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.
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.
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.