#Reviewing The Unknowns: The Untold Story of America’s Unknown Soldier and WWI’s Most Decorated Heroes Who Brought Him Home

The majestic Arlington National Cemetery located in Arlington, Virginia is the final resting place for the nation’s honored military and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The simple, yet powerful, words written on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier are all that is known about this fallen American: "Here Rests in Honored Glory an American Soldier Known but to God." The tomb is a place where Americans pay their respect to unidentified fallen soldiers of wars past. Yet, it serves a dual purpose by allowing the veterans who did return home to reconcile their experience of war and for all the unknown soldiers, not just those interred at the tomb, to be honored. Soldiers who stayed on the battlefield are equally as important as those who survived war.

Patrick K. O’Donnell’s new book, The Unknowns: The Untold Story of America’s Unknown Soldier and WWI’s Most Decorated Heroes Who Brought Him Home, is a work of history about the body bearers for the Unknown Soldier from the First World War. O’Donnell develops a historiography based on archival and diary research to articulate the events that led to General John J. Pershing choosing the body bearers who would place the caskets in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The story of the Unknown Soldier is the story of every unknown American who served in the United States military during the First World War. But this is the story of the soldiers who carried home the Unknown Soldier’s remains.

O’Donnell sets out to recount in graphic detail the events the body bearers endured and survived in the fire of combat on the Western Front. The account of these soldiers is just one of many American combat experiences, but these stories are particularly interesting because the First World War was America’s entrance into the global stage. The Unknowns is the tale of Sergeant Samuel Woodfill, First Sergeant Harry Taylor, First Sergeant Louis Razga, Corporal Thomas Saunders, Color Sergeant James Dell, Chief Gunner’s Mate James Delaney, Gunnery Sergeant Ernest Janson, and Chief Water Tender Charles Leo O’Connor, who were all body bearers for the casket of the Unknown Soldier. O’Donnell’s book is as much about the soldiers who did not come home as it is about the ones who survived.

The first five chapters introduce the various body bearers and the circumstances of their arrival to the battlefield. The flow of each chapter is a testament to the experience of the writer. Furthermore, in chapter six O’Donnell ties in the complexities of the war to further the narrative. This chapter covers topics such as German high command, the role of the machine gun, and even a mention of the British desert guerrilla fighter T.E. Lawrence. While this slows the narrative, the next twenty chapters offer blood-soaked, saltwater filled, mud-drenched pages that capture the fluid dynamics of war as well as any single volume of work on the First World War can.

The ability to engage audiences with different backgrounds, from the general reader to the academic scholar, is a strength of O’Donnell’s. His style and easy going voice will engage readers at all levels, and the general reader who enjoys other authors of military history such as Peter Hart or Antony Beevor will feel right at home with The Unknowns, as Hart’s work on Gallipoli and Beevor’s Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1941-1943 are written in the same style.

The key to a well written history is found in the rich and diverse use of archival material. The breadth and depth of multiple archive documents, combined with diary entries, strengthen O’Donnell story of the body bearers. The goal of any historian is to engage with the general public to draw awareness to historical topics such as the Tomb of the Unknown. The devil is in the details, though. O’Donnell ably covers the Congressional laws passed to fund the construction of the Tomb of the Unknown. He also reconstructs, to the smallest detail, the entire process of choosing and transporting the remains of the Unknown Soldier. It is evident from these details that O’Donnell’s work is not only well written, but also thoroughly researched.

The high water mark in The Unknowns is the dramatic and graphic scenes of combat on the Western Front. Chapter nine and twenty-one are some of the most detail-oriented reconstructed scenes of combat on the Western Front that this reviewer has read. The drive into Belleau Wood against stiff German opposition in June of 1918 were some of the bloodiest days for the United States Army and Marine Corps, and sources such as John W. Thomason, Fix Bayonets are heavenly quoted. An example is this excerpt of Thomason’s work describing the battle of Blanc Mont by the 2nd division:

"Singing balls and jagged bits of steel spattered on the hard ground like sheets of hail; the line writhed and staggered, steadied and went on, closing toward the center as the shells bit into it…red flashes, full of howling death." One of the casualties included, “a girlish, pink-cheeked lieutenant” who was gleefully swinging a brand new pair of field glasses as he accompanied several machine gunners. A shell “flattened them into a mess of bloody rags, from which a bloody arm thrust upward, dangling the new field glasses.”[1]

Thomason, who actually participated in combat operations in Belleau Wood, adds a blended dynamic to the story O'Donnell tells of the body bearers and their survival in the First World War.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier not only represents all the American soldiers who did not return home from the First World War, it also serves as our nation’s monument to the U.S. military personnel sacrificed on the altar of freedom. O’Donnell’s work highlights the story of each body bearer. The tale of American Indian Sergeant Thomas D. Saunders, who fought at St. Mihiel on 12-15 September 1918, is a great example of the diversity and the quality work found in The Unknowns. The melting pot of the American Expeditionary Force shows that Americans of every walk of life and background came together for a variety of reasons for a single purpose. This represents the best the United States had to offer in that generation of citizen soldiers. The account of First Lieutenant Samuel Woodfill, who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, adds to the dynamic experiences these soldiers endured and ultimately survived.

“We cannot say whether he was black, white, red, yellow—for all those races fought under our flag—we shall never know….His tomb is a shrine on which flowers may be heaped without commitment.”

The different experience of war for each of the body bearers is at the heart of this narrative, but O’Donnell also devotes much detail to the congressional process that funded the Tomb. This process is covered in the last few chapters of the book. On 4 February 1921 Congress approved Public Resolution 67 to fund the memorial. On 4 March 1921, President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill into law. This was coincidentally his last day in office. The date for the funeral for the Unknown Soldier was set for 11 November 1921.[2] President Warren G. Harding had the honor to preside over the funeral procession. One of the honorary pallbearers Lt. General James Harbord had some thoughts on the Tomb of the Unknown during the funeral procession. He stated, “We cannot say whether he was black, white, red yellow—for all those races fought under our flag—we shall never know….His tomb is a shrine on which flowers may be heaped without commitment.”[3] Harbord’s words capture the essence of the function of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which is to show respect for the fallen and allow veterans a shared venue through which to reconcile their experience.

The Unknowns is a great book on the topic that surrounds the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from the First World War. It’s also a good single volume work on the American Expeditionary Force’s involvement and experiences in the First World War. The narrative is driven by the individual experience of war for each of the body bearers. The details on the congressional act to establish the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier are informative. It would not surprise this reviewer to find in the near future O’Donnell’s work in a college-level entry survey course on American history.

Georges Scott (1873-1943) illustration "American Marines in Belleau Wood (1918)," originally published in the French magazine Illustrations. (Wikimedia)

The only slight drawback of this book is that there is a chapter that was somewhat long and combined many different ideas which seemed to break up the flow of information. However, this book is engaging, informative, detailed, exciting, respectful, and at a patriotic level, unifying. Even the most basic components of this book would help any researcher in America’s experience in the First World War. This book will resonate in military affairs and veteran organization. Finally, this book is a great read for anyone interested in the United States Marine Corps involvement in the First World War.

David Retherford is a Ridgway Scholar at the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery (Arlington National Cemetery)


[1] O’Donnell, Patrick. The Unknowns: The Untold Story of America’s Unknown Soldier and WWI’s Most Decorated Heroes who Brought Him Home. Atlantic Monthly Press, New York (2018) p215. Thomason, John W. Fix Bayonets! Scribner’s Sons, New York (1926), p180.

[2] O’Donnell,The Unknowns, p279-298.

[3] O’Donnell, The Unknowns, p297.