The Unknowns: The Untold Story of America’s Unknown Soldier and WWI’s Most Decorated Heroes Who Brought Him Home

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The Unknowns By Patrick K O'Donnell

From the award-winning author of Washington’s ImmortalsThe Unknowns takes readers into the heart of combat in the Great War to tell the powerful story behind the creation of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

When the Unknown Soldier was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery in 1921, eight of America’s most decorated, battle-hardened WWI veterans served as Body Bearers for the casket.

For the first time, celebrated military historian and bestselling author Patrick K. O’Donnell recounts their heroics on the battlefield a century ago, animating the Tomb and giving voice to all who have served. The Body Bearers included a cowboy who relived the Charge of the Light Brigade, a Native American who heroically captured sixty-three German prisoners single-handedly, and a salty New Englander who dueled a U-boat for hours in a fierce gunfight. Their stories reveal the larger narrative of America’s involvement in the conflict, trans-porting readers into the midst of events and battles during 1917–1918 that ultimately decided the Great War.

Superbly researched, vividly told, The Unknowns is a timeless tale of heeding the calls of duty and brotherhood and humanizes the most consequential event of the twentieth century, which still casts a shadow one hundred years later.

Editorial Reviews

Review

Praise for The Unknowns:

Recipient of the Military Order of St. Louis

“With exhaustive research and fluid prose, Mr. O’Donnell relates both the history of the Unknown Soldier and the story of America’s part in World War I through these soldiers’ experiences. The rich color of their singular narratives―and the broad history they reveal―affirm the wisdom, nearly a century later, of Pershing’s selection . . . By revealing the stories of those whose names and deeds we do know, The Unknowns prods our consciences to heap fresh honor upon the Unknown Soldier of World War I, renewing his station as the mortal embodiment of every American who has fallen on a battlefield far from home.”―Matthew J. Davenport, Wall Street Journal

“A gripping read about a war that many Americans know little about . . . Few authors have the same kind of enthusiasm and gusto that O’Donnell brings to his topic. His gift is taking the reader from the map room to the battlefield. It’s an exciting, often harrowing, trip worth taking.”―Ray Locker, USA Today

“A gripping story told by Mr. O’Donnell, who is emerging as one of the best military historians of his generation . . . 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.”―Joseph C. Goulden, Washington Times

“Gripping . . . O’Donnell, whose previous books include the terrific Washington’s Immortals and We Were One, is a masterful storyteller. In his capable hands, the stories of each of the body bearers come alive despite the passing of nearly a century.”―James Scott, Post and Courier

“True to form, military and combat historian Patrick K. O’Donnell, in The Unknowns, has unearthed the stirring story of World War I’s Unknown Soldier. Rather than present a simple tale of the chosen body’s selection, process, though, O’Donnell peels back multiple layers of WWI, shining the light on a larger cast of characters who participated in the return of the unidentified remains to American soil . . . The mastery of O’Donnell’s writing is that he can bring together myriad themes and make them work together . . . [Adds] immeasurably to the growing literature of the American role in World War I. It is a simultaneously riveting and soulful work that should not be missed.”―James A. Percoco, Washington Independent Review of Books

“While one could never begin to include all the stories of heroism, duty, and self-sacrifice that transpired during the ‘war to end all wars,’ O’Donnell has managed to capture some of the most poignant and meaningful . . . As he probes deeply into the horrors of war, O’Donnell displays a unique talent for weaving in many other names of persons who are well-known and will play significant roles in military affairs . . . A superb work on the topic that surrounds the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.”Leatherneck Magazine

“Acclaimed military historian O’Donnell brings to life America’s involvement in the Great War through the stories of eight body bearers for an unidentified fallen soldier . . . O’Donnell does his subject justice, beginning with the book’s inspiration, his giving Marines a tour of the battlefields in France . . . A thrilling title for readers interested in WWI, and an excellent primer for understanding the full significance of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.”Booklist

The Unknowns is a great book on the topic that surrounds the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from the First World War. It’s also a good single volume work on the American Expeditionary Force’s involvement and experiences in the First World War . . . Engaging, informative, detailed, exciting, respectful, and at a patriotic level, unifying.”―David Retherford, Strategy Bridge

“Many of the topics on which [O’Donnell] writes involve the story behind the story . . . With the centennial of America’s participation in World War I ongoing, this is a highly relevant publication . . . Conveys the reverence and honor which is deserved from the citizens of this nation to all of those who go in harm’s way to protect us and guarantee our rights and freedoms.”New York Journal of Books

