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Marines and the Return of America’s World War I Unknown Soldier

By Kara R. Newcomer

The Marine Corps’ participation in the return and interment of America’s World War I Unknown Soldier can be divided into two parts: escort duty aboard the USS Olympia and ceremonial duties for the Unknown’s interment in Arlington National Cemetery.

On 26 September 1921, Major General Commandant John A. Lejeune sent orders to the Commanding Officer of Marine Barracks, Norfolk, Virginia to “organize and transfer not later than September 27th a detachment consisting of one first sergeant, three sergeants, three corporals, one trumpeter, and thirty Privates, total 38, under command of Captain Graves B. Erskine, Marine Corps, to USS Olympia, for duty as Marine Detachment that vessel.” 

Other than Capt Erskine, the men were pulled from the Sea School, Marine Barracks, Norfolk. Most of the privates had been in the corps just a few months and only Capt Erskine and 1stSgt Edward A. Mullen were serving in the corps during WWI.

Capt Erskine, who was expecting to be sent back to Haiti after emergency leave in the U.S. before he was given the order to command the Olympia’s Marine Detachment, had served as a platoon leader in the 6th Regiment. He was wounded in action during the Battle of Chateau-Thierry and fought in the battles of Bellaeu Wood, Bouresches, and Soissons. During the St. Mihiel Offensive, he was again wounded, this time seriously, and had to be evacuated back to the United States. Years later during an oral history interview, then-Gen Erskine, remarked that he assumed he was chosen to command the detachment as he was supposed to be fairly fluent in French but he hadn’t used his language skills in years and felt he had probably done a poor job of translating.

1stSgt Mullen, who was an instructor at the Sea School, spent the war as part of the detachment of the USS Huntington as it ran escort duty to and from Europe. He stays in the corps until he passes away in 1945 as a Commissioned Warrant Officer.

The Marines boarded the Olympia on the 27th of September and the ship set sail from Hampton Roads for Newport, Rhode Island, that same day. The ship arrived in Rhode Island three days later and three days after that, on the 3rd of October, the ship departed the U.S. The Olympia arrived in Plymouth, England in the afternoon on the 14th. On that same day, the whole Marine detachment paraded for Vice Admiral Montague Browning of the Plymouth Base. Two days later, Capt Erskine accepted an invitation from the British Admiralty to be their guest, along with other American officers, during the presentation of the American Medal of Honor to the Unknown British Warrior interred in Westminster Abbey in London. On the 17th, Capt Erskine participated with other Allied officers when the British Unknown was presented the Medal of Honor by General of the Armies John J. Pershing. While also in England, Capt Erskine officially called on the Commandant of the Royal Marine Light Infantry and was made an honorary member of their mess. The ship set sail for Le Havre, France on the 23 October and arrived the next day to await the Unknown.

On the 25th of October, following the selection ceremony in Chalons-sur-Marne on the 24th and an overnight stop in Paris, the train carrying the Unknown Soldier arrived in La Havre at 1300. After ceremonies at the train station, the procession made its way to the pier where more honors were rendered at the dock in which the USS Olympia and her Marine Detachment were waiting. After the dockside ceremonies, responsibility for the remains was transferred from the US Army to the Navy and Marine Corps.

The six sailors and two Marines, Cpl James W. Spence and Private Howard H. Boegaholtz, assigned to serve as body bearers stood stationary after accepting the casket while four ruffles were sounded followed by the French and American National Airs. The remaining Marines, stationed near the foot of the ship’s gangway, were ordered to “present arms” and remained that way as the casket was carried aboard the ship.

During the 15-day voyage, the Marines stood regular four-hour watches around the clock to safeguard the transport case in which the casket was enclosed. The case, which had to be kept topside because it would not fit through the ship’s hatches without being tilted, was encased in a waterproof cover and lashed to the deck with heavy manila lines as a precaution against rough seas. According to Gen Erskine: “We lashed this fellow down with everything that we could tie on him; we had some very rough weather coming home, and there were times when we thought we might not make it home…. It was so bad for several days that we couldn’t eat at the table. You just sat down with sandwiches and coffee, and you’d hold on to something with one hand and grabbed your sandwich with the other. In the wardroom, we had at least 4 inches of water most of the time.
The chaplain and captain got together and he held a special service, praying to God that the ship wouldn’t sink.”

Upon occasion, the Marine guard on duty would also need to be secured to a pole on the deck in order to remain standing due to severe weather. During the worst of the storms, the Marine sentry would wear complete foul-weather gear including hip boots. One Marine, caught topside at the height of the storm, barely missed being washed overboard by a huge wave. He saved his life by clutching to the life lines that had been rigged up. The sea filled his hip boots, snatched them off his legs and swept them over the side into the churning sea.

