Standing the Watch Alone - Part 2

3 months ago

Epinal – Part 2

Planning for the selection of the Trans-Atlantic Unknown candidate was started by US Army Communications Zone Europe (COMZEUR) in late 1957, prior to involvement of Quartermaster Mortuary System. On Saturday, December 21, 1957 the first candidate was disinterred from the North African cemetery in Tunisia and flown to Frankfurt Germany.

In February 1958 Army Lieutenant Colonel Poole Rogers, commander of the Army Quartermaster Mortuary Service, officially took over the planning for the selection. The plan called for the selection of 13 remains from 11 American military cemeteries. The records of an additional 13 unknown graves would be selected but the candidates not disinterred. These records of the unknown graves would serve as backup in the event a disinterred candidate was able to be identified. The last of the 13 Trans-Atlantic candidates was removed from the Ardennes Cemetery in Belgium on April 9, 1958 and transported by vehicle to the Frankfurt Army Mortuary.

The candidates came from the following cemeteries:

Ardennes American Cemetery (3)

Brittany American Cemetery (1)

Florence American Cemetery (1)

Lorraine American Cemetery (1)

Luxembourg American Cemetery (1)

Netherlands American Cemetery (1)

Normandy American Cemetery (1)

North Africa American Cemetery (1)

Rhone American Cemetery (1)

Sicily-Rome American Cemetery (1)

Suresnes American Cemetery (1)

On Friday April 25, 1958 after removal of the 13 candidates from their shipping caskets each of the remains was carefully placed on a stretcher and identically wrapped in an American flag. The thirteen flag draped stretchers were then moved from the preparation room to the Quartermaster Frankfurt Mortuary Chapel and placed on a long table. Three teams of Army mortuary personnel were selected to enter the Chapel one after the other to rearrange the stretchers on the table so that no candidate could be identified with a cemetery from where they were removed. Each team left the room by a separate door so not to contact the incoming team. The last team then moved each stretcher to the casketing room for enclosure in a casket that was sealed by mortuary staff as the last team watched.

At 2 p.m. Lieutenant Colonel Rogers and Captain Myron Fuller, the Administrative Officer for the mortuary, burned all the records for the 13 candidates. Available records from the Quartermaster Mortuary Service indicate that an unknown candidate from the Ardennes Cemetery was rejected and a replacement from the 13 standby unknown candidates was disinterred. Current available documents do not explain how or when the reinternment of the rejected unknown candidate was accomplished.[1]

Transportation of the Unknown candidates from Frankfurt, Germany to Epinal, France was accomplished through a convoy of seven olive drab Opel 1 ¾ ton trucks and one Opel hearse from the 35th Army Transportation Company (Light Truck). The 709th Military Police Battalion in Frankfurt escorted the convoy in three sedans.

At 7 a.m. on Saturday May 10, 1958 the convoy left Frankfurt. Captain Fuller preceded the convoy by military sedan to the French border to facilitate entry into France at Strasbourg. The convoy passed through the border check point without stopping to maintain the prescribed 35 MPH speed for the “route of march”. The US Army Europe military police escort dropped off at the border and the U.S. Army Communication Zone Europe (COMZEUR) military police picked up the escort duty to the destination at Epinal France. The convoy arrived at Epinal at 4 p.m. the same day.

The Epinal American Cemetery and Memorial in France rests on a 48-acre plateau above the Mosel River in the foothills of the Vosges Mountains. Epinal holds the remains of 5, 255 American war dead from World War II.[2] At the center of the cemetery is a chapel and museum that is surrounded by the Court of Honor that displays the names of 424 Americans missing in action with the inscription:

“Here are recorded the names of American who gave their lives in the service of their country and who sleep in unknown graves. This is their memorial-the whole earth their sepulcher.”

The selection ceremony began on Monday, May 12th at 11 a.m. with the 33rd Army Band playing hymns prior to an invocation by Air Force Chaplin Lieutenant Colonel Edward Ellenbogen. When the musicians completed “Faith of Our Father” U.S. Army Chaplin Colonel Harold H. Shuls introduced Major General Edward J. O'Neill who was chosen to pick the casket representing the Trans-Atlantic Unknown candidate. The Army chaplain spoke to the assembled guests and military personnel about the purpose of the ceremony; gave an invocation and introduced Major General O’Neill.

Major General O’Neill served with the Fifth Army’s VI Corps as the G-4 (chief of supplies) during the North Africa campaign and at Anzio during Operation Shingle in 1944. Using a red and white carnation floral arrangement in the form of a white star on a crimson field with an evergreen background, he placed the wreath in front of the fifth casket from the left.

