On 25 October 1921, the U.S. destroyer Reuben James (DD-245) and eight French naval vessels escorted the Olympia out of Le Havre’s harbor. The Olympia received a 17-gun salute as she cleared the harbor and another as the French ships dropped astern just outside their territorial waters. The United States’s Unknown Soldier had left France for his final resting place in the land of his birth.
U.S. World War I allies had honored and laid to rest their unknown warriors a year earlier—the English at Westminster Abbey and the French at the Arc de Triomphe. It was time for the United States to honor its unknown dead. The Navy issued a brief press release on 22 September 1921, in which Secretary of the Navy Edwin Denby assigned Captain H. L. Wyman, commanding officer of the Olympia, “the duty of bringing home for burial in Arlington Cemetery the unknown soldier representative of the heroes of the American Army in France.”
Well before the Olympia arrived at Le Havre, elaborate preparations had been made to select and escort the remains of the unknown American. The United States still had not identified 1,237 dead soldiers, and extraordinary care had to be taken to select a body that would not be identified later. Officials exhumed the body of an unidentified American from each of four U.S. cemeteries: Aisne-Marne, Meuse-Argonne, Somme, and St. Mihiel. On 23 October, all four identical caskets arrived at the city hall of Chalons-sur-Marne, and officials destroyed all records of the plots and cemeteries from which the remains had been removed. Early the next morning, French and U.S. soldiers rearranged the caskets so that there was little chance anyone could know the cemetery from which one of the unidentified bodies had been taken.
Army Sergeant Edward F. Younger was given the honor of choosing the United States’s unknown soldier. At 1000, after a short ceremony, Sergeant Younger, awed by his responsibility, slowly approached the four flag-draped caskets. He carried a spray of white roses presented by a former member of the Chalons City Council who had lost two sons in the war. Alone in the dimly lit reception hall, Sergeant Younger circled the caskets three times before finally placing the roses on one. Then pausing a moment, he stood at attention and saluted the chosen American. Asked later why he had chosen that particular casket, Sergeant Younger replied, “I don’t really know, but something drew me to it.”
The casket was taken immediately to another room and the remains transferred to a special coffin inscribed “An Unknown American who gave his life in the World War,” which was sealed and draped with the American flag. The white roses were laid on the new casket and remained there to be buried with the unknown American at Arlington Cemetery. The caskets of the three remaining Americans and a fourth empty casket were taken to Romagne Cemetery, 152 miles east of Paris, for immediate reburial at the Meuse-Argonne cemetery.
The Unknown Soldier lay in state that afternoon with an honor guard of six French soldiers, five U.S. soldiers, and a representative of the American Legion. The people of Châlons-sur-Marne paid their respects to the unknown American with a sense of shared loss. That evening, the casket was placed aboard a special funeral train and carried to Paris, where it remained overnight with an honor guard. The train arrived at Le Havre the next day, and thousands of spectators lined the route to pay homage as the casket moved from the station to the Quai d’Escale, where the Olympia waited. At the pier, the French presented the Croix de Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur to the Unknown Soldier. A large crowd of French citizens then watched as six sailors and two Marines representing the U.S. sea services relieved the Army body bearers one at a time and carried the casket aboard the Olympia and to the stern of the ship.
French school children boarded the vessel to add their flowers to the many other floral tributes. Large elaborate wreaths cast in bronze (which are now at Arlington Cemetery) also were laid near the casket. After the fantail ceremonies, Marines stood guard over the casket as the Olympia got under way.
Marine Captain Graves B. Erskine commanded a handpicked 40-man Marine detachment and was responsible for safeguarding the remains of the Unknown Soldier on the voyage back to the United States. His men placed the steel gray casket in a rough wooden box wrapped in waterproof canvas. Captain Erskine wisely decided to shift the box with its casket from the fantail to the elevated aft signal bridge, where it would be safer should the vessel encounter heavy seas. The casket remained topside, however, because no hatch was large enough to allow it to be moved below with dignity, which required that it remain horizontal.
Six days out near the Azores, the Olympia did encounter heavy weather. As the storm moved in, gale-force winds struck, and heavy seas cascaded tons of water over the weather decks. One Marine stood guard over the casket at all times, and two others were posted nearby, ready to act should the casket begin to shift as the vessel rolled and plunged in the turbulent seas. The sentries themselves were lashed to the ship to prevent them from being washed overboard. At the peak of the storm, the ship rolled 39 degrees, and some feared she would capsize. The anxiety was so great that the commanding officer, Captain Henry Lake Wyman, asked Navy Chaplain Lieutenant Edward A. Duff to pray for the safety of the vessel. The chaplain and members of the crew off watch quickly assembled in the mess hall and clung to stanchions as the ship rolled. Together, they prayed for the safe return of the Unknown Soldier to his homeland.
