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Retro Baltimore: An Unknown Soldier arrives in Washington

Veterans Day‘s roots stretch back to Nov. 11, 1918, when an armistice was declared marking the end of World War I. The day was marked later with military memorial ceremonies and, after World War II, its name was changed to Veterans Day in 1954 to honor all veterans, whether living or deceased.

Although the war was three years past in 1921, Baltimore and other cities were in mourning for the military personnel whose bodies were just then arriving from France.

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President Warren G. Harding delivering his address at the burial services for the Unknown Soldier. Date Created: 1921-11-22
President Warren G. Harding delivering his address at the burial services for the Unknown Soldier. Date Created: 1921-11-22 (Wide World Photos / Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

It had taken that long for the war’s dead to be identified and readied for shipment back to the U.S. The first group of local casualties arrived by rail at Camden Station on May 28, 1921.

The Baltimore Sun reported that 26 flag-draped metal coffins arrived at the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad’s downtown terminal after noon that day.

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“A large crowd gathered around the caskets and paid silent devotion in a sea of noisy traffic,” the news report said.

Approximately 62,000 Marylanders participated in World War I and nearly 2,000 military members from the state died.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

The train carried the bodies of Isador and Julius Harris, two brothers who died overseas. Their mother, Esther Harris, who lived on Eden Street in East Baltimore, received the pair of coffins. The Sun reported that she was the only Marylander who lost two sons in the conflict.

Julius Harris, 21, died of bronchial pneumonia Oct. 22, 1918. His brother, Isador, 28, died Oct. 5, 1918, when a hand grenade accidentally exploded.

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The bodies arrived over the summer and fall of 1921. That of Henry Nicholas John Gunther, an Eastern Avenue resident who history records as the last soldier of any of the belligerents to die in World War I, arrived in September. He was buried at Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery on Belair Road in Northeast Baltimore. Gunther was killed on Nov. 11, 1918 at Chaumont-devant-Damvillers, France. He was 23.

In 1921, Congress decided there should be a national memorial honoring a U.S. soldier who perished but had no identification. A body from a group of unmarked and unclassified bodies was selected by a designated serviceman, Edward F. Younger, who was later a Chicago postal worker.

At Le Havre, France, the remains of the Unknown Soldier were conveyed aboard the cruiser USS Olympia, which immediately sailed for the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. The ship arrived Nov. 9 and several days later the coffin was taken to the U.S. Capitol, where it lay in state and about 90,000 persons walked by the solemn catafalque.

On Nov. 11, 1921, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was dedicated at a memorial amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery.

Maryland’s Gov. Albert C. Ritchie and Baltimore Mayor William Broening led a delegation of the Maryland Veterans of Foreign Wars and Gold Star Mothers that placed a floral wreath beside the casket as a bugler sounded taps.

“The Governor then spoke on behalf of Maryland, telling how Maryland had ‘played her full part in the titanic struggle, sending forth her best,’ and asking that ‘we may gain the determination to emulate that loyalty, patriotism, devotion and self-sacrifice exemplified in this Unknown Soldier,’ an account in The Evening Sun said.

The area now memorializes other conflicts. In 1958, Unknowns from World War II and the Korean War were added to crypts in front of the tomb.

“An Unknown service member from the Vietnam War was buried in a third crypt in 1984; fourteen years later, however, he was disinterred and identified (through DNA analysis) as U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie. Blassie’s family chose to rebury him at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in Missouri,” said a history from Arlington National Cemetery.

His empty crypt now honors all missing and unknown Americans who served in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War and other conflicts.

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