Charles Whittlesey was not one to acknowledge the accolades of others. He was a humble man but remained loyal to those with whom he served. His service in the First World War was the thing of legend and perseverance against insurmountable odds that still inspires today.
Whittlesey was born January 20, 1884 in Florence, Wisconsin to Frank and Annie Whittlesey – the eldest of four boys. The family moved to Pittsfield, Massachusetts sometime near the turn of the century when Frank received a position with General Electric.
Whittlesey graduated from Pittsfield High School and entered Williams College where he was a member of the Delta Psi fraternity. After graduating from Williams, Whittlesey attended Harvard Law School where he graduated in 1908. He then went to New York City to practice law with a private firm and then in 1911 he entered practice with his friend and classmate, J. Bayard Pruyun.
A month after the United States had entered the First World War in 1917, Whittlesey took a leave of absence from his law firm to join the Army. He shipped to France as a captain in the Army’s 77th Division, known as the “Metropolitan Division” since it was made up of mostly men from New York City – most of which were from the Lower East side and mostly the sons of immigrants. By September of 1917 Whittlesey was commissioned a major.
On October 2, 1918, Whittlesey and his command of 554 soldiers were ordered to move against a heavily fortified German position when the 77th Division was ordered into the Meuse-Argonne region as part of a massive American attack. Because the units on their flanks failed to make headway, Whittlesey’s troops were cut off from their supply lines, pinned down by German fire. The ensuing days were perilous for Whittlesey and his men as they were without food or water. Every movement was observed by German snipers and efforts to retrieve water from a nearby stream were halted because so many men were killed in the effort. For four days Whittlesey and his men resisted not only the German sniper attacks, but also German soldiers armed with grenades, trench mortars, and flame throwers. It was at this time that Whittlesey and his men became known as the “Lost Battalion.”
Because of their position, Whittlesey’s lines of communication were soon cut. Any contact with units in the rear would have to be made by homing pigeons. When an artillery unit received inaccurate coordinates, Whittlesey and his men found themselves victims of “friendly fire.” A hurriedly scratched message by Whittlesey found its way to the battery commander that read in part, “Our artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake stop it.”
On October 6, an effort was made to resupply Whittlesey’s battalion. Because of incorrect coordinates very few supplies reached the trapped men. It was at this time that the Germans contacted Whittlesey requesting his surrender. A blindfolded American prisoner made his way into Whittlesey’s lines with the German message. Whittlesey and Captain George McMurtry, his second-in-command, refused to acknowledge the request and pulled in the white panels used to signal Allied aircraft for fear of being seen as flags of surrender.
When more air reconnaissance missions were conducted, the men were located and eventually rescued on October 7, 1918. Of the original 554 soldiers involved in the advance, 107 had been killed, 63 were missing, and 190 were wounded. Only 194 were able to walk out unhurt.
Soon after the rescue of the Lost Battalion, Major Whittlesey was promoted to lieutenant colonel. He was relieved from further duty on October 29th and returned to the United States a war hero. On December 5th he was honorably discharged and the next day received word that he was to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor (his subordinates Captain McMurtry and Captain Holderman also were awarded the Medal of Honor).
Following his discharge, Whittlesey returned to his law practice, but found himself in constant demand for speeches, parades, and honorary degrees. A modest and sensitive man, Whittlesey was uncomfortable with the attention he received and shared very little detail as possible about his time with his men in the Argonne. His public speaking was limited to praising the enlisted men with whom he served, the common soldier who received little to no recognition for their uncommon bravery. So dedicated was he to his men of the Lost Battalion that Whittlesey left his sick bed to attend the funeral of a private who served under him. His last work as the Chairman of the Red Cross Roll Call in New York City was all based on the suffering of the wounded. He attended nearly two to three funerals a week, visited the wounded in the hospitals, and comforted the families of the dead. In perhaps his final act of gratitude to the fallen of the Great War, on November 11, 1921, Whittlesey attended the internment of the Unknown Soldier from World War I, along with several fellow Medal of Honor recipients.
Later that month on November 24th, Whittlesey booked passage from New York to Havana aboard the USS Toloa, a steamship owned by the United Fruit Company. On November 26th, the first night out from New York, Whittlesey dined with the captain and then retired for the evening around 11:15pm; it was noted that he was in high spirits.
