LATHAM, N.Y. – The United States has a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier today because a New York National Guard major and freshman congressman thought it was necessary 100 years ago.
Hamilton Fish III was a 32-year-old lawyer with a Harvard degree who could trace his roots back to the last Dutch governor of New Amsterdam, the original settlers of Connecticut, and the first adjutant general of New York when he ran for Congress in 1920.
He was a progressive Republican member of the New York State Assembly before World War I and signed on to serve as a company commander in the 15th New York Infantry (Colored) of the New York National Guard.
When war came, he led Company K of what became known as the 369th Infantry Regiment, which went down in history as the Harlem Hellfighters. He earned a Silver Star and the French War Cross. He took the medals and his famous name and ran for Congress from the Hudson Valley.
The British and French had interred unknown soldiers with great ceremony on Nov. 11, 1920, to commemorate the 908,000 deaths sustained by the British Empire and the 1.3 million French dead.
Fish thought the United States, which had suffered 116,516 deaths – 53,402 in combat and 63,114 to disease – between April 1917 and November 1918, should do the same. He became the lead advocate for a memorial to an American Unknown Soldier.
The purpose, according to Fish, was "to bring home the body of an unknown American warrior who in himself represents no section, creed, or race in the late war and who typifies, moreover, the soul of America and the supreme sacrifice of her heroic dead."
"There should be no distinction whatever either in the matter of rank, color or wealth," Fish said. "This man is the unknown American Soldier killed on the battlefields of France."
Fish introduced Public Resolution 67 of the 66th Congress on Dec. 21, 1920, to do just that.
The resolution called for the return to the United States of the remains of an unknown American Soldier killed in France during World War I. Those remains were to be interred at the Memorial Amphitheater in Arlington National Cemetery.
America's war dead had been buried in France near where they fell in combat. At the close of the war, families were given the option of having the remains returned or interred in American cemeteries being built in France.
There was a precedent for these Soldier cemeteries in the 108 national cemeteries built to inter the remains of Civil War Soldiers and veterans since 1862. There was no precedent to honor a single Soldier.
The Congressional Committee on Military Affairs met Feb. 1, 1921, to consider Fish's proposal. The options they discussed included:
- Returning the first three casualties of the war for reinterment under a war memorial.
- Picking one unknown member for each military service.
- Identifying unknown remains from every state of the union.
The idea was also floated that states might want to reinter unknown remains of their own.
Fish rejected any idea of having more than one unknown.
"It seems to me that that one unknown should be the only unknown and should be absolutely unknown and unidentified," Fish said. "He should not be taken from any particular battlefield but should be so chosen that nobody would know his identification or the battlefield he comes from. He should represent in himself the North, the South, the East and the West."
A key concern for Congress was ensuring the selected remains would remain forever unknown. The Army's quartermaster general, responsible for grave registration, reported 2,148 unidentified dead.
Fish emphasized that even as investigations into those war dead continued, there would still be remains that could not be identified. There were 1,717 "absolutely unknown dead" for consideration, he insisted.
Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, endorsed Fish's legislation.
"It seems to me that it would be a very fitting tribute for the nation to pay not only to the unknown dead but to all who gave their lives and those who risked their lives for their country," Pershing said.
"This one man would represent the American participation in the war, both on land and sea," he said.
John Thomas Taylor, chairman of the national legislative committee for the brand new American Legion, also endorsed the idea.
"This is a matter which is very close to the hearts of all of the members of the American Legion," Taylor said in his testimony. "These men were our buddies; we feel that they are our particular trust, and we know of no more fitting way in which a perpetual lesson could be furnished for the future manhood of the country.
"We know of no more fitting way in which to do honor to the young men who went into this war and who made the supreme sacrifice," he added.
Congress approved the resolution three days later, on Feb. 4, 1921. In the last hours of his presidency, Woodrow Wilson signed Public Resolution 67 into law.
In October 1921, four unknown service personnel were exhumed from four WWI American cemeteries in France: Aisne-Marne, Meuse-Argonne, Somme and Saint-Mihiel.
There was no indication as to name, rank, organization or date of death. Examination ensured each had died of wounds received in combat.
The four were moved to Chalone, France on Oct. 23, 1921. All records concerning investigations into their identity were burned.
U.S. Army Sgt. Edward Younger, a wounded and decorated WWI Army veteran still serving with the Army of Occupation, selected the unknown on Oct. 24, 1921.
"At first, it was an idea that we (the six soldiers assigned to the detail) were to be just pallbearers, but when we lined up in the little makeshift chapel, Maj. (Robert) Harbold, the officer in charge of grave registrations, told us, 'One of you men is to be given the honor of selecting the body of the Unknown Soldier.'
"He had a large bouquet of pink and white roses in his arms. He finally handed the roses to me. I was left alone in the chapel," Younger said.
"There were four coffins, all unnamed and unmarked. The one that I placed the roses on was the one brought home and placed in the national shrine. I walked around the coffins three times, then suddenly I stopped. What caused me to stop, I don't know. It was as though something had pulled me. I can still remember the awed feeling that I had, standing there alone," Younger recalled.
The remains of the selected Unknown Soldier were transferred to a silver and ebony casket. The casket was inscribed: 'An Unknown American who gave his life in the World War.'
On Nov. 9, 1921, the Unknown Soldier laid in state in the U.S. Capitol rotunda. About 90,000 mourners paid their respects during a public visiting period Nov. 10, 1921.
The next day, two years after World War I ended, the unknown remains were carried on a horse-drawn caisson in a military procession through Washington and across the Potomac River to Arlington National Cemetery.
To stress the national unity in the effort, President Warren G. Harding and Congress declared Nov. 11, 1921, Armistice Day, a federal holiday.
Across the country, Americans observed two minutes of silence at the beginning of the ceremony.
"We are met today to pay the impersonal tribute," Harding said in his remarks. "The name of him whose body lies before us took flight with his imperishable soul. We know not whence he came, but only that his death marks him with the everlasting glory of an American dying for his country."
Harding placed the Medal of Honor on the casket.
The Soldier was buried atop a two-inch layer of soil brought from France so that he might rest forever atop the ground on which he fought and died.
"Today's ceremonies proclaim that the hero unknown is not unhonored," Harding said.
Rep. Hamilton Fish III would be the first to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The marble sarcophagus visitors see today was erected in 1931 and the ceremonies of the Tomb Guardians were established.
Fish served in Congress until 1945 and lived until 1991. He was tremendously proud of his advocacy for an American Unknown Soldier.
"I . . . had first-hand knowledge of the brave sacrifices made by American forces during the First World War, and I wanted America, as a beacon of freedom and democracy, to have her own memorial to honor the Unknown Soldier," Fish said in his 1991 book, "Memoir of an American Patriot."