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THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER
by William Lang, November 1945
I started my long odyssey somewhere in France during the First World War. Just where, I alone know. The circumstances of my passing are forever shrouded in mystery; but until that last second of life I was an American soldier, fighting for my country. When they found what was left of me they tenderly placed me in what, at the time, I thought was to be my last abode. Perhaps you’ve forgotten that in France there are six military cemeteries of the AEF; also one in Belgium and one in England. Most of the Crosses over those graves bear the name, rank and organization of him who sleeps beneath. But mine was to bear only the simple legend, “Here Rests in Honored Glory an American Soldier Known But to God.” There were many hundreds of us in that nameless legion.
The last shot in the Great War had long since been fired when on March 4th, 1921, Woodrow Wilson, on the last morning of his administration, signed the Bill that was to make me the Most Honored Man in America. On Sunday, October 23rd of that year, eight of my nameless legion were removed—two each from the cemeteries at Aisne-Marne, Meuse-Argonne, Somme, and St. Mihiel. Four of the eight were alternates. I was one of the other four. A special military guard of honor secretly convoyed us to the quiet town of Chalons-Sur-Marne. We arrived at three in the afternoon, and were placed side by side in the city hall, draped with flags. An officer was in charge of each of us, and he turned over his casket to a Major of the Quartermaster Corps, he also handed over the form pertaining to the burial of his charge. You must understand that the Army spares no effort to identify its nameless warriors. Every scrap of information is gathered, long investigations are conducted, but sometimes it’s all in vain. Even then, they carefully preserve what bare fragments of information they’ve come across, and they are included in a burial form. Duplicate records, known only by numbers, were preserved in Paris and in Washington. That was our case, my three comrades and I. When we passed through the door of the City Hall, an officer with the Major solemnly destroyed those burial forms, and at the same time the duplicate records were done away with in Paris and Washington.
I tell you these details to emphasize the pains taken by the authorities to preserve our anonymity. No one can ever possibly know, for even the records of the names of the cemeteries from which we four were removed were destroyed. Then on the morning of October 24th, 1921, a specially selected detail of French and American soldiers in the charge of the Quartermaster Officer came into the room and re-arranged the caskets as further insurance against anybody being able to identify us by our previous locations. There we rested, each on a like catafalque, each draped with an identical American Flag. The room was decorated with palms and potted plants and the intertwined colors of France and the United States. The detail left to join the Military Guard of Honor and a French Army Band, drawn up in the hollow Square outside. The Guard of Honor composed of six chosen soldiers thought that they were just to be pallbearers. They came to “Present Arms,” and Major Harbold, the Officer in Charge of Grave Registrations, told them that one was to have the honor of selecting the casket to be sent to America. He handed a spray of white roses to Sergeant Edward F. Younger, a veteran of four major engagements, wounded twice in action. The Sergeant stepped through the door. You all know how he made his choice. It was a story that he told and re-told in the passing years, and it never varied. There he was, left alone in the dimly-lit Chapel. There were four coffins, all unnamed and unmarked. The one he placed the roses on was to be brought home and placed in the National Shrine. Slowly the Sergeant walked around the coffins, three times—and suddenly he stopped, as though something had pulled him—a voice seemed to say, “This is a pal of yours.”
I wish I could have spoken, that I could have told him the truth. He seemed transfixed with awe as he put the roses on my coffin and quickly turned and stepped back into the sunlight. So I was to be the One. What a pity they could not know whether I was a volunteer or conscript, of my race, creed, or color. Through the years I’ve thought how much dissension could have been avoided, how many bitter words that would not have been spoken, had they known. Even if I had been permitted to say just a few words, they might have known what I was and what I stood for—but that was not to be—on one was ever to know.
After I had been chosen I was taken to another room, and in the presence of four American officers, was placed in another coffin. The empty one was returned to my three comrades, and the coffins were so mixed that no one knew which had been emptied. They went back to sleep beneath their white Crosses, but I was to have a long and eventful journey home.