Whittlesey was never seen again.
He was reported missing the next morning. It is presumed that he committed suicide by jumping overboard, although no one had seen him jump and his body was never recovered. His friends and family had no idea of his travel plans and were shocked when they received the news of his disappearance and that letters had been prepared to those close to him. None of the letters hinted to the reasons for his suicide and the recipients never made the letters public. His will, which was drawn up prior to his voyage, left his property to his mother. To his friend George McMurtry, Whittlesey left the original copy of the German surrender request.
Several theories existed at the time as to what had pushed Whittlesey to such depths of depression: deaths of soldiers that remained a constant reminder of the war, feelings of guilt over not surrendering to the Germans and prolonging the suffering of his men, or his inability to adjust to the life of a hero. Whatever the exact reason may have been, it is clear that his death was indirectly related to the unhappiness which occurred after his experiences in the War.
by Kevin Welker
New York Times: Col. Whittelsey, of the ‘Lost Battalion’ Vanishes From Ship, November 29, 1921
New York Times: Sought Whittlesey half day in midsea; Search Will Make Fruit Liner Toloa Late Reaching Havana, November 30, 1921
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy will forever be a pivotal event in the lives of those that were old enough to comprehend the events of that tragic day. Like the attack on Pearl Harbor was for an earlier generation and the attacks of 9/11 to the current generation, everyone knew where they were when they received the news that President Kennedy had been killed. The Tomb Guards were certainly no exception.
Like every president since Warren Harding, the President of the United States lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day at least once during their administration. Veteran’s Day 1963 was no different. President Kennedy arrived at the cemetery along with his young three year-old son John, Jr. Of course Kennedy was surrounded by the normal entourage of high-ranking military officials as he made his way up the walkway and through a cordon of state and territorial flags enroute to the Tomb. Once he was positioned on the plaza, President Kennedy received the wreath from SFC Allen Eldredge as it was placed between the crypts of the World War II and Korean War Unknowns. After the playing of Taps, Kennedy made his way to the Memorial Amphitheater to deliver his Veteran’s Day address. Once the ceremonies were completed, the rest of day was business as usual for SSG Morris Moore and the rest of 3rd Relief, although it was very busy given that it was a day to honor all Veterans.
Even in an age before instant information news traveled quickly concerning the events in Dallas. November 22nd began at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as it had for years before as SGT Davenport and the members of 2nd Relief reported for duty early in the morning. The morning passed without incident when news arrived shortly after 1pm that Kennedy had been assassinated. The log book for that day records the events:
Richard Azzaro was walking the mat at the time the news reached the quarters. According to Azzaro, “I was driven to my knees when I heard that he had been killed. I was coming off the mat and I was confronted with the news as I came through the door to the guard quarters.” As a young man of 18 years of age, Azzaro was filled with grief. Shortly after the news had sunk in, Azzaro walked into the catacombs under the Memorial Amphitheater and sobbed. “He was my hero…and I did not want anyone to see me that way. We were walking short and I had to pull myself together.”
Word of Kennedy’s assassination struck at the heart and soul of many Americans. Kennedy epitomized the “passing of the torch” from the World War II generation to this younger, more vibrant generation of young Americans. Azzaro said that Kennedy’s inaugural message proposed a challenge to his generation to place their country before themselves, and “to virtually all of us, those words throbbed in our heads, and was our compass.”
Azzaro found himself back on the mat on Monday, November 25th, the day of Kennedy’s funeral, and he was walking the mat when the procession entered Arlington. He recalls that “there were no visitors on the plaza. I was alone as I carried out my duties as a Sentinel…I began to again feel the emotions rise up and I had to make a very real effort to maintain the steady execution of my walk and my manual of arms. ” He remembers hearing the flyovers as tributes were paid to the fallen commander in chief. He recalls especially that “the flyovers of the bombers and Air Force One were incredible. Everything shook and vibrated. It shook me down to my core and it took everything that I had within me and every bit of training to keep from falling apart. I was approaching the South end of the mat when they finished their fly-by. After finishing my facing movements, 21 second count, and manual of arms, from right to left, and just as my right hand positioned on my right leg, Air Force One came in, right over the burial site. It was so low, that I saw its entire run through the trees on the North end of the plaza and stairs.”
