States from France, the body of the American Unknown Soldier had already been through an elaborate selection process. The French had paid their respects at multiple memorial events where thousands of ordinary French citizens came out to express their gratitude to America's military. The Unknown Soldier had been killed in battle in France in WWI. He was the first Unknown Soldier to be officially honored in this manner in American history.

The selection process, as to who would be the Unknown Soldier, is described by Patrick K. O'Donnell in a book called The Unknowns. An important qualification to be selected as the Unknown Soldier is that the soldier is truly unknown; without any ID on the body, no family identifications; no information anywhere at all about who this person was. Four unknown Americans had been exhumed from their French cemeteries. The honor of choosing the Unknown Soldier was given to Sgt. Edward F. Younger of Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 50th Infantry, American forces in Germany. Years later, Sgt. Younger wrote: "I was numb, I couldn't choose…three times I walked around the caskets; then something drew me to the coffin second to my right on entering…I couldn't walk another step. It seemed as if God raised my hand and guided me as I placed the roses on the casket….I tarried a moment, then remembered my task my done. I saluted the casket…"

On November 11th, a very elaborate ceremony was held with a grand cortege marching through the streets of Washington. The horse drawn caisson carried the Unknown Soldier from the Capitol Rotunda to Arlington National Cemetery. In a place of honor behind the casket walked President Harding and General John Pershing, who had led the American Expeditionary Forces in France. Also in the procession was another drum corps followed by heroic warriors who had received the Medal of Honor. Historian O'Donnell described that it was most sorrowful to see the large group of Gold Star mothers in the procession. At the end of the ceremonies, the casket was lowered into the crypt as the saluting battery fired three shots. Taps was played with a 21 gun salute at the end.

The Unknown Soldier had arrived home from France two days earlier, on November 9, 1921, on the USS Olympia. An honor guard had received the Unknown Soldier on the pier. The Navy band on board the Olympia played Chopin's Funeral March and the Star Spangled Banner. Eight Body Bearers, specifically selected for their bravery, slowly carried the flag draped casket to the waiting gun caisson pulled by black horses. The band played Onward Christian Soldiers as a regiment of Infantry officers accompanied the flag draped coffin of the Unknown Soldier on a slow winding journey through the streets of the U.S. Capitol.

When they arrived at the Capitol Rotunda, the Body Bearers hoisted the casket to their shoulders and marched it up the granite steps into the Rotunda. An honor guard took up positions around the casket just moments before the arrival of the first visitors: President Warren Harding and his wife, Florence. On the following day, November 10, ordinary citizens entered to pay their respect leaving tokens and flowers alongside the casket. An all male choir sang "America the Beautiful." Citizens broke down in tears as they mourned for those who had not come home. The Capitol police estimated that between ninety thousand and ninety-six thousand paid their respects to the Unknown Soldier that day. The piles of flowers around the casket became very high and it was said that the scent of the flowers was overpowering. It was almost midnight before the last mourner passed though the great hall under the dome and citizens waiting outside had to be turned away.

The information in this article was obtained from writings of the historian Patrick K. O'Donnell and the Arlington National Cemetery website. According to Britannica, 116,516 American troops were killed in WWI; double those numbers were wounded; and 4500 are missing.

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