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. Atlantic Monthly Press. 362 pages. $27
Each year, thousands of Americans file past the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier amid the manicured lawns at Arlington National Cemetery. But few remember the powerful story behind the simple white sarcophagus that rests just across the Potomac River from our nation’s capital.
Bestselling author Patrick K. O’Donnell has set out to change that with his masterful new book, “The Unknowns: The Untold Story of America’s Unknown Soldier and WWI’s Most Decorated Heroes Who Brought Him Home.”
A combat historian who served with a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah in Iraq, O’Donnell conceived of the idea while volunteering as a guide on a trip to Europe with the Wounded Warrior Regiment.
In France, O’Donnell and his fellow Marines visited Belleau Wood, the scene of a ferocious three-week battle between American and German forces nearly a century earlier during the Great War. It was there he learned the story of Ernest Janson, a gunnery sergeant who earned the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for heroism.
Beyond his heroism, O’Donnell learned, was the role Janson later played as a body bearer in the funeral of the unknown soldier, a job he was chosen for by Gen. John Pershing. “I wondered,” O’Donnell writes, “who were the other men Pershing selected to serve as Body Bearers, and what feat of courage did they perform to earn this honor.”
That question would lead O’Donnell on a seven-year quest, one we should all be grateful he chose to embark on. Eight World War I veterans ultimately were chosen to serve as body bearers in the funeral proceedings that took place in Washington during Nov. 9-11, 1921.
Those heroic and diverse stories make up the heart of this gripping narrative. For example, O’Donnell chronicles James Delaney, a chief gunners mate aboard the SS Campana, which was sunk by the Germans in 1917.
Delaney ended up a prisoner aboard the U-61, a German submarine that O’Donnell describes as “a hellish space that reeked of sweat, mildew, and diesel fumes.” Delaney later landed in the brutal Brandenburg prisoner of war camp, where he spent the remainder of the conflict and nearly starved to death.
Another story O’Donnell explores is that of Thomas Saunders, a Native American and member of the Cheyenne tribe. Saunders grew up in the Wyoming town of Medicine Bow in an era, O’Donnell notes, populated by Indian attacks and train robberies.
Saunders, who was one of 10,000 Native Americans to serve in World War I, distinguished himself by seizing a medieval castle in France, inching room-by-room through the narrow passageways and ultimately taking dozens of Germans prisoner.
O’Donnell profiles each of the body bearers in similar fashion, grounding the larger story of World War I in the individual accounts of the men who would come together in the latter part of the book to carry the unknown soldier to his final resting place.
The idea to create a tomb for the unknown soldier was not unique to America, but an idea the U.S. borrowed from France. Even then, there were senior officials who opposed the plan, convinced the unknown dead would all eventually be identified.
The American public, however, embraced the idea and lawmakers eventually approved it. Body bearers were then selected from each of the services, chosen not only for their exemplary record, but also for their height: Each one had to be precisely six feet tall.
Gen. Pershing then made the ultimate call on the eight men. The final phase O’Donnell writes, involved selecting the remains. Four bodies were exhumed from four cemeteries in France. The job of picking the unknown soldier was then given to a veteran sergeant from the war.
The remains were brought back to the United States aboard the USS Olympia for the burial ceremony, which tens of thousands turned out to witness. O’Donnell captures the intimate details of the final ceremony, concluding with a poignant line from a newspaper article at that time: “Under the wide and starry skies of his own home-land America’s unknown dead from France sleeps tonight, a soldier home from the wars.”
O’Donnell, whose previous books include the terrific “Washington’s Immortals” and “We Were One,” is a masterful storyteller. In his capable hands, the stories of each of the body bearers come alive despite the passing of nearly a century.
Furthermore, he does a terrific job not only of placing the individual stories in the larger context of the war but of peppering the book with fascinating information and anecdotes.
This November will mark the centennial of the end of World War I. O’Donnell’s book is the perfect way for us to remember.