After his walk was finished, Azzaro exited the plaza after the guard change and made his way down to the quarters. “I proceeded off the plaza and down into the guard quarters where everyone on duty was watching the burial service on our TV. I arrived downstairs just as the Guns began their salute and I thought how odd and unique it was to see the Guns on TV, hear them through the door of the guard quarters, and also feel the ground underneath shake.”
For many of us of this generation, the events of that day are found in grainy, black and white photographs or even in wobbly movie clips. When we see these, we do not feel the emotion of those that lived through it. To Richard Azzaro, it was all too real. “It has been 50 years since that day and as I look back, with a more perfect understanding of that moment and what the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier means to the American people.”
by Kevin Welker
Special thanks to Richard Azzaro for sharing his memories
On this Veterans Day , the Society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier salutes the men and women who selflessly served in the United States of America (U.S.) Armed Forces  to protect freedom.
Each year on Veterans Day, the President participates in a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as part of the Veteran’s Day National Ceremony. This national ceremony is held in Arlington National Cemetery to show gratitude to and honor those who served in the U.S. Armed Forces.
Written by Dann G. Druen
Today is the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. As our nation commemorates this day, the Society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier remembers the innocent individuals who lost their lives, and honors the sacrifices made by the men and women of the Armed Forces protecting our freedom. Tomb Guards never forget.
May the lives remembered, the deeds recognized, and the spirit reawakened be eternal beacons, which reaffirm respect for life, strengthen our resolve to preserve freedom, and inspire an end to hatred, ignorance and intolerance.
Please take time today to remember by visiting the following tributes:
And make a pledge to do a good deed today, and every 9/11 forward, at I Will.
Excerpt from the mission statement of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York city. ↩
Almost a year ago, we told you about The Unknowns, a documentary film project by Ethan Morse. Since then the principle filming has been completed. The director, Neal Schrodetzki and Ethan have met with several major cable networks regarding distribution, but so far they have not found a perfect fit. Now they are moving forward to edit, record voiceovers and score the feature length 90-minute documentary.
the stress of working full-time and pushing things forward has been a struggle, but our dedication to this sacred duty is total and whole-hearted. In the responsibility bestowed on us never will we falter! That is how the Sentinels Creed starts.
This preview is a great example of the work they have done so far:
The Society eagerly awaits the final product and will continue to support our brother Ethan in this endeavor.
On behalf of the Society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (SHGTUS), I am proud to announce the recipients of the 2013 SHGTUS education scholarships. The scholarships are a core component of our programs, and represent the essence of who we are as an organization.
We want to thank the many deserving applicants, and we regret that we could only select one per scholarship. The three recipients were selected by the SHGTUS Education Committee using an internal scoring process. This year’s recipients are:
Charlotte Tatum – Neale Cosby Scholarship
Charlotte resides in Elizabethtown, North Carolina, and is a graduate of the University of North Carolina, earning a Bachelor of Arts in Communications. She is currently enrolled at East Carolina University in the Master’s of Communication Sciences and Disorders program. Here in an excerpt from her essay:
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier means unconditional selflessness because these soldiers, as well as countless others, were willing to sacrifice their lives and remain in obscurity so that we can live free. I know that America is the greatest nation in the world, because of the life I have been able to lead. I have been able to attend school, vote, practice my religion without persecution, and love who I want. In other nations, I might not be able to enjoy the same freedoms because of my sex and age. I completely understand that the freedom I enjoy is due to the selflessness of those serving in our armed forces.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier symbolizes hope. The Tomb has served as a grave stone for the families of unidentified fallen soldiers, since they had no grave to visit to remember their loved one. The Tomb gives these families hope, because they are able to see that there are others who care about their warrior’s sacrifice, and that makes their sacrifice worthwhile. I also believe that the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has come to serve as a beacon of hope for this nation. In the past fifteen years alone, this country has faced major tragedies. I think that the people of our country find hope in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier because it reminds them that throughout our history, there have been, and there still are, brave men and women willing to fight for our freedom. It reminds us that even though we might not all be from the same geographical area, or speak the same dialect, or practice the same religion, we are all Americans, and there are Americans who are willing to lay their lives down for their fellow countryman.
