Book Review: The Unknowns by Patrick K. O'Donnell
4 years ago
I was recently sent an advanced reading copy of The Unknowns by the editor and was also asked to write up a review for the Society website. The Unknowns will be released on May 22, 2018. Advanced purchases can be made at Amazon.com.
Patrick K. O’Donnell. The Unknowns: The Untold Story of America’s Unknown Soldier and WWI’s Most Decorated Heroes Who Brought Him Home. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2018. 360pp. Cloth, $27.
Patrick O’Donnell, author of the critically acclaimed Washington’s Immortals, and several other military history titles, presents a specialized history of the Unknown Soldier from the First World War who rests in Arlington National Cemetery. He includes not only the history of the selection and burial of the Unknown, but also follows the men who would carry him to his final rest as they fought in the Great War.
O’Donnell does not set out to tell the history of the Great War. Instead he writes about how those men who would become the body bearers for the Unknown experienced the war. While he does give a larger picture of several battles at land and at sea, he places them within the context of his work. He describes the involvement of the United States and how the servicemen were integrated into the fighting in a war in Europe that had already wiped out generations of European men four years before the Americans arrived to fight.
O’Donnell also introduces several other American fighting men other than those that served as body bearers. These are the men who would lead the attacks on enemy trenches and ultimately lead breakthrough attacks that would result in Allied victory in November 1918. These men are integral to the story of body bearers for it was their dogged leadership that ended the war.
The story of the selection and interment of the World War I Unknown has been told in many other volumes, but O’Donnell goes a step further and gives details regarding the actual selection as well as the duties of the Quartermaster branch as they planned for the unknown candidates to be exhumed and their efforts to ensure complete anonymity.
While this book is not a history of the First World War, it is not it’s intended purpose. Instead it simply follows eight men through the horrors of war. It is their actions that ultimately resulted in them receiving the highest honor from their superiors: to bring home a fallen comrade that gave not only his life for his country, but also his identity. The true supreme sacrifice.
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Did you know?
How many Sentinels have been female?
There have been over 630 tomb guards awarded the badge since 1958 when we started counting. There are hundreds more from the year 1926 when the Army started guarding the Tomb. The 3rd US Infantry (The Old Guard) is the unit that has been given the duty of guarding the Tomb. It was given this sacred duty in 1948. The Old Guard was -- and still is -- considered a combat unit. As an Infantry unit, females were not permitted in the ranks for many years. It wasn't until 1994 that females were permitted to volunteer to become a Sentinel when the 289th Military Police Company was attached to the Old Guard. The MP branch is a combat support unit and includes females.
In 1996, SGT Heather Johnson became the first female to earn the Tomb Guard Identification Badge. She volunteered for duty in June 1995 and earned her badge in 1996. However, SGT Johnson was not the only female Sentinel. Since then, there have been three additional female Sentinels awarded the Tomb Guard Identification Badge. SGT Danyell Wilson earned her badge in 1997, SSG Tonya Bell received hers in 1998, and SGT Ruth Hanks earned her badge, #643 in June 2015.
Several other units have since been attached to the Old Guard -- food service, transportation, medics, etc. -- so now females have an ever greater opportunity to become a Sentinel. Females must meet the same requirements as the male soldiers to be eligible to volunteer at the Tomb. the only difference is that females have a minimum height of 5'8" -- which is the same standard to be a member of the Old Guard.