When the Olympia reached the Washington Navy Yard in the afternoon of 9 November, Private Dale Frazier, the Marine who had drawn the final sentry duty, saluted as he released the body to the detail of Marines and sailors acting as body bearers. The rest of the Marine Detachment, which had moved down the gangway and took up position on the pier waiting for the casket to be carried ashore, “presented arms” as the body bearers eased themselves onto the cobblestoned dock that had been made slick by the rain. Among the numerous VIP’s waiting on the dock to witness the unknown’s homecoming was Major General Commandant John A. Lejeune. The transfer of responsibility back to the U.S. Army at the dock ended the involvement of the Olympia’s Marine detachment.

The second stage of Marine involvement in the return and interment of the WWI Unknown revolves around his lying in state and the ceremonial procession to Arlington National Cemetery followed by the burial ceremonies of over the 10th and 11th of November.

The Capitol Rotunda was opened to the public on the 10th and numerous organization presented wreaths and rendered honors to the Unknown throughout the day. Among those who placed wreaths was the Marine Corps commandant, MajGen Lejeune, who was accompanied by MajGen Wendall C. Neville, a Medal of Honor recipient and assistant to the commandant, and Capt Lemuel C. Shepherd, Jr., aide-de-camp to the commandant. The 2d Division association, which many Marines were members, also placed a floral decoration at the catafalque.

While the Marines presenting a wreath on the 10th isn’t all that extraordinary however, when you add to it that 10 November 1921 had another significance to the Marine Corps, it does show how honoring the
unknown took precedence over other events. It was in early fall of 1921 that Maj Edwin N. McClellan, the officer in charge of the historical section at Headquarters, discussed with MajGen Lejeune the idea of designating 10 November as the official birthday of the Marine Corps. The recommendation was approved and Marine Corps Order No. 47 Series 1921 was issued which remains in effect today. Part of the Maj McClellan’s suggestion was to have a birthday dinner held in Washington but those plans never came to fruition due to the events surrounding the Unknown.

Eight Marines and a non-commissioned officer acted as part of the “Dead Watch” at the catafalque in the capitol. Three companies of Marines under Maj Thomas S. Clarke acted as part of the guard at the Capitol while the Unknown was lying in state. In the diary kept by then-Capt Shepherd, he noted that when he accompanied the commandant to place the floral decoration, the honor guard consisted of five Marines in Dress Blue uniforms “standing motionless at Parade Rest around the casket.”

On 11 November at 0800, the eight specially selected pallbearers carried the casket from the rotunda and down the east steps to the waiting caisson. The pallbearer selected from the Marine Corps was Gunnery
Sergeant Ernest A. Janson. GySgt Janson, who had served under the alias of Charles F. Hoffman for nearly his entire career with the Marine Corps due to him having once deserted from the Army, was the only enlisted combat awarded Medal of Honor recipient from WWI on active duty at the time. He was awarded both the Army and Navy Medal of Honor for bravery at Chateau-Thierry on 6 June 1918 while serving with the 49th Company, 5th Regiment. MajGen Wendell C. Neville served as an honorary pallbearer.

Marines were well represented in the parade on the 11th. MajGen Lejeune, of course, was among those walking but there was also a company of Marines from Quantico as well as the Quantico Marine Band, which was composed of about 190 pieces. In the procession, there was also one officer and one enlisted man from the Line, Adjutant and Inspector’s Department, Paymaster’s Department, Quartermaster’s Department and Aviation. In addition, a few female reservists were brought back onto active duty to participate in the procession.

Beyond the parade, numerous Marines were on duty in other locations. Three companies, including 40 ushers, were posted at various points at the Memorial Amphitheatre and throughout the cemetery. One officer was stationed at Union Station for duty at the Reception bureau to greet “Guests of the Occasion”, including Medal of Honor recipients specifically invited to the events.

The Marine Band played a major part in ceremonies once the procession arrived at Arlington. The band joined the procession at Gate of the cemetery and played Chopin’s Funeral March until the procession reached the Amphitheatre. Once arriving at the West Front of the Amphitheatre, the band took position and played Our Illustrious Dead as the body was removed from the caisson and was borne to the apse. The band then accompanied several hymns sung during the indoor services. Upon completion of the indoor services, the Marine Corps Band moved to an outdoor position and again played as the casket was carried from the apse through the southeast entrance to the waiting tomb.

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