Benjamin Bell – Adam Dickmyer Memorial Scholarship
He resides in Tampa, Florida, and is a graduate of the University of South Florida, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing. He is currently enrolled at the University of North Florida in the Nursing Anesthetist program. On receiving the award, he said:
This scholarship is a living tribute to Adam Dickmyer. While I did not know Adam personally, our shared experience as Tomb Guards gives us a bond of brotherhood. I am currently pursuing a graduate degree in nursing anesthesia and will strive to be a visible role model and honor his memory as the recipient of the 2013 scholarship that carries his name. On behalf of myself and my family thank you for the opportunity to honor his sacrifice.
Kathleen Compton – SHGTUS Freedom Scholarship
The recipient of the SHGTUS Freedom Scholarship is Kathleen Compton. She was sponsored by her husband, and former Tomb Guard and current SHGTUS Member Brian Compton.
She resides in Tacoma, Washington, and is a manager in the Global Supply Chain department of REI. She is enrolled at the University of Washington at Tacoma in the Business Management and Leadership certificate program. Here is an excerpt from her essay:
When I first met my husband Brian Compton, he was a sentinel and badge holder at the Tomb. At first I didn’t know what that meant, having only experienced the Tomb as a visitor. But through our friendship, I got a unique look behind the scenes, which helped me understand the dedication to keeping the memories of the Unknowns alive and to keeping traditions in place. I saw and learned about the work to get uniforms perfect and up to standards, the “new man”/ badge holder relationship, the interactions with the public, and the strict adherence to the military pageantry and processes. I not only learned about the Tomb, but I learned more about Arlington Cemetery as a whole… Although the US military is a huge operation, this relatively small group of people has a shared set of memories and experiences that are very unique and special, and I was very honored to get a glimpse of that from the inside.
Written by Dann G. Druen
Late in the evening of June 5, 1944, small groups of young Americans from the All American and Screaming Eagle airborne divisions began boarding C47 aircraft for a short flight from airbases in England to lead the invasion over Adolf Hitler’s Atlantic Wall in France.
Captain Frank Lewis Lillyman, commander of the Pathfinder Detachment of the 101st Airborne Division, had been training young paratroopers the art of jumping behind enemy lines to set up lights, smoke, radar, and luminous panels with the intent of guiding in planes and gliders to their appropriate drop/landing zones. These tactics and techniques were refined after the parachute insertions during Operation Husky in Sicily.
I had the unique opportunity to talk to Mrs. Jane Lillyman in 1994 prior to the 50th Anniversary of D-Day. As the unofficial historian for the 101st Pathfinder Company, I wanted to try and get to know the American who lead the invasion over Hitler’s Atlantic Wall and begin to break his hold on Europe. Mrs. Lillyman regaled me with tales of her husband filling his canteens with something other than water prior to the jump, capturing a German soldier in his bed clothes, and liberating a bottle of champagne on that historic morning. Captain Lillyman, who would be wounded fighting in the hedgerows and who was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, always jumped with a cigar in his mouth.
On June 4, 1994 I was able to fulfill the dream of jumping into Normandy after a rough landing on Amfreville drop zone in France, and taking part in the anniversary of Operation Overlord. I was able to meet some of those young Americans paratroopers, now not so young in years but still young in spirit, and was honored to stand with them and listen to their harrowing tales. Most people remember D-Day as the vivid images the allies fighting their way off the beach, actually called Operation Neptune, but few remember that at 00:15AM scores of young men fell from the sky to help liberate people they didn’t know effectively jumping over the wall that Hitler built.
They were the greatest generation of Americans and men that I wish to emulate.
COL Frank L. Lillyman, who died in 1971, is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Section 53 with his wife Jane.
Photo Attribution: Trigger Time Forum
To answer this question we need to look back to the year 1868. In that year, the Civil War Veterans were in the news headlines and in the American psyche, as a grieving Nation was trying to care for the war dead, and Arlington National Cemetery (ANC) was expanding to accommodate their burial.
To help the grieving Nation and to honor those Veterans, General John Alexander Logan issued General Order #11, calling for the creation of Decoration Day – a time for the nation to honor its deceased veterans. In summary:
“The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country… We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance… Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic… Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains, and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of springtime; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledge to aid and to assist those whom have left among us a sacred charge upon the Nation’s gratitude – the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.”
