Tennessee, World War II And The Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier

Monday, November 15, 2021 - by Linda Moss Mines
President Eisenhower presiding at the ceremony adding the WWII and Korean War to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Immediately behind him and to his right is Command Sergeant Major Paul Huff, MOH, from Cleveland, Tn.
President Eisenhower presiding at the ceremony adding the WWII and Korean War to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Immediately behind him and to his right is Command Sergeant Major Paul Huff, MOH, from Cleveland, Tn.

In 1941, 20 years after the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, Tennessee’s Sergeant Alvin C. York, Medal of Honor recipient from Fentress County, spoke to Congressional representatives, veterans and members of the public, standing near the tomb. The 54-year-old veteran had become an outspoken proponent of United States engagement in the war raging in Europe. While York knew first-hand the tremendous cost of war, he was even more concerned about the nation’s hesitancy in responding to the unchecked evil that he saw sweeping across Europe.

On Armistice Day 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt reiterated York’s earlier comments as he spoke to the nation. “Among the great days of national remembrance, none is more deeply moving to Americans of our generation than the Eleventh of November, the Anniversary of the Armistice of 1918, the day scared to the memory of those who gave their lives in the war which that day ended. Our observance of this Anniversary has a particular significance in the year 1941.”

FDR continued, “A few years ago, even a few months ago, some of us questioned the sacrifice they had made. Standing near the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Sergeant York of Tennessee . . . spoke to such questioners. “There are those in this country today,” said Sergeant York, “who asked me and other veterans of World War Number One, ‘What did it get you?” Today we know the answer - - all of us. We know that these men died to save their country from a terrible danger of that day. We know, because we face that danger once again on this day.

“What did it get you? People who asked that question of Sergeant York and his comrades forgot the one essential fact which every man who looks can see today. . . Because the danger was overcome they were unable to remember that the danger had been present . . . If our armies of 1917 and 1918 had lost there would not have been a man or woman in American who would have wondered why the war was fought. The reasons would have faced us everywhere. We would have known why liberty is worth defending as those alone whose liberty is lost can know it. We would have known why tyranny is worth defeating as only those whom tyrants rule can know.  But because the war had been won we forget, some of us, that the war might have been lost.”

As the president spoke, the German army had long since fanned out across Europe and many of the nations had fallen to the Nazis, including France, the major battlefield nation of the previous war. Roosevelt called the current situation into focus, “The men of France, prisoners in their cities, victims of searches and of seizures without law . . . know now what a former victory of freedom against tyranny was worth.” The Czechs too know the answer. The Poles, The Danes. The Dutch. The Serbs. The Belgians. The Norwegians. The Greeks. 

“The people of American agree . . . that liberty is worth fighting for. And if they are obligated to right they will fight eternally to hold it. This duty we owe . . .”

In less than a month, President Roosevelt would stand before a Joint Session to the United States Congress, only hours following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, and ask for a Declaration of War that echoed the words he had delivered at the Tomb. 

The United States mobilized quickly, with millions of men and women serving in the armed forces in one or more of the three major theaters of war: Europe, North Africa and the Pacific. Those remaining at home took to heart the belief that everyone was a ‘soldier’ in the fight against Nazism and totalitarianism. Women stepped in as employees in munitions and military armament facilities and other industries supporting the war effort and the troops. Millions of dollars were raised through the sale of Liberty bonds and families adjusted their lifestyle as they limited their use of goods necessary for the war, supporting the rationing of sugar, nylon, rubber and other goods.

After almost four years of fighting across the globe, World War II ended with Germany surrendering in May 1945 followed by the Japanese surrender in September. More than 330,000 members of the American military had died in combat, with a larger number confronting permanent injuries.

World War II and Korean War Unknowns came to rest in the tomb prior to a 1954 dedication led by then President Dwight D. Eisenhower, former WWII Allied Commander, and Tennessee’s Paul Huff, Medal of Honor recipient. Command Sergeant Major Huff, USA, was chosen to represent the Medal of Honor recipients and joined the President in awarding the Medal of Honor to the new tomb residents.

Today, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is one of the most visited military monuments in the nation. The tomb, designed by sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones with the description “Here Rests in Honored Glory an American Soldier Known But to God,” reminds visitors of the 7,554 members of the military who remain missing in action. 

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Linda Moss Mines, Chattanooga and Hamilton County Historian, is the Vice-Chairman of the Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center and Regent, Chief John Ross Chapter, NSDAR. She can be reached at localhistorycounts@gmail.com



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