Tag Archives: unknown soldier

Lost Battalion Actual

Other than Sgt. York, Eddie Rickenbacker, and Pershing himself, perhaps the best-known American Soldier of the Great War was a bookish lawyer from New York City, Charles Whittlesey.

The bespectacled 33-year-old unassuming Harvard-grad– a reformed Socialist of all things– took leave from his succesful Manhattan law firm partnership (Pruyn & Whittlesey) and joined the forming National Army for the great push against the Kaiser in May 1917.

Within a few months, with no prior military service, Whittlesey was a captain and then a major, placed in command of 1st Battalion, 308th Infantry Regiment, a unit with no prior lineage and few veterans. The battalion shipped out for Europe as part of the 77th “Liberty” Division, so-called due to the Statue of Liberty patch it carried, a reference to the fact that its men hailed largely from NYC and its boroughs and trained on Long Island in the summer and winter of 1917. Because of this, it was often referred to as “The Metropolitan Division and “The Times Square Division.”

Receiving additional training from British cadres in France, the 308th entered the trenches in the dreaded Baccarat Sector in July 1918.

After moves to the Vesle front and a subsequent shift to the Argonne Forest to participate in the Oise-Aisne campaign, the regiment was embroiled in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive where, overextended with no flank support, nine companies– mostly of 1-308 with other elements of the 77th– under Whittlesey and Captain George McMurtry found themselves encircled in a ravine by at least two enemy regiments (IR122 and IR254) behind German lines following a counterattack.

Holding out for five days under hellish conditions in the pocket before they were finally relieved, the group became known to history as “The Lost Battalion,” later the subject of at least two films of the same name.

“Our Famous ‘Lost Battalion’ in the Argonne Forest. Seven hundred of our boys were surrounded by thousands of Huns. For thirty-six hours they had had no food. Death seemed inevitable. In answer to the enemy’s messenger with an offer to spare them if they would surrender, Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Whittlesey roared his historic “Go to Hell!” –which was at once “refusal, malediction, and prophecy.” By Frank Schoonover.

For much more detail on The Lost Battalion, see the extensive piece over at the WWI Centennial’s site.

Hailed for their five days against all odds and refusal to surrender, Whittlesey and McMurtry received the Medal of Honor, feted as “Heroes of the Charlevaux Ravine.”

Whittlesey’s citation:

Although cut off for five days from the remainder of his division, Major Whittlesey maintained his position, which he had reached under orders received for an advance, and held his command, consisting originally of 46 officers and men of the 308th Infantry and of Company K of the 307th Infantry, together in the face of superior numbers of the enemy during the five days. Major Whittlesey and his command were thus cut off, and no rations or other supplies reached him, in spite of determined efforts which were made by his division. On the 4th day Major Whittlesey received from the enemy a written proposition to surrender, which he treated with contempt, although he was at the time out of rations and had suffered a loss of about 50 percent in killed and wounded of his command and was surrounded by the enemy.

When it came to adjusting back to the breakout of peace following the Armistice, Whittlesey became something of a hounded rock star of the day on his return to the City. Constantly hunted down to appear at events and engagements, he worked with the Red Cross and was installed as a colonel of the 108th Infantry Regiment in the NYANG. He was likewise a lightning rod for the demobilized veterans of the 77th who found themselves cast off by the Army with no support in a slack post-war economy.

He told a confidant in 1919 that, “Not a day goes by but I hear from some of my old outfit, usually about some sorrow or misfortune. I cannot bear it much more.” To another, following a Red Cross dinner in which he made the now-expected speech about his experience with the Lost Battalion, “Raking over the ashes like this revives all the horrible memories. I can’t remember when I had a good night’s sleep.”

The final straw, it seems, was serving as a pallbearer for the Unknown Soldier at Arlington on Armistice Day 1921.

He was haunted by the thought that the nameless Soldier in the casket could have been one of the 63 members of his command that disappeared in the Charlevaux Ravine, telling McMurtry, who was also at the ceremony, “George, I should not have come here. I cannot help but wonder if that may not be one of my men from the Pocket. I shall have nightmares tonight and hear the wounded screaming once again.”

