Friday, April 16, 2010

Unknown soldiers

The numbers of unidentified casualties of wars around the world are represented by the remains of unknown soldiers entombed elaborately, guarded ceremonially, and honored regularly. Tombs of unknowns can be found in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Russia, Spain, Turkey, and dozens of other countries. There are 2 names to associate with these symbolic national monuments:

Reverend David Railton (2nd image)
Rev. Railton (1884-1955) was the British army chaplain who conceived the idea of remembering the anonymous war dead with one tomb containing the remains of a single unknown soldier. Years later, he remembered his inspiration on the Western Front of World War I: "I came back from the line at dusk. We had just laid to rest the mortal remains of a comrade. I went to a billet in front of Erkingham, near Armentieres. At the back of the billet was a small garden, and in the garden only six paces from the house, there was a grave. At the head of the grave there stood a rough cross of white wood. On the cross was written in deep black-pencilled letters, 'An Unknown British Soldier' and in brackets beneath, 'of the Black Watch.' It was dusk and no one was near, except some officers in the billet playing cards. I remember how still it was. Even the guns seemed to be resting. How that grave caused me to think....So I thought and thought and wrestled in thought. What can I do to ease the pain of father, mother, brother, sister, sweetheart, wife and friend? Quietly and gradually there came out of the mist of thought this answer clear and strong, 'Let this body - this symbol of him - be carried reverently over the sea to his native land.'" His proposal for a national monument was taken up by the king, embraced by the public, and emulated around the world. The U.K. and France unveiled their monuments, in Westminster Abbey and the Arc de Triomphe respectively, on Armistice Day 1920. That night, British monarch George V (1865-1936) noted in his diary, "A fine bright day, not cold, no wind. Today I unveiled the Cenotaph in memory of the 'Glorious Dead' in Whitehall & was Chief Mourner at the burial of the 'Unknown Warrior' in Westminster Abbey...At 11.0 I unveiled the Cenotaph & then followed two minutes silence throughout the Empire. The whole ceremony was most moving and impressive...The Service was beautiful & conducted by the Dean...Got home at 12.0 everything was most beautifully arranged & carried out." The American Tomb of the Unknowns was unveiled in 1921 containing the remains of an unidentified soldier who died in the 1st World War. To this were added the remains of unidentified soldiers from World War II and the wars in Korea and Vietnam.

First Lieutenant Michael Joseph Blassie (1st image)
The story of the originator of the tombs of unknown soldiers is bracketed by the tale of Lt. Blassie (1948-1972) of the U.S. Air Force, destined to be one of the last unidentified soldiers to be so honored. Unidentified for many years after his death, he was designated as the unknown service member from the Vietnam War in 1984. After lying in state at the U.S. Capitol, his remains were transported by caisson to Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day. There Blassie's remains rested until 1998, when they were exhumed and identified through mitochondrial DNA testing. The body was returned to his family and reinterred in a military cemetery in his native St. Louis, Missouri. At the time, U.S. Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen speculated, "It may be that forensic science has reached the point where there will be no other unknowns in any war." The Department of Defense had founded the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL) in 1991, and the body of Lt. Blassie is one of at least 150 military personnel from Vietnam, Korea, and World War II who have been identified. DNA samples are now taken from everyone who joins the U.S. Armed Forces, so there may never be another American unknown soldier.

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