By noon, when the storm began to subside, the crew realized that in maintaining headway through the heavy seas, they had exhausted the coal supplies adjacent to the boilers. The fires there began to fade, jeopardizing an on- time arrival in Washington. The crew had to move coal from forward bunkers to the firerooms aft. The Olympia’s deck force could not handle the monumental task alone, so the Marines moved in to assist. Together, the men replenished the coal necessary for the remainder of the voyage.
The Olympia arrived safely on a rainy 9 November. The battleship North Dakota (BB-29) and destroyer Bernadou (DD-153) accompanied her as she moved slowly up the Potomac River, receiving and returning honors along the way. The Olympia arrived at the Washington Navy Yard at 1600. Among those on hand to receive the body of the Unknown Soldier were Army Chief of Staff, General of the Armies, John J. Pershing, Commandant of the Marine Corps Major General John A. Lejeune, and Secretary of Navy Denby.
Navy buglers on board the Olympia sounded attention, and forward a gun boomed, the first of a roll of sorrow guns repeated at one-minute intervals. Marines and sailors slowly carried the casket down the pitched, wet gangplank, and when they reached level ground, the boatswain piped the Unknown Soldier ashore in the manner traditionally accorded a full admiral. As the roar of the forward gun marked the passing of another minute, the flag-draped casket moved down the line of troops standing rigidly at attention on the dock. The funeral march paused for the stirring strains of “The Star Spangled Banner” and then continued, punctuated by the crash of the sorrow gun. The reception ceremony ended as eight Army body bearers from the 3rd Cavalry took the casket from the ship’s detail and placed it on a draped gun caisson drawn by six black horses. The Navy and Marines had performed their roles, and the Army took over, continuing the procession along the wet, crowd-lined streets toward the Capitol.
On 10 November, mountains of flowers accumulated as tens of thousands of mourners quietly passed by the casket. Because there were still long lines waiting at 2200, the scheduled hour of closing, the rotunda remained open until midnight. At 0800 the next day—three years after the armistice of World War I—the cavalry carried the casket holding the body of the Unknown Soldier from the rotunda down the east steps to the horse-drawn caisson. Following the military escort, a long cortege included President Warren G. Harding, Vice President Calvin Coolidge, senior government representatives, Medal of Honor recipients, and other military groups marching eight abreast. The procession moved in quick-time cadence past the White House, at which point the President and members of the official party left to proceed by car. The procession then continued to Georgetown, crossed the Potomac River using the Aqueduct Bridge, and arrived at the cemetery’s Arlington Gate three hours after leaving the Capitol. There in a moving ceremony in Arlington Cemetery, an estimated 100,000 people, the nation, and the world paid final respects to the Unknown Soldier.
Radio broadcasting was still in its infancy, but the entire ceremony was transmitted by telephone lines and amplified through loudspeakers for audiences at New York’s Madison Square Garden and at San Francisco’s Civic Auditorium. American Telephone and Telegraph Company meticulously checked and rechecked thousands of miles of lines to eliminate all potential sources of induced currents. Background noise or “crosstalk” caused by currents picked up from other telephone lines or power lines was normal during long-distance telephone conversations of the day. Such interference, however, would have been intolerable when telephone line transmissions were amplified for large audiences. In the end, the effort to eliminate background noise was so successful that when the lines were opened just before the ceremony, several telephone employees panicked when they heard no noise and thought the lines were dead. The payoff came when overflow crowds of tens of thousands in New York and San Francisco joined in song and prayer with those at Arlington and heard President Harding offer his tribute and plea for nations to abandon war.
At noon, the crowds encircling the amphitheater, and people throughout the nation, stood and observed two minutes of silence and then joined the U.S. Marine Band and a quartet from the Metropolitan Opera Company of New York in singing “America.” Rosa Ponselle, a soprano with the Metropolitan Opera, performed during the ceremonies and later recalled her memories of the occasion: “Midway through the ceremony I sang to the crowd. It was all I could do to maintain my composure. I remember the most pathetic wails of mothers who broke down when the coffin was carried to its resting place.”
Among those offering tribute was Chief Plenty Coups, Chief of the Crow Nation of Montana. As the representative of all American Indians, many of whom fought in the war, he spoke a few emotional words. The aged Indian, with finely chiseled profile, then removed his feathered war bonnet, placed it with his coup stick on the sarcophagus, and lifted his arms in silent supplication to heaven. To many there that day, this ageless gesture was the most dramatic moment of the entire ceremony. He had captured the feeling of the nation.
The saluting battery fired three salvos as the casket was lowered into the crypt, the bottom of which had been covered with a two-inch layer of soil brought from France. The bugler sounded taps, and after the last note, the battery fired 21 guns in a final salute to the Unknown Soldier of World War I.