Over the ensuing years, the popularity of Decoration Day grew and in 1888 was declared a national holiday and renamed Memorial Day.
Each year for Memorial Day, Old Guard soldiers honor the fallen Veterans laid to rest in ANC and the U.S. Soldier’s and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery by placing American flags at every grave in a ceremony known as “Flags In”. As part of Flags In, the Relief Commander at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (Tomb) selects a Tomb Guard to do the same for the Unknowns .
Tomb Guards take an oath to never forget, and on this Memorial Day we remember the ultimate sacrifice made by:
- the Unknowns laid to rest at the Tomb
- all unknown war dead
- our Tomb Guard brothers who were Killed in Action:
and all Veterans and their families who have made sacrifices for the freedoms we enjoy.
I’ll leave you with a poem by Moina Michael, "We cherish too, the Poppy red That grows on fields where valor led, it seems to signal to the skies that blood of heroes never dies.”
This ceremony is especially emotional for Tomb Guards, because they consider themselves the family of the Unknowns. ↩
Today marks the 15th anniversary of the disinterment of the Vietnam Unknown. It seems hard to believe that the middle crypt has been empty for that long. It now serves as a memorial to those that are still missing from the Vietnam Conflict, but in spirit, it will never be empty.
To me, there will always be four Unknowns. I can recall my mixed feelings when it was determined that the remains would be removed from the crypt for testing. My initial reaction was one of anger; there wasn’t any reason to disturb this hallowed ground, let alone take away one of our charges. It was only after a very solemn ceremony that I realized it wasn’t about my personal feelings, but about a family that now had closure. I had always remembered the saying “never judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.” I never fully contemplated the family’s sense of loss – not knowing, and always wondering".
When I think back to this time, I can recall the events before the ceremony. I remember me and Bill Hanna placing the camouflage net over the top of the white privacy fence that was built around the crypts. I also remember walking on the lower landing before and after the work was completed. Walking down the steps to the mat below and then back up after my walks, hoping that I wouldn’t scrape my toe block on the steps! I can also recall watching the work to take the casket out during the night. How meticulous the work was to ensure that nothing was damaged and that the crypt remained intact, and then seeing the end result in the morning: a lone, flag-draped casket setting on the now empty crypt as if there had been no work done at all.
On May 14th the ceremony was held that removed the casket from the Arlington National Cemetery. Secretary of Defense William Cohen spoke of the reluctance to disturb the hallowed ground, but also reminded the audience of the closure that the family would feel. I can remember standing on the South end of the plaza, just outside the chains with my fellow Sentinels; my heart in my throat the entire time. It was like saying goodbye to an old friend. It was at this time that my hardened views softened. I felt so selfish to think that this man who was killed in combat belonged to me. I now understood the loss that was felt by the family. I still get emotional when I talk to others about the events of that day.
For as long as I live, I will never forget May 14, 1998.
by Kevin Welker
It’s that time of year again. On behalf of the Society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (SHGTUS), I’m proud to announce our annual education scholarships.
The SHGTUS awards scholarships to benefit Tomb Guards and their families, and individuals sponsored by a Tomb Guard. The scholarships are part of our awareness and assistance programs, and speak to essence of who we are as an organization.
The scholarships available are the:
Neale Cosby Scholarship
The Neale Cosby Scholarship was founded in 2002 in honor of former Tomb Guard and SHGTUS Founder Neale Cosby.
The Scholarship is open to current and former Tomb Guards and their family members.
Adam Dickmyer Memorial Scholarship
The Adam Dickmyer Memorial Scholarship was founded in 2010 in honor of former Tomb Guard and Lifetime Member Adam Dickmyer, who was killed in action in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom.
The scholarship is open to current and former Tomb Guards only.
SHGTUS Freedom Scholarship
The SHGTUS Freedom Scholarship was founded in 2012 in honor of all unknown war heroes.
The scholarship is open to anyone who has an affinity for the SHGTUS mission.
Note: the normal deadline for submissions is May 15, but due to the addition of the SHGTUS Freedom Scholarship and the launch of the new website, we are extending the 2013 deadline to May 31. ↩