“With exhaustive research and fluid prose, Mr. O’Donnell relates both the history of the Unknown Soldier and the story of America’s part in World War I through these soldiers’ experiences. The rich color of their singular narratives—and the broad history they reveal—affirm the wisdom, nearly a century later, of Pershing’s selections.”
—WSJ — Weekend Edition
“The Unknowns is a gripping read that looks at the eight brave men who earned the honor of laying the nation's first unknown soldier to rest back home.”
“Few authors have the same kind of enthusiasm and gusto that O'Donnell brings to his topic. His gift is taking the reader from the map room to the battlefield. It's an exciting, often harrowing, trip worth taking.”
The Unknowns Review: Fallen Sons, Unforgotten
By Matthew J. Davenport
May 24, 2018
In a grand ceremony on Nov. 11, 1920, an unknown French soldier from World War I was buried beneath the Arc de Triomphe. That same day, the British entombed their own unknown soldier with similar honors in Westminster Abbey.
Other European nations followed, but the United States, having lost 116,516 doughboys in 19 months of fighting—and with more than 2,000 unidentified Americans still buried in France—had no plans for the same.
It was not until the next month that Hamilton Fish, a New York congressman who had served in combat on the Western Front, introduced a bill providing for the repatriation of “a body of an unknown American killed on the battlefields of France, and for burial of the remains with appropriate ceremonies.” Congress passed Fish’s Public Resolution 67, and on his last day in office President Woodrow Wilson signed it.
How that decision led to the selection of one American soldier, an interment ceremony in Washington, D.C., commensurate to a state funeral, and ultimately to the honor the nation bestows upon the present-day Tomb of the Unknowns, is the fascinating history that Patrick K. O’Donnell explores in The Unknowns.
As with the French and British ceremonies, the entombment of America’s Unknown Soldier was set for the anniversary of the Armistice, in remembrance of when the world war had ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.
Mr. O’Donnell first reminds us of the import that the day bore for those who lived through it, particularly the soldiers. One doughboy recalled: “The thunder of the guns ceased, and the men, unable to speak, clasped hands in silence.” Another, having endured the racket of artillery explosions and machine-gun fire for months, noted that he could hear his watch ticking the seconds following 11 a.m.
Approximately two million American servicemen witnessed the moment the guns fell silent along the Western Front, and The Unknowns underscores how it met each man in a different place and a different way. We learn that 31-year-old First Sgt. Louis Razga was in a field hospital, recovering from a mustard-gas attack that his howitzer battery had endured just two days before. Sgt. James Dell of the 15th Field Artillery, 42, was with his battery of 75mm guns supporting the Marines in their assault on German positions across the Meuse River, a fight that had continued right up until the 11th hour. And 32-year-old James Delaney, a sailor from Boston, was in his 15th month in a prisoner-of-war camp in Brandenburg, Germany, reduced to a “walking scarecrow,” in Mr. O’Donnell’s words, by mistreatment and malnutrition.
The centerpiece of the narrative is the Unknown Soldier himself, whose identity, as The Unknowns makes clear with a thorough explanation of the random method of the soldier’s selection, will never be known. But as if to prompt the reader into coloring the mystery of the unknown with identifiable human features, Mr. O’Donnell delves into the lives of a number of men who served, including some who were commended for exceptional valor on the battlefield or the seas, and others who were drafted and served admirably but without distinction. One would have the task of making the final choice of the remains to be interred forever as the Unknown Soldier; eight were handpicked by Gen. John J. Pershing to be the “Body Bearers” who carried the coffin to its final resting place; and a few others were chosen as honorary pallbearers. Through letters and diaries and interviews, Mr. O’Donnell introduces us to each of them.
We meet 40-year-old Gunnery Sgt. Ernest Janson, a Marine who earned the Medal of Honor when he jumped from the safety of his foxhole near Belleau Wood in northern France and personally fought off 15 German soldiers with his rifle and bayonet. And Cpl. Thomas Saunders, an American Indian of the Cheyenne tribe who, while serving as a combat engineer, braved enemy fire to rush a château thick with Germans, clearing it room by room with just one other man and capturing more than 60 of the enemy, actions for which he earned the Distinguished Service Cross.
We meet Charles Leo O’Connor, a 31-year-old Boston native serving on the troop transport USS Mount Vernon. When a torpedo fired by a German submarine struck amidships while transporting wounded and sick back from France, O’Connor stayed below in the fire room to close watertight doors, suffering greater burns and injuries and scars than if he had immediately evacuated. And we meet Delaney, a 14-year Navy veteran commanding the 13 naval guards aboard an American oil tanker, who kept his cool during a three-hour battle with a U-boat until the engines failed and his men were out of ammunition. The German captain—who was “not in the habit of taking prisoners,” Mr. O’Donnell writes—was pressed into taking Delaney prisoner because Delaney and his men forced them to use up so much ammunition that the Germans needed “proof of the battle.”
Finally we meet Sgt. Edward Younger, who on the morning of Oct. 24, 1921, in the town hall of Châlons-sur-Marne, France, was given the honor of selecting the Unknown Soldier from four caskets of unidentified remains recently exhumed from American cemeteries in France. “I had gone over the top many times, had known the agony of waiting for the charge,” the twice-wounded combat veteran later recounted. But he felt almost “paralyzed” as he selected the remains by placing white roses on one flag-draped casket.