With that, just 13 days after the interment, the most eligible bachelor in Manhattan got his affairs in order and, on 24 November 1921– 100 years ago today– boarded the banana boat SS Toloa, bound for Cuba. He had told no one of his sudden trip to the Caribbean, only mentioning to his housekeeper that he would be gone for a few days over the Thanksgiving weekend. 

Two days later, he disappeared after dinner, joining the missing of the Great War in a very real sense. 

As noted by Arlington National Cemetery: 

In Whittlesey’s stateroom, crew members found a letter to the captain requesting that his belongings be thrown into the sea. They also found nine letters addressed to relatives and friends. The letters had not been written on the ship’s stationary, suggesting that the colonel had composed them prior to his trip. After an investigation, the U.S. consul in Havana determined that Charles Whittlesey had “drown[ed] at sea by own intent,” with “no remains found.”

The Lost Battalion marker by the American Battlefield Monuments Commission. 

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at 100

On 11 November 1921, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery was installed as a solemn final resting place for one of America’s unidentified service members.

The mortal remains of that initial Soldier, whose identity was only “Known but to God,” was selected from unknown Americans who gave up their lives in France during the Great War. Over 38,000 Americans were buried in French soil at military cemeteries in the Meuse-Argonne, St. Mihiel, Somme, and Aisne-Marne regions. One set of unidentified remains were selected from each cemetery for review.

From those four sets of identical flag-draped caskets, a decorated GI who had served in the conflict and had been twice wounded, Sgt. Edward F. Younger, selected one to become the Unknown Soldier by resting a bouquet of white roses on its cover. The Unknown was then taken to the port of Le Harve under a ceremonial escort provided by French and American troops and attended by thousands of locals along the way.

André Maginot, the French Minister of Pensions, presented the French Legion of Honor– the country’s highest order of merit– to the Unknown Soldier.

French Minister of Pensions M. Maginot pinning the Cross of Legion of Honor upon the casket.in Le Havre, France, October 25, 1921. Maginot was a Great War veteran himself, who as a sergeant had both of his legs shattered in the conflict. (Bibliotheque nationale de France)

The casket was carried aboard Dewey’s old flagship, the armored cruiser USS Olympia (C-6; CA-15; CL-15; IX-40) on 25 October by Sailors and Marines while the warship’s band played both the American and French national anthems as well as Chopin’s “Funeral March.”

Unknown Soldier’s body going aboard USS Olympia, Le Havre, France, October 25, 1921. The original image is from the collections of the Marine Corps, #521763.

Installed on one of the cruiser’s topside hatches, the Unknown was guarded by Marines and Sailors for the voyage across the Atlantic to the Washington Navy Yard, where Olympia arrived on 9 November.

Casket of the Unknown Soldier in its transporting case on the after end of the superstructure of USS Olympia. (Original image is from the collections of the Marine Corps, #521778.)

USS Olympia (CL-15, originally Cruiser # 6) Arriving at the Washington Navy Yard, D.C., with the remains of the Unknown Soldier, 9 November 1921. She had transported the remains from France. Among the destroyers in the background, immediately beyond Olympia’s bow, are: USS Barney (DD-149) and USS Blakeley (DD-150). Courtesy of Edward Page, 1979. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 89731

A detail of Marines and sailors lift the body of the unknown soldier as the funeral party disembarks USS Olympia (CL-15) at Washington, DC after its trip from Le Harve, France. (Original image is from the collections of the Marine Corps, #521811)

There, the remains were transferred to the escort of the Army.

After laying in state at the Capitol Rotunda for two days and being visited by 90,000 people, the casket was transported to Arlington on Armistice Day, celebrating the end of the Great War that had occurred three years prior on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.

The procession from the Capitol to Arlington included several military units to include those from nine allied nations as well as nurses who served in France, while Gen. John Persing, who commanded the American forces in Europe during the war, walked behind the horse-drawn funeral caisson.

Honors rendered that day included the presentation of the Medal of Honor by President Harding. Four military chaplains (to include a rabbi) participated in the funeral service. A national two-minute silence augmented the thousands in attendance. Flowers and wreaths were massed while salutes were fired. Pershing deposited some soil from France into the tomb. The chief of the Crow Nation rested his coup stick across the tomb as a tribute to the fallen and presented his war bonnet.