The Unknowns is a dramatic and compassionately written book by one of our finest military historians who has few equals as a great storyteller. Patrick K. O’Donnell’s superb tale of World War I and the exceptional valor of the eight men later chosen to escort the Unknown Soldier from France to America’s most hallowed place of honor in Arlington National Cemetery is not only a tribute to those who fought and sacrificed so much but also a vivid and timely reminder of the terrible cost of war.”―Carlo D’Este, author of Patton, A Genius for War and Eisenhower, A Soldier’s Life

“This unknown story of extraordinary sacrifice and heroism is a powerful and timely tribute to the Americans who fought a century ago in the First World War. Superb history brilliantly told.”―Alex Kershaw, author of The Longest Winter

The Unknowns is not only the story of the Unknown Soldier but that of the unknown comrades who carried him there. Their stories of courage in deadly combat are finally made known to the rest of us in searing detail.”―Glenn F. Williams, PhD, U.S. Army Center of Military History

“Brilliant in conception and style, The Unknowns presents the awe-inspiring and profoundly moving story of The Great War from the viewpoint of the men who fought, sacrificed and bled to win it. A ‘must read,’ an incredible story related by a master storyteller!”―James Lacey, author of Pershing and the forthcoming The Washington War, director of USMC University

“Very few historians can bring our military past to life like Patrick O’Donnell. The Unknowns shines new and welcome light on the ‘forgotten generation’ of Americans who fought World War One. Throughout these well written, absorbing, moving pages, we come to know the doughboys and sailors of the Great War like never before. Read this book and you will never think of the Unknown Soldier the same way again.”―John C. McManus, Ph.D., author of The Dead and Those About to Die and Deadly Sky

“Highly readable and extremely interesting, The Unknowns is more than just an account about the American servicemen who escorted the Unknown Soldier, it also encompasses the story of American involvement and the sacrifice of young Americans in the Great War. It is a masterful tour de force of that by-gone era.”―Col. Richard Camp, author of The Devil Dogs at Belleau Wood: U.S. Marines in World War I

“The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, it’s as hallowed as ground can get. But what’s the story of the hero inside? A breakthrough book with a crackling narrative, The Unknowns reveals how the first unknown soldier came home from World War I, a journey born in the shell holes and on the high seas of one of humanity’s ghastliest wars. Prepare to discover an iconic American saga long hidden in plain sight.”―Adam Makos, New York Times bestselling author of A Higher Call

“A captivating, inspiring narrative by a combat veteran and skilled writer of how the Unknown Soldier arrived at his resting place as the symbol of national sacrifice and devotion to duty. Bravo!”―Bing West, author of One Million Steps: A Marine Platoon at War

Praise for Washington’s Immortals:

Winner of the Daughters of the American Revolution National Excellence in American History Book Award
Named one of the “100 Best American Revolution Books of All Time” by the Journal of the American Revolution
Finalist for the 2017 Library of Virginia People’s Choice Award for Nonfiction
An Amazon Best Book of the Year So Far (History)


“What makes Washington’s Immortals different from most Revolutionary War accounts is its seamless blend of tactical acumen and human drama . . . O’Donnell admirably blends a story of ardent farmers, merchants and mariners with a combat story of sharp, bloody engagements . . . [He] makes fluid use of letters, diaries, pension affidavits and early histories to bring home the carnage of war as the foot soldier saw it . . . Washington’s Immortals is an example of combat writing at its best.”Wall Street Journal

“A powerful narrative . . . a must-read for those with deep or casual interest in the American Revolution.”Journal of the American Revolution

“Well-written, and superbly researched . . . [A] compelling story of the Maryland Regiment . . . Intimate and often inspiring . . . O’Donnell is at the top of his game . . . A must-read for Revolutionary War and Maryland history buffs alike.”Baltimore Post-Examiner

“Gritty . . . a ‘boots on the ground’ account, with great storytelling verve . . . For readers who enjoy well-researched military history, this is the book for you.”Washington Independent Review of Books

“[Washington’s Immortals is] nothing short of remarkable . . . O’Donnell has put together, with beautiful transitions, the compelling story of the Revolutionary War through the eyes of the regular soldier . . . You don’t have to be a military history devotee to appreciate the book . . . It put[s] the whole Revolutionary War into sequential perspective.”Daily Press

“Compelling . . . Washington’s Immortals is well-researched and . . . lively.”Fayetteville Observer

“A boots-on-the-ground account that . . . personalize[s] brave men whose names have fallen into the crevices of history . . . A strong point of Mr. O’Donnell’s book is his adept skill in describing military tactical maneuvers.”Washington Times

