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Patrick K. O'Donnell's The Unknowns: The Untold Story of America's Unknown Soldier and WWI's Most Decorated Heroes Who Brought Him Home


A visit to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, or Tomb of the Unknowns, in Arlington National Cemetery is both a solemn and uplifting experience. In front of the unnamed buried soldiers, we take stock of the unrecognized sacrifice of all fallen soldiers, from all of America’s wars and conflicts.  The stately memorial, with its verdant lawn, white columns, and stern-faced guards, imposes a silence that grants space to imagine thousands of voices telling their story of sacrifice. We are humbled, inspired. The guards’ disciplined, rhythmic steps are some of the few sounds to break the crushing quietness. And when the moment comes to play Taps, it is hard to push away the welling emotions invoked by the song.

ODonnellTombUSTomb of the Unknowns, Arlington, VA. Image courtesy of deanoinamerica.wordpress.com

But behind the order, behind the counted steps, behind Taps’ well-written melody played every day at the Tomb of the Unknowns, lies a complex unknown history that began at the end of WWI. In his latest book, The Unknowns: The Untold Story of America’s Unknown Soldier and WWI’s Most Decorated Heroes Who Brought Him Home, combat historian, Patrick K. O’Donnell brings the story to light through an informative, riveting narrative that sometimes, with its cast of rich characters, reads more like a novel than a history.

From the perspective of eight brave men who earned the honor of laying the nation's first unknown soldier to rest back home, O’Donnell guides the readers back and forth between America’s shores and the unprecedented butchery of the European front. As Joseph C. Goulden writes in his review of the book in the Washington Times, “Mr. O’Donnell devotes a chapter to each man, telling how they came to be cited for extraordinary bravery. These pages capture the horrifying nature of warfare, and Mr. O’Donnell’s descriptions catch the raw bravery that can emerge from men thrust into combat.” Indeed, the interweaving tales of these eight “Body Bearers” reveal the multilayered significance of this first Unknown Soldier. O’Donnell makes it easy to understand that, in honoring one soldier, we are also honoring all those who “carried”  or protected him or her through combat; we realize that behind one soldier exists an army of soldiers who are infinitely supporting him or her–in life, in death, and beyond.

ODONNELLBackBookJacketBook Jacket for The Unkowns

These eight men include 1st. Lt. Samuel Woodfill, who fought in the deadly Meuse-Argonne Offensive in October 1918. As Ray Locker describes in his USA Today review, even after Woodfill was gassed, he took on a German machine gun nest, systematically killing six enemy soldiers as his unit charged forward. Two of his comrades were disintegrated by an exploding shell, leaving little more of them "than of a tomato when you throw it against a brick wall," Woodfill said. Woodfill received the Medal of Honor and was Pershing's selection as the most outstanding soldier of the expeditionary force.

Woodfill with President Calvin CollidgeSamuel Woodfill with President Calvin Coolidge in a celebration. Library of Congress.

Navy Chief Gunner's Mate James Delaney, who was taken prisoner by a German U-boat and spent a year in a German prison camp, is also unforgettable.

O’Donnell’s writing process provides another interesting perspective on The Unknowns. In the Preface, he describes trips he took with wounded Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans to France and he told WWrite that “My inspiration comes from many trips with USMC in France where I was their guide.” He writes about their visit to Belleau Wood and its surroundings:

Odonnell fallujahO'Donnell in Fallujah. Image courtesy of Patrick K. O'DonnellIn 2013, Marines of the Wounded Warrior Regiment, men whose bodies were racked and savaged by war, solemnly traversed this hallowed ground. Many of these men were missing limbs; all bore the mental, emotional, and spiritual scars known only to those touched by the fire of combat. I had fought house-to-house with some of these men, including Colonel Willy Buhl, in Fallujah, and I was honored to accompany them for a third time as their volunteer guide on this special journey to France. Together, we followed in the footsteps of the generation of Americans who landed on the beaches of Normandy during World War II, and then we went back even further in time to revisit the sacrifices made at Belleau Wood (xv-xvi).

While these contemporary veterans hadn’t fought in Europe, O’Donnell emphasizes the importance of linking their experience in Iraq and Afghanistan to Western Front of WWI:

This trip was meant to heal these wounded warriors. They hoped that fellowship, brotherhood, and sharing the history of their forebears might soothe and restore their spirit.

 Two generations of men met at the Wood. Nearly one hundred years separated the wounded warriors from their historic brethren. Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan connected profoundly with those who had fought in World War I. They shared a bond of valor, agony, and losses suffered in battles fought in the former Ottoman Empire, now a patchwork of artificial countries sewn together in the aftermath of the Great War. The doughboys who fought in World War I are a forgotten generation. Many of their sacrifices have gone unnoticed and unrecognized, much like those Americans who fight in today’s seemingly-never-ending wars. The current generation is the living embodiment of the fallen and their sacrifices. Only veterans truly know their war; they lived it (xvi-xvii).

