A century ago on Nov. 11, an unknown soldier was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery and a reporter who witnessed the ceremony that day later won a Pulitzer Prize for the news story he filed about the ceremony.
Thursday is Veterans Day, a day to honor all men and women who served their country in the armed forces. It’s also the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which is the final resting place for an unidentified American soldier who died in fighting in Europe during World War I.
Veterans Day originally was called Armistice Day. During President Eisenhower’s term, the name was changed to Veterans Day. Unlike many other national holidays that are observed with a three-day weekend, Veterans Day always is celebrated on Nov. 11. As a school kid I learned that the fighting in World War I officially was declared ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. I don’t know if we still teach such things in schools. I hope so. Even though World War I was called the War to End All War and didn’t, Veterans Day is a brief moment to remember those who have served.
The reporter to whom I referred earlier was Kirke L. Simpson of The Associated Press. When I joined the AP in 1969, one of the booklets I received included a list of important events in the wire service’s long history. Simpson got an entry in the history summary as the first AP writer to have a byline, meaning his name went above the story he filed.
Intrigued by that piece of history in 1969, I asked around until a reporter from another AP bureau found a copy of Simpson’s story and mailed it to me. These days, a couple of key strokes in an online search would produce the information. Back then, it took some digging. It was worth the effort. Simpson’s story began:
“Under the wide and starry skies of his own homeland America’s unknown dead from France sleeps tonight, a soldier home from the wars.
“Alone, he lies in the narrow cell of stone that guards his body; but his soul has entered into the spirit that is America. Wherever liberty is held close in men's hearts, the honor and the glory and the pledge of high endeavor poured out over this nameless one of fame will be told and sung by Americans for all time.
“Scrolled across the marble arch of the memorial raised to American soldier and sailor dead, everywhere, which stands like a monument behind his tomb, runs this legend: ‘We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.’’’
I learned later that Simpson was among a group that, four days before the ceremony in 1921, met the ship that brought the unknown soldier’s remains across the ocean. I suppose, then, that he had time to compose the best possible story. Any reporter will tell you that some news stories can be written relatively quickly. Others, an important few, require additional time, reflection and revision. A very few, like Simpson’s account of the unknown soldier, stand the test of a century of time.
As I considered what I might write this Veterans Day, I looked online through the Arlington National Cemetery site. People who have visited Arlington surely know this, but I didn’t. On the grounds is a mass burial site for 2,111 unidentified soldiers who died during Civil War fighting at Bull Run and along the route to the Rappahannock River. The Arlington site says “the remains were found scattered across the battlefields or in trenches within an approximately 25-mile radius of Washington, D.C.’’ Nearly 1,800 of the remains came from Bull Run alone, it says. Imagine the carnage.
Another site said that “while exact numbers are unknown, estimates indicate nearly half of the Civil War dead were never identified.’’ That, if true, is almost too much to take in.
Reflecting on Veterans Day and the unknown soldier, I remembered this quote, for which I’ve never found a source: “We don’t know them all, but we owe them all.’’