Today, Armistice Day is known as Veterans Day and the Tomb has had other Unknowns interred to include the World War II and Korean War Unknowns in 1958 and 1984, respectively. Guarded originally by details from nearby Fort Myer and, since 1948, by an elite group of Sentinels provided by the 3rd Infantry Regiment “The Old Guard,” the Tomb has been reverently secured 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, no matter the weather.

In honoring the 100th anniversary of the interment of the WWI Unknown Soldier, for the first time in a century, the public has been allowed entrance to the normally off-limits Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Plaza this week to place flowers near the memorial.

On Veterans Day, Nov. 11, the public is invited to observe a joint full honors procession, meant to replicate elements of the World War I Unknown Soldier’s 1921 funeral procession. Following this, there will be a combined services flyover of the cemetery and the National Mall in conjunction with the Armed Forces Full Honors Wreath Ceremony to honor the Unknowns and the centennial of the Tomb, set for 11 a.m.

For more information on the Tomb, here is a tour of the display room in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Exhibit at Arlington National Cemetery.

As for Olympia, she lingered on in Naval service, decommissioned in 1922 and preserved as a relic/floating office space at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard until 1957 when she was stricken and transferred to a local non-profit for use as a civilian-run museum ship, a task she continues to perform today.

A lead plaque was installed on the cruiser’s hatch in the 1920s where the Unknown had rested for the trip from France but, sadly, is not on the ship today, being removed when she was decommissioned. However, it is preserved at the NMUSN. 

A commemorative plaque, part of the exhibit of the cruiser USS Olympia at the National Museum of the U.S. Navy (NMUSN), hangs on display during a symposium held to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the Unknown Soldier to U.S. soil after WWI. The plaque identifies where the casket containing the remains of the Unknown Soldier was placed aboard the cruiser USS Olympia during the voyage from Le Havre, France to Washington, D.C. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jalen D. Walton)

95 Years on Post

Here we see an image of the first permanent armed military guard walking his post at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Arlington National Cemetery, 25 March 1926.

Per Arlington:

On March 24, 1926, Major General Fox Connor, the Army’s deputy chief of staff, sent a memorandum to the adjutant general, explaining: “The Secretary of War desires that orders be issued establishing an armed guard (rifle) at the tomb of the unknown soldier in Arlington Cemetery…. If practicable, orders should be issued by telephone this afternoon in order that the guard may begin tomorrow morning.” Per these orders, the first armed military guard began duty at the Tomb on the morning of March 25, 1926.

The initial day guard, a detail of troopers from 2nd Squadron, 3rd Cavalry (Brave Rifles) at nearby Ft. Meyer, was later expanded to a 24/7 post in 1937, then assumed by the 3rd U.S. Infantry (The Old Guard)– who continue to stand post today— in 1948. 2-3 CAV, which had been sent to D.C. after arriving back from Occupation duty in Germany in 1919, spent so much time assigned to public duties around the District during the interwar period that it was known during this time as the “President’s Own.”

A smartly turned out 2-3 trooper on guard at the Tomb. Note the spurs as the regiment was still mounted until 1940.

The Tomb itself was dedicated on Armistice Day (11 November) 1921, making it 100 this year. Arlington has a special program to honor this somber milestone.

97 years ago today: Dewey’s flagship, bringing home the saddest casualty back from ‘Over There’

A colorized image of the Unknown Soldier’s casket being carried off of OLYMPIA, which is featured in the background. Via Independence Seaport Museum. You can see Gen. Blackjack Pershing to the right, commander of the AEF, and an honor guard of Marines in blues.

On this date, November 9th, 1921, cruiser OLYMPIA arrived at the Washington Navy Yard carrying the Unknown Soldier of the first World War, having brought the casket across the stormy Atlantic Ocean from Le Havre, France. It was at this time that the casket was transferred from the hands of the U.S. Navy aboard OLYMPIA to the waiting Army contingent, who would then carry the body to Arlington National Cemetery for interment where he rests at the Tomb of the Unknowns today.