On this trip, when the trip guide told the story of Sergeant Ernest August Janson, O’Donnell saw the potential for a book. Janson was able to not only save an important hill during the Battle of Belleau Wood but the lives of many fellow soldiers. Janson was one of the first recipients of the Medal of Honor and was chosen by General Pershing to become one of eight to carry the Unknown Soldier. O’Donnell then decided to research the lives of all eight men, which became The Unknowns. As he explained to WWrite, “The book is really multiple stories–the Unknown Soldier, decorated, enlisted men, and the 49th Company. Through their eyes, I tell the boots-on-the-ground of the AEF.”ODonnellBelleauWoodMarinesMarines of the Wounded Warrior Regiment watch Gen. James Amos, 35th Commandant of the Marine Corps, present the Legion of Merit to a French General at the Marine Monument in Belleau Wood France, May 25, 2014. Image courtesy of https://www.mca-marines.org/ 

And, as he announces in the Preface to The Unknowns, it is also a story of all war–past and present:

Their story is his story.
Their saga is the narrative of all Americans’ sacrifices in war.
Their epic exemplifies who we are as Americans. The conflict that consumed them continues to affect our lives to the present day (xviii).

20150506 wp aisnemarne ABMC 0142Aisne-Marne American Cemetery (Belleau Wood included). Image courtesy of the American Battle Monuments Commission.

For additional perspectives on the connections between Iraq War and WWI, see WWrite posts by Marine, Benjamin Busch: Benjamin Busch, a U.S. Marine, Discovers British WWI Cemetery During Iraq War. Excerpt from his memoir, Dust to Dust and Benjamin Busch, Take Two! Busch Returns to Iraq in "Today is Better than Tomorrow:" A British WWI Cemetery Revisited Ten Years After Serving in the Iraq War

Author's bio

OdonnellBioCombat historian, bestselling author, and public speaker Patrick K. O'Donnell has written 11 critically acclaimed books that recount the epic stories of America's wars from the Revolution to Iraq. He is a premier expert on elite and special operations units and irregular warfare. O’Donnell’s books are described as “nonfiction that reads like fiction.”

Before The Unknowns, he published WASHINGTON’S IMMORTALS: The Untold Story of an Elite Regiment Who Changed the Course of the Revolution. The Wall Street Journal raved it was “Combat writing at its best.” The prestigious Journal of the American Revolution named it, “One of the 100 best books on the Revolution of All Time.”

His other books include FIRST SEALS: The Untold Story of the Forging of America's Most Elite Unit; and DOG COMPANY: The Boys of Pointe du Hoc - The Rangers Who Accomplished D-Day's Toughest Mission and Led the Way Across Europe. His bestseller, BEYOND VALOR, portrays the gripping tales of WWII Ranger and Airborne veterans and won the William E. Colby Award for Outstanding Military History. O'Donnell's WE WERE ONE: Shoulder to Shoulder With the Marines Who Took Fallujah is required reading for Marines and appeared on the Commandant’s Professional Reading List, as did GIVE ME TOMORROW: The Korean War’s Greatest Untold Story – The Epic Stand Of The Marines Of George Company. His books have been Main or Alternate selections of Book of the Month, History, and Military History Book Clubs. Reviewers from media outlets as diverse as The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, USA Today, Jerusalem Post, C-SPAN, and National Public Radio (NPR) have hailed his publications.
O’Donnell is the leading expert on the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency and America’s special operations forces in WWII. His four award-winning books on the subject include: FIRST SEALS; OPERATIVES, SPIES, AND SABOTEURS: The Unknown Story of the Men and Women of WWII’s OSS; THE BRENNER ASSIGNMENT: The Untold Story of the Most Daring Spy Mission of WWII; and THEY DARED RETURN: The True Story of Jewish Spies Behind the Lines in Nazi Germany (also known as “The Real Inglorious Bastards”). 

In 2012, at a ceremony attended by the leadership of America’s intelligence and special operations community, The OSS Society presented O’Donnell with the prestigious John Waller Award for exceptional scholarship in intelligence and special operations history.

O'Donnell not only writes about combat — he has experienced it firsthand. During the Iraq war, he was embedded with military units as the only civilian combat historian to volunteer and spend three months in Iraq documenting the experiences of troops in battle. He fought with a Marine rifle platoon (Lima Company 3/1) during the Battle of Fallujah, surviving several ambushes, and carried a mortally wounded Marine out of a firefight with Chechen insurgents, experiences he recounts in WE WERE ONE. 

On his second tour to Iraq, he served as a war correspondent for Men’s Journal and Fox News, reporting on the conflict in Iraq from the perspective of the Marines on the ground. He has written for Military History Quarterly (MHQ) and WWII Magazine and is a frequent contributor to a variety of nationally recognized publications.

As an expert on WWII espionage, special operations, and counterinsurgency on the modern battlefield, the historian has assisted with the writing and production of scores of documentaries produced by the BBC, the History Channel, and others. His book THEY DARED RETURN is the source material for the award-winning documentary "The Real Inglorious Bastards." He has appeared as a guest on countless television and radio shows on NPR, FOX, Discovery, and other networks.

O’Donnell also provided historical consulting for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries “Band of Brothers,” as well as for the billion-dollar Medal of Honor game franchise.

O'Donnell has been studying World War II and modern war since childhood and has a passion for finding ways to preserve the oral histories of America’s combat veterans for generations to come. Nearly two decades ago, he founded "The Drop Zone," the first online military oral history project and virtual museum. This award-winning website contains many of the thousands of interviews O’Donnell personally conducted with veterans and their adversaries, making it one of the largest private collections of historical materials from elite and special operations troops.
The author’s skills and expertise have been tapped by private sector firms and government agencies, including DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). He has also been selected to lecture at numerous agencies and branches of the armed forces, such as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), U.S. Army Special Forces, U.S. ARMY, and USMC.

O’Donnell credits serendipity for leading him in the right direction. The stories he tells somehow always find him.




Represented by William Morris Endeavor (WME) for film, television, and literary rights.


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