The Voyage of the Unknown

There are few sites in America as sacred, few grounds as hallowed as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; where the fallen heroes of America’s wars are laid to rest with round-the-clock guard. No matter the weather, no matter the time of day, those heroes are never alone.

But even before that tomb was dedicated, even before the first hero was laid to rest there, he was never alone…because of the brave Marines who refused to leave his side.

This is the Forgotten History of the Voyage of the Unknown.

The grizzled captain stared into the blackening skies and gritted his teeth. He was sailing straight into a massive storm, but he knew he had no choice. He had precious cargo aboard, and it needed to be back home in America as soon as possible. The seas began to churn as thunder rolled in the distance.

He gave the order: full steam ahead.

Nearly eight months earlier, Congress had authorized the burial of an unknown soldier from the Great War in the newly constructed Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery. That Memorial Day, the bodies of four men killed in action were exhumed from four American cemeteries in France and brought to the city hall Chalons-en-Champagne.

There, Sergeant Edward F. Younger—a decorated veteran who received the Distinguished Service Cross for his heroism during the war—selected the casket at random by placing a bouquet of white roses on it. The body of this soldier would be taken back home to America and reinterred in a ceremony on Armistice Day that November.

As Navy Captain Henry Lake Wyman stared into the gathering storm on the deck of the USS Olympia, he had one thought: No seas would be rough enough, no hurricane strong enough to keep his ship from bringing that young man home.

The Olympia was an older ship, but she was fast and could handle herself well in a storm, but there was a problem: The soldier’s casket was too large to fit through the doors to take it into the cargo hold, so it would have to weather the storm on deck. The crew built a special box to help protect it and tied it between two ventilation funnels to secure it, but the Marine guards tasked with bringing the body home refused to leave its side even for a moment. They would ride out the storm on deck, too.

The storm hit and battered the Olympia with two-story waves. Crew members below deck frantically formed a bucket brigade as the ship listed dangerously from side to side. Above deck, the Marines stationed with the coffin still refused to leave their post, even as the ship teetered dangerously close to capsizing and wave after wave threatened to knock them overboard.

The Marines tied themselves to the deck and braced themselves as the heavy casket in front of them looked as though it might be swept overboard. Their commander, Captain Graves Blanchard Erskine, was terrified.

“The agonizing thought came to me: what if the Unknown Soldier — the hero all America awaits to honor — is washed overboard? I knew that if such a thing happened, I might as well jump over with him.”

The ship and the coffin survived the storm intact, but four days later, it sailed straight into the remnants of a hurricane.

Once again, they tied down the coffin and once again the Marine guards refused to leave its side. The ship’s chaplain was called down to say a prayer, and he told them that God was watching over them and an entire nation was waiting for them.

As they inched closer to the east coast, the storm subsided and, with the coffin intact, they pulled into port at Chesapeake Bay with four days to spare before the unknown soldier was to be laid to rest on Armistice Day during the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

He rests there to this day, and every day attended by round-the-clock guards who refuse to leave their post even in the worst of weather…just like the very first guards who brought the first unknown soldier home.

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