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French City Honors America’s Unknown Soldier After He Was Selected There 100 Years Ago

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On October 24, the city of Châlons-En-Champagne, France, honored the centennial anniversary of the United States Unknown Soldier selection, which took place at Châlons-En-Champagne’s City Hall on October 24, 1921.

Current and former guards of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, veterans, Gold Star mothers, military spouses, and spectators attended the event to pay respects at the historic site, according to Stripes.

Mayor of Châlons-En-Champagne, Benoist Apparu, shared his sentiments with Stripes regarding the centennial anniversary. “It’s a part of our history,” Apparu said. “We need to celebrate this for the younger generation, so that they do not forget what happened here.”

On November 11, 1920, both France and Great Britain dedicated tombs to their unknown who gave the ultimate sacrifice during World War I, according to Stripes.

In December of 1920, New York congressman and World War I Veteran Hamilton Fish Jr. introduced legislation for one unidentified American, who fought in World War I, to be buried at a special tomb in Arlington National Cemetery, according to the cemetery’s website. Fish Jr’s legislation aimed “to bring home the body of an unknown American warrior who in himself represents no section, creed, or race in the late war and who typifies, moreover, the soul of America and the supreme sacrifice of her heroic dead.”

The following year on October 23, 1921, four exhumed bodies from different American military ceremonies in France arrived at City Hall in Châlons-En-Champagne, formerly known Châlons-sur-Marne, per Arlington Cemetery’s record. The following morning on October 24, one of the caskets was to be selected to be brought to Arlington National Cemetery to forever be a symbol of sacrifice. 

Maj. Robert P. Harbold was the officer in charge and controlled all ceremonies, according to the U.S. Army. 

Sgt. Edward F. Younger of the Army of Occupation on the Rhine chose one of four flag-draped caskets on Oct. 24, 1921 to become the Unknown Soldier honored to this day in a French city.https://t.co/f6fvPdZSOY

— Stars and Stripes (@starsandstripes) October 24, 2021

A commissioned officer was to select one of the four caskets, but upon learning that the French had designated an enlisted man to choose their unknown soldier, Maj. Gen. Harry L. Rogers decided the United States should do the same, according to the United States Army. The choice was then delegated to Maj. Harbold. 

“Major Harbold then chose Sgt. Edward F. Younger of Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 50th Infantry, American Forces in Germany, to select the Unknown Soldier. Sgt. Younger selected the Unknown by placing a spray of white roses on one of the caskets,” according to Arlington National Cemetery’s records.

“From Châlons-sur-Marne, the Unknown journeyed by caisson and rail to the port town of Le Havre, France,” according to Arlington National Cemetary’s records. “From Le Havre, the USS Olympia transported the Unknown Soldier’s casket to Washington, D.C. The Unknown arrived at the Washington Navy Yard on November 9, 1921. After arriving in Washington, D.C. on November 9, 1921, the Unknown lay in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. About 90,000 visitors paid their respects during the public visiting period on November 10, 1921.”

According to Stripes, Sgt. Younger downplayed the significance of the moment he chose one of the four soldiers, but in a 1936 syndicated newspaper column, he expressed the gravity of what he was feeling at that moment. 

“Perhaps one of them had fought with me, had befriended me, had possibly shielded me from a bullet that might have put me in his place,” he wrote, according to Stripes. “Who would even know?”

Exactly 100 years after the selection, the town of Châlons-En-Champagne paid their tributes to the solemn ceremony that took place on October 24, 1921.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery symbolizes “every mother whose son has not come back and is unknown,” Second Vice President of American Gold Star Mothers Pam Stemple told Stripes. 

Stemple knows the feeling all too well, as her son, Army Ranger Sgt. 1st Class Tomas Avey, died in 2015 in Afghanistan, according to Stripes. “We want to honor that, and that’s why it’s so important for us to go and see this,” Stemple said. 

Stripes reports that 40 others traveled to the historic French site where Younger selected the tomb. Though some moments were rather emotional and solemn, including a rendition of Taps, those who participated in the trip to Châlons-en-Champagne call the experience a celebration. 

Gavin McIlvenna served as a former relief commander at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington and expressed his feelings of being at the selection site. 

“That’s the room Sgt. Younger made his selection,” said McIlvenna “I don’t know how many times I can say this is overwhelming. But it is.”

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