The Moving Story of the Unknown Soldier

This week (Nov. 11) in 1921, exactly three years after World War I ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, the Tomb of the Unknowns was dedicated at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia during an Armistice Day ceremony presided over by President Warren Harding. Inside of that tomb was America’s first “Unknown Soldier” — now the symbol of every unknown soldier who has died in America’s wars.

So how was this particular soldier, whoever he is, chosen?  In September of 1921, the U.S. War Department ordered the Quartermaster General to select an unknown soldier from those thousands of American G.I.s buried in France. Subsequently four unidentified American soldiers were exhumed from cemeteries in Aisne-Maine, Somme, Meuse-Argonne and St. Mihiel — each the scene of a major WWI battle. The four soldiers were then put in identical caskets and transported to Chalons-sur-Marne where a ceremony honoring them was held.

After the ceremony, Quartermaster Major Robert Harbold ordered the four caskets placed in an adjoining room until the arrival of the six American pallbearers who were to carry the casket of the chosen unknown soldier to its next destination.  The six pallbearers were all non-commissioned officers who had themselves been decorated for valor.

For reasons unknown even today, Harbold chose Sgt. Edward Younger of Illinois as the pallbearer who would decide which of the four soldiers would become the “Unknown Soldier.”  Harbold gave Younger, a recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross, a bouquet of roses to place on whichever casket he chose, and then Harbold and the other pallbearers left the room.

As Younger tells it, he circled the caskets three times before suddenly stopping in front of the third casket from the left.  “What caused me to stop, I don’t know,” he later said. “It was as though something pulled me.”

Younger placed the roses on the casket and saluted, after which the six pallbearers carried the “Unknown Soldier” to a public viewing. The casket was then shipped to the French port of Le Havre and placed on a ship bound for America.  On November 9, that ship steamed up the Potomac River and docked at the Washington Navy Yard.  A horse-drawn caisson then carried the casket to the Capitol, where it lay in state until its historic ceremony on November 11.  In the meantime, the other three unknown soldiers were re-buried at Romagne Cemetery, east of Paris.

As for Sgt. Younger, he was honorably discharged from the army in 1922 and returned to Illinois, where he lived until suffering a fatal heart attack in 1942.  An unsung, if not unknown, soldier, he is buried next to his wife in Section 18 of Arlington National Cemetery.