With exhaustive research and fluid prose, Mr. O’Donnell relates both the history of the Unknown Soldier and the story of America’s part in World War I through these soldiers’ experiences. The rich color of their singular narratives—and the broad history they reveal—affirm the wisdom, nearly a century later, of Pershing’s selections.
The body chosen by Sgt. Younger was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery on Armistice Day 1921. After the ceremony, Gen. James Harbord, who had commanded thousands of American soldiers and Marines in combat, remarked: “Whether an anonymous hero who died, we know not how, is more fitting for commemoration than those whose names we have and whose gallant deaths we can describe, may be a question.”
Mr. O’Donnell does not press to answer Harbord’s question, accepting that regardless of age or motive or manner of death, the deeds of the “anonymous hero” merit a nation’s gratitude. And by revealing the stories of those whose names and deeds we do know, The Unknowns prods our consciences to heap fresh honor upon the Unknown Soldier of World War I, renewing his station as the mortal embodiment of every American who has fallen on a battlefield far from home.
—Matthew Davenport, author of First Over There: The Attack on Cantigny, America’s First Battle of World War I.
“Acclaimed military historian O’Donnell brings to life America’s involvement in the Great War through the stories of eight body bearers for an unidentified fallen soldier . . . O’Donnell does his subject justice, beginning with the book’s inspiration, his giving Marines a tour of the battlefields in France . . . A thrilling title for readers interested in WWI, and an excellent primer for understanding the full significance of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.”
“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 . . . Engaging, informative, detailed, exciting, respectful, and at a patriotic level, unifying.”
―David Retherford, Strategy Bridge
“The Unknowns is a dramatic and compassionately written book by one of our finest military historians who has few equals as a great storyteller. Patrick K. O’Donnell’s superb tale of World War I and the exceptional valor of the eight men later chosen to escort the Unknown Soldier from France to America’s most hallowed place of honor in Arlington National Cemetery is not only a tribute to those who fought and sacrificed so much but also a vivid and timely reminder of the terrible cost of war.”
―Carlo D’Este, author of Patton, A Genius for War and Eisenhower, A Soldier’s Life
“This unknown story of extraordinary sacrifice and heroism is a powerful and timely tribute to the Americans who fought a century ago in the First World War. Superb history brilliantly told.”
―Alex Kershaw, author of The Longest Winter
“The Unknowns is not only the story of the Unknown Soldier but that of the unknown comrades who carried him there. Their stories of courage in deadly combat are finally made known to the rest of us in searing detail.”
―Glenn F. Williams, PhD, U.S. Army Center of Military History
“Brilliant in conception and style, The Unknowns presents the awe-inspiring and profoundly moving story of The Great War from the viewpoint of the men who fought, sacrificed and bled to win it. A ‘must read,’ an incredible story related by a master storyteller!”
―James Lacey, author of Pershing and the forthcoming The Washington War, director of USMC University
“Very few historians can bring our military past to life like Patrick O’Donnell. The Unknowns shines new and welcome light on the ‘forgotten generation’ of Americans who fought World War One. Throughout these well written, absorbing, moving pages, we come to know the doughboys and sailors of the Great War like never before. Read this book and you will never think of the Unknown Soldier the same way again.”
―John C. McManus, Ph.D., author of The Dead and Those About to Die and Deadly Sky
“Highly readable and extremely interesting, The Unknowns is more than just an account about the American servicemen who escorted the Unknown Soldier, it also encompasses the story of American involvement and the sacrifice of young Americans in the Great War. It is a masterful tour de force of that by-gone era.”
―Col. Richard Camp, author of The Devil Dogs at Belleau Wood: U.S. Marines in World War I
“The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, it’s as hallowed as ground can get. But what’s the story of the hero inside? A breakthrough book with a crackling narrative, The Unknowns reveals how the first unknown soldier came home from World War I, a journey born in the shell holes and on the high seas of one of humanity’s ghastliest wars. Prepare to discover an iconic American saga long hidden in plain sight.”
―Adam Makos, New York Times bestselling author of A Higher Call
Gripping . . . 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.”
―James Scott, Post and Courier
“True to form, military and combat historian Patrick K. O’Donnell, in The Unknowns, has unearthed the stirring story of World War I’s Unknown Soldier. Rather than present a simple tale of the chosen body’s selection, process, though, O’Donnell peels back multiple layers of WWI, shining the light on a larger cast of characters who participated in the return of the unidentified remains to American soil . . . The mastery of O’Donnell’s writing is that he can bring together myriad themes and make them work together . . . [Adds] immeasurably to the growing literature of the American role in World War I. It is a simultaneously riveting and soulful work that should not be missed.”
―James A. Percoco, Washington Independent Review of Books
“While one could never begin to include all the stories of heroism, duty, and self-sacrifice that transpired during the ‘war to end all wars,’ O’Donnell has managed to capture some of the most poignant and meaningful . . . As he probes deeply into the horrors of war, O’Donnell displays a unique talent for weaving in many other names of persons who are well-known and will play significant roles in military affairs . . . A superb work on the topic that surrounds the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.”
“Many of the topics on which [O’Donnell] writes involve the story behind the story . . . With the centennial of America’s participation in World War I ongoing, this is a highly relevant publication . . . Conveys the reverence and honor which is deserved from the citizens of this nation to all of those who go in harm’s way to protect us and guarantee our rights and freedoms.”
―New York Journal of Books
“a gripping story told by ... one of the best military historians of his generation.