“O’Donnell writes about war from the soldiers’ weary, battle-scarred perspective . . . At the same time, he describes and analyzes the strategic and tactical elements of battle with an even-handed regard to the wisdom and errors on each side . . . Through his vivid prose, we smell the sulfur in the gunsmoke and hear the fierce and often final cries of the combatants . . . Reveal[s] an important and little-known part of the sprawling history of the Revolution.”American Spirit

“An incredible book . . . I encourage all of you to get out and purchase this . . . I love the book . . . if you like military history, this is a great book.”―Rick Crandall, Breakfast Club, KEZW 1430 AM

“O’Donnell does a fantastic job telling the story of these men and their role in the war . . . A rich and compelling narrative . . . Definitely recommended . . . You don’t need to be a scholar of the Revolution to enjoy the book.”Historia Militaris

“O’Donnell deploys a fusillade of fact and fresh research in a Revolutionary War history rich in irony and event . . . Readers will admire O’Donnell’s exhaustive research, skilled organization of the material, and the high readability of the writing . . . With a firm grasp of tactics, strategy, and the sociopolitical landscape, O’Donnell captures the horror and absurdities of the war better than most.”Kirkus Reviews

“Using primary sources from both sides of the Atlantic, O’Donnell effectively traces the story of Maryland’s immortals, describing their battles authentically along with the precariousness of the American cause. This book will be of interest to both general readers and scholars interested in the military aspects of the American Revolution.”Library Journal

“O’Donnell . . . [spent] five years researching the Marylanders’ exploits, visiting every battlefield where they fought from New York to South Carolina and combing through archives in the U.S. and Britain. What he learned prompted him to dub those patriots America’s original band of brothers, men who continued the fight despite overwhelming odds and constant lack of food, clothing and equipment.”Associated Press

“An epic story of heroism and devotion that begins with the formation of the unit in Baltimore during the winter of 1774”Breitbart

Washington’s Immortals tells the extraordinary story of the most important band of brothers, forgotten men who changed the course of American history. This is O’Donnell at his very best―a deeply moving, superbly researched page turner.”―Alex Kershaw, New York Times bestselling author of The Bedford Boys and The Longest Winter

“Patrick O’Donnell has pioneered the pursuit of dogged research and the collection of revealing oral histories to produce moving accounts of key moments in American history. Now he’s set his sights on the Revolutionary War. Washington’s Immortals is a fascinating story about an important and largely overlooked Maryland unit in that war. It will definitely keep you turning pages.”―Douglas C. Waller, New York Times bestselling author of Disciples: The World War II Missions of the CIA Directors Who Fought for Wild Bill Donovan and Wild Bill Donovan

Washington’s Immortals is an amazing tale of pluck and devotion among one of the U.S. Army’s first elite outfits, the Maryland Line. O’Donnell expertly brings the valiant citizen-soldiers to life with vivid prose and meticulous primary-source research. Highly recommended.”―Joseph Balkoski, author of The Last Roll Call, and director of the Maryland Museum of Military History

“Patrick O’Donnell is blessed with a rare gift for storytelling and a keen empathy for the realities of soldiers in combat. He walks in the footsteps of his subjects like few other historians are able―or willing―to do. In this impressively researched, well written book, he brings the world of the American Revolution to life with an immediacy that almost defies belief. By focusing on one group of stalwart soldiers who sacrificed so much for the sake of their ideals, O’Donnell sheds important new light on the motivation and actions of America’s most effective revolutionaries. Washington’s Immortals is a must read for anyone even remotely interested in the American combat soldier, regardless of the era.”―John C. McManus, Curators’ Professor of US Military History, Missouri University of Science and Technology; author of The Dead and Those About to DieD-Day: The Big Red One at Omaha Beach, and Grunts: Inside the American Infantry Combat Experience

“Patrick K. O’Donnell’s newest work is not so much a forgotten page of our history as it is a truly untold story―a story that takes us into the lives of a unit caught up in a world-changing struggle to throw off the shackles of colonialism. The reader will learn things here about the American Revolution that were never taught in high-school history classes. O’Donnell’s admirably researched and gripping narrative is a tribute to these forgotten patriot-warriors, and a must-read for students of American military history.”―Will Irwin, Senior Fellow, Joint Special Operations University, author of The Jedburghs and Abundance of Valor

“Patrick O’Donnell has written what portends to be the definitive history of the famous Revolutionary War era ‘Maryland Line.’ Long considered by historians as George Washington’s Continental Army shock troops, O’Donnell tells a thoroughly entertaining and highly readable story. From Brooklyn Heights to Yorktown, O’Donnell clearly shows why this particular band of brothers earned the title of Washington’s Immortals.”―Charles P. Neimeyer, Ph.D., Director and Chief of Marine Corps History, Marine Corps University, Quantico, Virginia

