NPRC helps solve headstone riddle at Arlington National Cemetery

Today’s post comes from National Archives Office of Strategy and Communications staff writer Rob Crotty.

Photograph of Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day, 05/30/1961 (306-SUB-MON-166)
Photograph of Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day, 05/30/1961 (306-SUB-MON-166)

When Washington Post reporter Christian Davenport uncovered the headstones of American veterans lying in a murky stream bed at Arlington National Cemetery this month, NARA’s National Personnel Records Center was solicited to help identify one of the partially legible grave markers.

Officials at Arlington National Cemetery were unsure how the stones got into the creek, to whom they belonged, and how old they were. It was possible the stones were engraved incorrectly and the discarded stones were used to line the stream bed. But it was also possible that these were the headstones of fallen veterans.

One headstone in particular offered some clues. With a design that was discontinued in the late 1980s, it offered some time frame as to when the markers arrived in the stream bed.

More important, there was a partially legible name on the marker. If the name could be associated with a veteran, it could explain where the headstones came from, when they were put there, and also help restore honor to one of America’s fallen heroes. The headstone only showed the rank of a Navy captain, and the name J (or L) Warren McLaughlin.

At the National Archives, veterans’ records from the 20th century are stored at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC), located in St. Louis, MO.

The NPRC first heard of the issue from Doug Sterner who runs the web site Home of Heroes. Sterner sent an e-mail blast to people he thought might be able to identify the name, NPRC’s Scott Levins included. Levins in turn tapped NPRC employee Niels Zussblatt, who identified the veteran in no time.

It’s very likely that the headstone belongs to Joseph Warren Michael McLaughlin, a Navy captain who was born in Kansas in 1896 and died in June 1971 after serving in both World Wars and the Korean War.

With the headstone identified, the staff at Arlington National Cemetery set out to uncover why the headstone was in the creek bed. A search shows that after Captain McLaughlin’s wife, Elizabeth, died four years later, the cemetery ordered a new headstone with both names engraved on it. That headstone is still there today, in section 47, as reported in a follow up article by the Washington Post.

The staff at Arlington is still sorting out how the discarded headstone arrived in the creek bed, but thanks to engaged citizens and the hard work of the staff at the NPRC, the mystery of just who J Warren McLaughlin was has been answered.

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