Book Review: The Unknowns by Patrick K. O’Donnell

April 14, 2018 | Special Report


I was recently sent an advanced reading copy of The Unknowns by the editor and was also asked to write up a review for the Society website. The Unknowns will be released on May 22, 2018. Advanced purchases can be made at Amazon.com.

Patrick K. O’Donnell. The Unknowns: The Untold Story of America’s Unknown Soldier and WWI’s Most Decorated Heroes Who Brought Him Home. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2018. 360pp. Cloth, $27.

Patrick O’Donnell, author of the critically acclaimed Washington’s Immortals, and several other military history titles, presents a specialized history of the Unknown Soldier from the First World War who rests in Arlington National Cemetery. He includes not only the history of the selection and burial of the Unknown, but also follows the men who would carry him to his final rest as they fought in the Great War.

O’Donnell does not set out to tell the history of the Great War. Instead he writes about how those men who would become the body bearers for the Unknown experienced the war. While he does give a larger picture of several battles at land and at sea, he places them within the context of his work. He describes the involvement of the United States and how the servicemen were integrated into the fighting in a war in Europe that had already wiped out generations of European men four years before the Americans arrived to fight.

O’Donnell also introduces several other American fighting men other than those that served as body bearers. These are the men who would lead the attacks on enemy trenches and ultimately lead breakthrough attacks that would result in Allied victory in November 1918. These men are integral to the story of body bearers for it was their dogged leadership that ended the war.

The story of the selection and interment of the World War I Unknown has been told in many other volumes, but O’Donnell goes a step further and gives details regarding the actual selection as well as the duties of the Quartermaster branch as they planned for the unknown candidates to be exhumed and their efforts to ensure complete anonymity.

While this book is not a history of the First World War, it is not it’s intended purpose. Instead it simply follows eight men through the horrors of war. It is their actions that ultimately resulted in them receiving the highest honor from their superiors: to bring home a fallen comrade that gave not only his life for his country, but also his identity. The true supreme sacrifice.

by Kevin V. Welker
SHGTUS Vice-President and Membership Committee Chair