“Through a long war that was frequently on the verge of disaster, soldiers from Maryland repeatedly played a pivotal role in the Continental army’s narrow escapes and surprise victories. Washington’s Immortals is a soldiers-eye view of the Marylanders who fought in the Revolution’s most desperate clashes. O’Donnell weaves together first-hand accounts, many from archival sources never before published, to reveal the struggles and triumphs of this remarkable regiment and the men who were part of it.”―Don N. Hagist, author of British Soldiers, American War

“Patrick O’Donnell has written one of the most extraordinary books on the American Revolution that I have read. Every page brings unexpected personal stories and other historical treasures to vivid life. It’s unique!”―Thomas Fleming, author of Liberty!: The American Revolution

“Patrick O’Donnell brings us into the Revolution through the experiences of the officers and men of a crack Maryland unit that was in it from beginning to end. This is splendid history―intimate, immediate, sweeping, inspiring. You should, and you will, honor these men.”―Richard Brookhiser, author of Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, American

“General George Washington honored the soldiers of the 1st Maryland Regiment of the Continental Army for their service and sacrifice by calling them the ‘men of the old line.’ In continuing tribute to them, Maryland still proclaims its nickname as ‘The Old Line State.’ In Washington’s Immortals, noted military historian Patrick O’Donnell has written a gripping account of the men and units that made up the Maryland Line during our War for Independence who first earned that glorious nickname, and which the soldiers of the Maryland Army National Guard’s 175th Infantry continued to do so at places with names like Gettysburg, Normandy, and Iraq.”―Glenn F. Williams, author of Dunmore’s War: The Last Conflict of America’s Colonial Era

“Perhaps no war in American history has been more difficult to see through soldiers’ eyes than the Revolutionary War. Patrick O’Donnell brings their experiences to life for twenty-first century readers in a way that no other historian has managed to do, accomplishing for the Revolutionary War what Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers did for World War II. The 1st Maryland Regiment participated in some of the most important battles of the war, gradually progressing from ordinary to elite status. Its story is the story of how the people of the United States became free.”―Edward G. Lengel, Editor-in-Chief of The Papers of George Washington and author of Inventing George Washington

About the Author

Patrick K. O’Donnell is a bestselling, critically acclaimed military historian and an expert on elite units. He is the author of eleven books, including Washington’s ImmortalsWe Were One, and Dog Company, and he is the recipient of several national awards. He served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah and speaks often on espionage, special operations, and counterinsurgency. He has provided historical consulting for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers and for documentaries produced by the BBC, the History Channel, Fox News, and Discovery.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

With flawless precision, a testament to their expert horsemanship and endless days of drilling in the saddle, a regiment of cavalrymen wheeled their mounts to form two lines flanking the entrance to the US Capitol. The sharp ring of cold steel echoed off the pavement and marble buildings as they drew their blades in unison.

While drizzly rain dripped from their hats and soaked into their dress uniforms, eight men slowly lifted a flag-draped coffin off the caisson. Sergeant Samuel Woodfill of the US Army infantry, Sergeant Harry Taylor of the cavalry, Sergeant Thomas D. Saunders of the engineers, Sergeant Louis Razga of the coast artillery, Sergeant James W. Dell of the field artillery, Chief Torpedo Man James Delaney of the Navy, Chief Water Tender Charles Lee O’Connor of the US Navy, and Gunnery Sergeant Ernest A. Janson of the US Marine Corps elevated the body of the Unknown Soldier to shoulder height and marched beneath the upraised cavalry sabers and up the long flight of granite steps.

Beneath the day’s fading light spilling from windows high above, they gingerly placed the body upon the specially prepared platform in the Rotunda. Here the Unknown Soldier would lie in state before the final journey to his eternal resting place in Arlington National Cemetery.

Within minutes, some of the most powerful men in the country joined the Body Bearers to pay their respects to this exemplar of America’s fallen heroes. The president, vice president, speaker of the house, chief justice, secretary of war and secretary of the navy all laid flowers around the platform. But in the minds of the military men who formed an honor guard around the body, likely the most important visitor that night was the last.

In solemn silence, General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing strode across the rotunda in his dress uniform. Having witnessed firsthand the terrible carnage of World War I, he understood the price of victory in a way that the other dignitaries could only begin to imagine. He tenderly laid a large wreath of pink chrysanthemums in tribute to the Unknown Soldier, who had fought and died at his command. Then, the general stepped back and drew himself up to his full height before snapping a sharp military salute.

Pershing, the Body Bearers, and the Unknown Soldier had come full circle. They had left America’s shores years earlier, prepared to sacrifice, yet not fully comprehending the true cost of war. One had paid the ultimate price, but each had come home forever changed by battles won and friends lost.

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