100th Anniversary of the Return of the Wheaton

Memorial Day honors those who died while serving in the U.S. military. Visit the National Archives website for more information and related resources. Today’s post comes from Rachel Bartgis, conservator technician at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

Many of the families of the Americans killed overseas in World War I between 1914 and 1918 expressed a desire for their relative’s remains to be returned to the United States. In 1920, the U.S. Government sent out over 70,000 questionnaires to next of kin, asking them if they wanted their relative to be permanently buried in a military cemetery overseas, or returned to the states. These questionnaires and responses are in the National Archives online catalog and show a wide cross-section of the American men and women from a variety of cultural backgrounds who served in World War I. 

Card for Nora E. Anderson, a nurse whose father opted for her to remain in a military cemetery in France. (National Archives Identifier 148733354)

Ultimately, out of the 70,000 cards, the families of over 40,000 service members chose to have the remains returned home. The U.S. Government began returning the remains in late 1920, and they arrived at several ports along the East Coast before being sent on to the next of kin across the country. 

Pvt. James J. Argiroplos’s brother chose for his body to be brought back to his family in Keyser, West Virginia. (National Archives Identifier 160910025)

In 1921 the U.S. Government decided to hold an official homecoming ceremony to commemorate the return of the fallen. The ship chosen for the commemoration was the U.S. Army Transport ship Wheaton, which loaded caskets in Cherbourg, France, and Antwerp, Belgium, and docked in Hoboken, New Jersey, on May 18, 1921. The remains of the more than 5,000 people aboard were chosen to represent all 48 U.S. states and included almost every county in the nation. 

President Warren Harding presided at a ceremony in Hoboken on May 23, where he placed a wreath and gave a speech:

“These dead know nothing of our ceremony today. They sense nothing of the sentiment or the tenderness which brings their wasted bodies to the homeland, for burial close to kin and friends and cherished associations. These poor bodies are but the clay tenements once possessed of souls, which flamed in patriotic devotion, lighted new hopes on the battlegrounds of civilization, and in their sacrifices sped on to accuse autocracy before the court of eternal justice. We are not met for them, though we love, and honor, and speak a grateful tribute. It would be futile to speak to those who do not hear, or to sorrow for those who can not sense it, or to exalt those who can not know. But we can speak for country, we can reach those who sorrowed and sacrificed through their service, who suffered through their going, who glory with the Republic through their heroic achievements, who rejoice in the civilization their heroism preserved. Every funeral, every memorial, every tribute is for the living an offering in compensation of sorrow. . . .

They gave all which men and women can give. We shall give our most and best if we make certain that they did not die in vain. We shall not forget, no matter whether they lie amid the sweetness and the bloom of the homeland, or sleep in the soil they crimsoned. Our mindfulness, our gratitude, our reverence shall be in the preserved Republic, and the maintained liberties and the supreme justice for which they died.”

Over the following weeks, the returning bodies from the USAT Wheaton were sent on to their families across the United States, where they were ultimately laid to rest in cemeteries of their families’ choice. According to Homecoming ’21, an effort to research and commemorate the 100th anniversary of the return of the USAT Wheaton, 43,909 Americans who lost their lives in World War I were ultimately reburied in the United States.

To find the grave of a USAT Wheaton returnee or participate in a Memorial Day activity, visit the Homecoming 21 website.

4 thoughts on “100th Anniversary of the Return of the Wheaton

  1. When NARA-St. Louis was open, I had the pleasure of looking at the burial case and individual deceased personnel files. Full of information of the deceased, along with causes of death, family members and personal effects. Can’t wait to go back to continue my search in these files hopefully in the near future.

  2. While it may seem self-evident today that deceased service personnel should be returned home, disinterring and repatriating remains of those who died overseas generated a fair amount of controversy after both World Wars. In the case of WWI, the British government was wary of the American precedent, partly owing to expenses involved in repatriating even a small percentage of their 700,000+ war dead. (Indeed, the US spent about $400 million in today’s currency on its relatively modest program.) The French government denied permission to undertake any such effort until late 1920, largely because the requisite logistics would interfere with vital rebuilding efforts. (For a variety of reasons, those who witnessed disinterments or thousands of caskets being moved to European ports often commented negatively about what they saw.) After World War II, dueling editorials vigorously argued over the same issue. Beatrice Ayer Patton’s plea that the fallen should remain overseas with their friends, for example, prompted one parent to counter that their draftee son hadn’t been with his unit long enough to have forged such bonds, berating General George Patton’s widow for being presumptuous. Of course, neither side of the debate was necessarily right or wrong.

  3. I participated in the search for returnees of the USATS Wheaton. It was an honor to do so. I’m still working on locating those we did not find in time for the ceremonies.

    Yesterday, I participated in the ceremonies at Cypress Hills National Cemetery. Very moving. I had just finished visiting the gravesite of my gr gr uncle, also a WWI veteran who did survive The Great War.

  4. Hello,
    First, Thank you for this post. I was able to forward a name for the Wheaton research.
    Second, sorry to use the comment section for this, but I have been trying to find a copy of the picture above: Caskets of U.S. service members assembled in Antwerp, Belgium, for shipment home. (U.S. Army Signal Corps) for a display in Yolo county, CA we are doing for the 100th anniversary of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Apparently it is not available via NARA’s webpage for download. I have sent an email to the still department but I know, due to the pandemic they are behind. I also contacted History Hub and someone suggested I try the author of this blog. What I need is a TIFF file of at least 300 dpi. Can anyone help with this?
    Thanks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *