An Unknown Man 

Dante A. Cinelli

© Copyright 2000 by Dante A. Cinelli

He was chosen by a simple man aboard a pitching American light cruiser on a blustery day off the coast of Virginia in 1958. He became one of the most famous men in America. He traveled far, very far, from foreign shores and hills, perhaps from the jungles of the South Pacific; the snowy hills of Korea; the hedgerows of far off France; the now silent beaches at Normandy or a hundred other places where American heroes laid down their lives.

No one really knows.

His fame is infinitely paradoxical because he has no name, no home, no religion and no family. He belongs to no one and yet he belongs to all. He is the Unknown Soldier.

A casket covered tightly and securely by an American flag, left from three different cemeteries, from three different theaters of war: the Pacific, Europe, and Korea. Each flag draped casket lay alone, secured in the hold of each of three ships under orders to rendezvous with the USS Boston which was to deliver the caskets at a prescribed time and place off the coast of Virginia.

The day of May 24, 1958 was gray and blustery. The caskets were delivered by the Boston to the USS Canberra by means of a high rigging rope between the moving, but silent warships. The crews watched the transferal in utter silence as the red, white and blue caskets swung above the choppy waves which soughed against the gliding gray metal hulls. The officers and crew saluted as each coffin was received on board. The ships' flags were lowered to half mast.

Over four hundred thousand American windows had borne the sad but proud gold star of a penultimate sacrifice of a son to his country years before.

Of those, eighty thousand heroes were laid low in glory without a name; some without a salute of respect, without a nod of eternal gratitude. This ceremony was to pay small homage to their supreme gift to their country.

The next day when the ceremony to choose one of the three candidates was in full effect and array, the wind was forceful as the ships lay at anchor in mid-sea.

The officers of the ship were crowded on the afterdeck of the Canberra as a Marine and Navy Honor Guard struggled to hold the streaming colors and service flags in the buffeting wind. There was an snapping and occasional crack of a horizontal banner straining with the wind.

To some unknown magnanimous official's credit, the candidate to be chosen as the nation's newest unknown soldier, would be done by a simple service man who was a veteran of WW 2. He was neither a politician, high ranking admiral, nor a great general. It was to be a citizen-soldier choosing another fallen citizen-soldier to live in posterity and in American hearts; it was to be done without speeches, without bravado, and without fanfare. No words were necessary as trillions of them were already written and spoken since the war.

Simplicity was the keystone to this event, somewhat like Lincoln's five minute Gettysburg Address. To some present that gray day at sea, Lincoln's great words, not as a speech, but as a prayer, could be imagined in the streaming wind.

At that moment in time, no one knew which casket was from which theater of war. The crews on the other ships watched the ceremony in quiet reverence. The broiling gray sea might just as well have been empty of the ships present, for there was no unnatural, unusual sound except the slapping of waves against the steel hulls and the prodigious streaming bursts of wind. That chosen place was a fitting venue where American ships were torpedoed and sunk.

Hospitalman first class William R. Charette, a navy corpsman dressed in whites faced the three flag-draped caskets. He picked up the wreath of flowers, a red star of roses in a round field of white ones.

He stood immobile for long moments.

Unknown to him at that time, the casket on his left was from the Atlantic Theater of War. It might have contained the remains of Tono Tonai, a Japanese American Nisei from Hawaii fallen to a German sniper at Monte Casino; or Captain Alfanza Davis, an African-American Tuskeegee pilot lost after a special photo reconnaissance over Munich, Germany. He was proud that his squadron had the unique record of never having lost an escorted bomber to German fighters in its mission to targets and to serve his country which yet had to fulfill its destiny in justice and equality to all citizens. It also might have contained the remains of Sergeant Bill Frazier last seen firing an M1 rifle in a German counterattack and never seen again when American troops returned.

Perhaps he was a fallen hero near the twisted hanger deck of the aircraft carrier, Franklin after a kamikazi attack; the frozen basin of the Chosin Reservoir; the black volcanic beach sand at Iwo Jima or a blown out hanger at Pearl Harbor. Only God knows.

The moments slowly rolled by as a thousand eyes were fixed on Hospitalman Charette. He had no idea on which casket he would lay the wreath. Finally, after a long pause, he took a step to the left toward the casket on the port side of the ship. For some unknown reason, with the second step, he changed direction and walked up to the casket on his right, laid the wreath down with extreme care, took a step back and saluted his unknown comrade in arms.

Later in an interview, his thoughts were that on that day, he was part of the history- making process to tell his grandchildren about. He didn't realize that his service to his country was a far greater contribution to be revered by his family.

On Memorial Day of 1958, the chosen casket, along with the Korean Candidate Unknown, was escorted on a six-horse drawn caisson with a full military Honor Guard representing all branches of the service, marching with only drumbeats towards Arlington National Cemetery. They slowly placed the caskets near their final resting places, where there would be a twenty-four hour guard on duty, seven days a week, fifty two weeks a year. President Dwight D. Eisenhower laid another wreath on the corpsman's choice and stepped back and bowed his head in deep reverence.

At that very moment, two score of jet fighters, in missing man formation, roared over the site as the flag was ceremoniously folded and handed to the somber President.

Corpsman Charette was asked why he had changed his mind after the initial step towards the left. He said he has no idea why he did that, only a feeling which he was forced to follow.

To the special eighty thousand American families who had gold stars in their windows, it made not an iota of difference.

Their missing son had come home.

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