The ceremony concluded eight minutes after eleven with “Taps” followed by the National anthem. Army Colonel MacManas was placed in command of the escort to the Toul-Rosiere Airbase and was accompanied by French National Police. The twelve World War II unknown candidates not chosen were returned and reburied at the eleven cemeteries.[3]

From Epinal the Trans-Atlantic Unknown candidate was escorted by the Army in a hearse seventy miles to the Toul-Rosiere Airbase in France. In the early afternoon the hearse and escorts arrived at the base in a driving rain. With ceremonial salutes, Colonel Thomas D. Robertson of the U.S. Air Force 50th Fighter Bomber Wing took custody of the remains[4] from the Army. A four engine C-130 of the 322 Air Division piloted by Major Robert J. Marks and First Lieutenant Thomas E. Williams stationed at Évreux Air Base just north of Paris received the remains onboard and within an hour of the arrival became airborne at 2:10 p.m. local time on a course for the Naval Air Station at Capodichino outside Naples, Italy. When the plane touched down three hours later in Italy it was late in the day and the pilots were directed to taxi the plane to a parking area near the control tower. United States Marines marched onto the parking pad and stood watch inside the plane all night with the plane’s access ramp closed and locked.

At 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday, May 13th the engines of the C-130 were fired up and the big plane taxied to the Air Facility's loading ramp, where pallbearers and a joint service honor guard representing all the services proceeded to the rear of the aircraft. There, the Commander of the Fleet Air, Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean, accepted custody of the Trans-Atlantic Unknown candidate from the Air Force.[5] A Navy ambulance carrying the casket along with a column of six military vehicles was escorted by Italian motorcycle police, to the Naples Harbor, where the newly commissioned destroyer, the USS Blandy (DD 943), waited to receive the remains at berth 70. The USS Blandya, a Sherman Forest class destroyer was commissioned in November 1957 and on her first cruise when the ship received communications to proceed to Italy to take aboard the Trans-Atlantic Unknown candidate. Nothing would be left for chance during this special assignment. Lieutenant Junior Grade Ted Buckenmaier was ordered to leave the ship at Casablanca and fly to Naples, Italy to coordinate berthing assignments, scheduling and logistics for the reception and placement of the coffin onboard the Blandy.[6]

Ceremonial areas had been set aside on the pier and amidships of the Blandy. When the ambulance approached the pier, the ship's crew manned the rails in their dress white uniforms. Near the gangway the Operations Officer of the Blandy accepted custody of the Trans-Atlantic Unknown candidate on behalf of the ship's Captain, Commander William F. Cafferata.

Pallbearers from each branch of service then passed the casket to eight of the destroyer's crewmen, who carried the remains aboard the ship and placed it on the “01 deck” (first deck above the main deck) along with the wreath used in selection at Epinal. Four armed crewmen immediately took positions around the casket. At 11:33 a.m. the Blandy cast off mooring lines and departed from Naples to rendezvous with the missile cruisers USS Boston and USS Canberra off the Virginia Capes. Commander Cafferata ordered a continuous guard of honor to be maintained with a one-hour duty rotation while the ship was underway.

Petty Officer Third Class Thomas De Michele was an 18-year-old fireman working in the ship’s repair section and a “plank owner” onboard the Blandy. He remembered his duty during the ship’s mission:

“When we as a crew found out we would be carrying the body of the Unknown Soldier, the ship’s crew took on a response that was unbelievable. The sensitivity, pride, the “what will my role be” shared by all was just beautiful. Our role, not all, but many crew members, was to take turns standing guard, one hour at a time over the casket of the Unknown Soldier. “

Another shipmate, Petty Officer Third Class Frank Ostland was also 18 and another “plank owner’, who remembered standing watch guarding the Trans-Atlantic Unknown candidate and thinking as he stood with his rifle at parade rest, alone beside the casket, it was “one of the proudest moments of my life”.

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[1] Quartermaster Mortuary Service Historical Report Unknown Soldier Candidate Selection Program pg 5 Disinterment Schedule

[2] Quartermaster Foundation – Tomb of the Unknown Part II

[3]Headquarters United States Army Quartermaster Mortuary System, Europe Historical Report World War II Candidate Selection Program

[4] TOMB OF THE UNKNOWN SOLDIERS The Quartermaster Review January-February 1964

[5] Ibid

[6] The Sentinel Issue 15, volume 2 Transfer at Sea by Larry Seaton

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