I left on a special train at ten after six that night, and arrived in Paris at ten o’clock—a strange leave for a soldier. At nine twenty the next morning I was off again, this time for Le Havre, my port of embarkation. I sailed from there on October 27th, following a parade through the streets and a most impressive ceremony at the dock, in which both American and French soldiers took part. The French Ambassador to the United States made a speech, and I was given the first decoration of my new role—the Cross of the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. Three hundred French children showered me with flowers. I came home on the deck of the United States battleship Olympia, the old Flagship of Admiral Dewey—she had been retired from active service. I was rather proud that she was to bear me home. It was somewhat of a stormy trip, but of course, I had company—a Chaplain, a Guard of Honor, newspapermen and photographers.
I reached the soil of my homeland November 9th of that year, 1921, and was taken immediately to the Navy Yard at Washington, where once more I was to be placed in the charge of the Army. For two days I rested in state in the rotunda of the Capitol. The final rites of all presidents who have died on office since 1865 had been held there—it was an honor I had not expected. Then on Armistice Day, which was declared a National Holiday, I began the last part of my journey to Arlington National Cemetery.
A gun carriage drawn by four black horses was to be my mode of conveyance—the pallbearers and honorary pallbearers walked behind. We started at eight-thirty, and the guns at Fort Myer fired every minute from that time to the end. It was eleven miles—the most solemn eleven miles I had ever traveled. There was music, the Marine Dirge for the Dead. Behind me were the highest government officials riding in cars according to their rank—General Pershing, the Secretaries of the War and Navy, an aging, saddened Woodrow Wilson. Never had so many high foreign representatives journeyed to these shores to honor an American. And so we came to the vast amphitheater. Mine was to be the first funeral ever held there. President Harding officiated—read the Lord’s Prayer, and for two minutes all of this great Nation observed silence. It was a day filled with many memorable events—the muffled drums, the silence of the thousands who came to pay me homage—four abreast they filed past until nightfall—the line was unbroken. They brought flowers, and tears, and I was presented with the Congressional Medal of Honor. Me, the Congressional Medal of Honor!
Finally I was lowered into a solid stone vault which contained French soil—bayonets were at attention—rifle salutes were given and artillery salvos almost without number were fired. Then a bugler blew Taps over the grave. My day was at an end. I was left to my long sleep.
In 1931, a tomb was erected over an older and uncompleted Cenotaph which had stood for years. My last resting place is marble, striking in its simplicity, cut from a single rectangular block—one of the largest ever quarried. It is sixteen feet in length, nine feet in width, and eleven feet in height. The front panel is adorned with a composition of three symbolic figures representing the spirit of the Allies—“Victory Through Valor Attaining Peace.” The rear panel bears the same inscription as my white Cross in France: “Here Rests in Honored Glory an American Soldier Known But to God.”
No man could wish for a more beautiful setting, with the lawn and trees and open space. Behind me are the Crosses of those who fell, on my left the Washington and Lincoln Memorials, and across from me the Capitol. It’s known as Army Post Number One, and I’ve been guarded day in and day out through rain and sun, snow and hail, every second, every minute, every day of those long years. A sentry paces in front of the tomb with a rifle on his shoulder, his eyes straight ahead. As an ex-soldier I would be interested that he does two hours of marching and four hours off—that he can’t answer any questions while on duty.
Every one who’s ever come to see me has been impressed, and I welcome them all—especially the mothers. That has been the really sad part. Once a playwright said I had more mothers than any man in the world. I believe that’s true. And the fathers also, they’ve become fewer with the years, but they still stand there with their heads bowed, trying desperately to breach time and eternity, searching with all their souls for an answer. It’s just as well that I can’t reply—too many would be disappointed.
We who sleep eternally know that, I, the Unknown Soldier, on behalf of all those who died for their country, humbly beg you to look into the future and to make true the words “they shall not have died in vain.”
This is from an article written by William Lang for the November 1945 issue of Swing magazine.
For those who wish more information, go to https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/008909689
This article was found by prominent local author Alan D. Gaff, and his researcher/wife, Maureen Gaff, in their work on behalf of our Organization.