Solider No Longer Unknown
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
I recently wrote a reflection poem for my maternal grandfather Keith for what would have been his 100th birthday.
When he was alive, I often talked with him about his combat experiences in World War II around Veterans Day, making the occasion come alive for me.
The history of Veterans Day is intriguing. On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, or November 11th, 1918, World War I ended, so dubbed the “War to End all Wars” or “The Great War.” The Treaty of Versailles marking the official end of the war was signed on June 28th, 1919. Nonetheless, President Woodrow Wilson declared November 11th as Armistice Day since that is when the guns “fell silent.”
In 1920, WWI Veteran and New York Congressman Hamilton Fish Jr. proposed legislation “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 deed” at a to be built structure.
In 1921, four unidentified bodies were exhumed from American cemeteries in France, with one buried in the neoclassical “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier” at Arlington National Cemetery.
Throughout the next couple decades, more and more state legislatures recognized Armistice Day, leading Congress to declare the occasion as a federal holiday. Ironically, just one year before World War II broke out in Europe.
Due to WWII and the Korean War, Armistice Day was renamed to Veterans Day in 1954 so that veterans of all wars would be honored. Unfortunately, WWI had not been the last war.
In the 1970s, Congress briefly put the holiday on the fourth Monday in October as a result of “Uniform Monday Holiday Act” which also affected Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day and Columbus Day. However, November 11th had a special significance for many, including Mr. Fish who was still alive, President Gerald Ford returned to Veterans Day to its original date.
It is important to remember that Veterans Day focuses on “giving thanks to living veterans who served their country honorably during war or peacetime” as opposed to Memorial Day, which focuses on “honoring American service members who died in service to their country or as a result of injuries incurred in battle.”
While we may never know who was first buried in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, that individual has risen beyond his identity. As Mr. Fish envisioned, he has become a symbol for all missing and unidentified combatants, military service and the sacrifice all soldiers take upon themselves.
In terms of learning more about WWI, check out the new Netflix movie “All Quiet on the Western Front” or the 1979 or 1930 versions, based on the amazing book of the same name.
For me, a most impactful takeaways from the history of Veterans Day is how long it took to become official. Prior to 1920, the United States had undergone the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War and the Spanish-American War. A lot of earlier veterans would have appreciated Veterans Day had it be around when they were alive.
The discussions with my grandfather always made me think how I could honor the veterans who had fought for us.
Now that he is gone, I reflect more and more on what he accomplished after his service. He got his master’s and almost his Phd, met my grandma, had four children, studied in Oxford and Paris, and got to tutor and inspire his grandchildren.
He lived his life to the fullest, to the last moment, doing what he loved.
That’s what we all should strive to do. Both for ourselves, and the veterans who have fought for our freedoms.