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Published on: Monday, July 8, 2024 read more ...


A Humble Sergeant: Edward F. Younger and the Unknown Soldier

By Tim Frank, ANC Historian on 10/20/2021

On October 24, 1921, when Sergeant Edward F. Younger entered City Hall in Châlons-sur-Marne, France, and gazed upon the four identical caskets that lay before him, he embarked on a task that forever linked him to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Born in Chicago on September 24, 1898, Younger enlisted in the Army on February 23, 1917, six weeks before the United States entered World War I. He deployed to France and fought in the Troyon and Château-Thierry defensive sectors, the Aisne defensive, and the Meuse-Argonne offensive. He received his first wound in action at Vaux on July 2, 1918, when a concussion from a shell rendered him unconscious; he was wounded again on October 3, 1918, in the Champagne when a machine gun bullet pierced his left thigh. He retroactively earned the Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster after that medal’s establishment in 1932. After his honorable discharge on October 29, 1919, Younger reenlisted the next day and served in the 50th Infantry during the postwar occupation of Germany.

Right: Sgt. Edward Younger on the day of the selection ceremony. (Army Heritage and Education Center) 

As an infantry sergeant in Coblenz, Germany, Younger received the honor of serving as one of six pallbearers to attend the selection of the Unknown Soldier in France. Originally, instructions called for a commissioned officer to make the selection. At the last minute, however, Major General Harry L. Rogers, the Army quartermaster general, learned that the French had delegated this honor to an enlisted man when they chose their Unknown Soldier in 1920. Rogers consequently authorized this duty to be given to one of the enlisted men participating in the ceremony. Major Robert P. Harbold, the officer in charge, chose Younger. Inside the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall), the four American unknowns lay in identical caskets. Younger’s task was to choose one to be buried at Arlington.

It is likely that Major Harbold chose Younger on account of his superior service record. Younger, however, recalled that he thought of himself and his comrades as just “good, average soldiers,” and believed that “none of the men had been decorated, nor had performed signal feats.” Indeed, as Younger later described, receiving the singular honor of selecting the Unknown Soldier felt somewhat arbitrary. Speaking to a Washington Post reporter in 1930, he recalled simply being told, ‘I guess you’re the one, Younger.... You select the Unknown.’”

Younger’s subsequent public recollections thus seem to square uneasily with evidence suggesting he had been chosen because of his service record. Yet Younger’s self-perception was entirely consistent with his deeply felt connection to, and identification with, the Unknown Soldier. By portraying himself as simply a “good, average soldier,” Younger emphasized his commonality with the Unknown rather than his individual distinctiveness. In so doing throughout his life, he implicitly redirected the media spotlight away from himself, allowing the Unknown to remain the focus as a symbol of all American service members, regardless of duty or rank.  

Younger received an honorable discharge from the Army as a sergeant on October 29, 1922. He returned to Chicago, worked as a post office foreman, and joined the American Legion. In 1930, a Washington Post reporter tracked him down. Younger told him that no one had ever asked him about his role in the selection, except for one post office coworker. Younger also told the reporter that he had yet not been to Arlington to see the Tomb. He had long wished to visit, but on his salary, a trip to the nation’s capital was prohibitively expensive.

On Memorial Day in 1930, the Washington Post paid for Younger to finally make the trip. At Arlington, he reenacted the selection ceremony by placing roses on the Tomb. Younger again emphasized his personal connection with the Unknown, noting that he might have “eaten, slept, and fought next to him” and that it was “real nice to get a chance to visit him again.” Titled “Humble Soldier Who Selected Unknown Will Honor Comrade,” the article portrayed Younger as a “modest, blond chap just over 30,” who had experienced “nine years of obscurity” after the selection  ceremony. Such references to Younger’s humility and “obscurity” aligned him with the Unknown—who rested in the ultimate obscurity, having sacrificed not only his life but his identity. In newspaper reports and consistently in his public recollections, Younger became, like the Unknown himself, one of many; an average soldier who served honorably and now embodied the collective memory of the war.   

On Memorial Day 1930, Younger placed roses on the Tomb, reenacting his selection of the Unknown Solder nine years earlier in France. (Library of Congress)

Younger also conveyed the intensely emotional aspects of his experience, underscoring his affinity with the Unknown Soldier he selected. Fifteen years after the selection, he authored a candid first-person account, “I Chose the Unknown Soldier,” which appeared in the November 8, 1936 edition of This Week, a syndicated Sunday magazine supplement carried by more than twenty papers, including the Los Angeles Times, Boston Herald, and Cincinnati Enquirer.

In this article, Younger remembered feeling “overwhelmed” as he selected the Unknown: “I took the flowers and advanced to the little temporary shrine through a line of French troops. I entered the door … and stood alone with the dead…. For a moment I hesitated, and said a prayer, inaudible, inarticulate, yet real. Then I looked around. That scene will remain with me forever. Each casket was draped with a beautiful American flag…. I began a slow march around the caskets. Which should it be? Thoughts poured like torrents through my mind. Maybe these buddies had once been my pals. Perhaps one of them had fought with me, had befriended me, had possibly shielded me from a bullet that might have put me in his place. Who would even know?”

Younger went on to recount, “I was numb. I couldn’t choose…. Three times I walked around the caskets; then something drew me to the coffin second to my right on entering.… I couldn’t walk another step. It seemed as if God raised my hand and guided me as I placed the roses on the casket. This, then, was to be America’s Unknown Soldier, and by that simple act I had started him on his road to destiny. I tarried a moment, then remembered my task was done. I saluted the casket, and reported that the order had been fulfilled.”

In September 1937, the American War Mothers—a national organization that commemorated and supported World War I veterans—republished “I Chose the Unknown Soldier” in their organizational magazine, American War Mother. Younger’s piece offered a deeply personal perspective on the selection process and the meanings of the Unknown Soldier—one that would have resonated with mothers, widows, and others who experienced the Tomb as a site of personal grief. And by likening the Unknown to one of his “buddies,” Younger implied that the man he selected to be buried at the Tomb could have been the son of any mother who did not have a gravesite to visit.    

More recently, Younger’s son Jack has further illuminated how the experience of selecting the Unknown Soldier shaped his father’s later life. In a 2009 letter, Jack recalled that his father was asked to speak to various civic and veterans groups during the 1930s and was even a guest on a New York radio show called “We the People” in 1938. His appearance received an overwhelming response from listeners, and he was invited back to the show in 1939.

Younger passed away on August 6, 1942 from a heart ailment. He was buried in what was, at the time, the World War I section of Arlington National Cemetery (now Section 18), a humble sergeant who did his duty in war and in peace.

► See also: Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Centennial Commemoration

Selected Sources Consulted

•  Arlington National Cemetery Historical Research Collection, Box 12.

•  Hassell, Duncan. "Humble Soldier Who Selected Unknown Will Honor Comrade," Washington Post, May 29, 1930. 

• MacDonald, Alan. "Choosing the Unknown Soldier," Washington Post, May 25, 1930. 

•  Mossman, B.C. and M.W. Stark, The Last Salute: Civil and Military Funerals, 1921-1969. Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 1991.

•  National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 117 (Records of the American Battle Monuments Commission), Entry 40, Box 87.

•  Official Military Personnel File for Edward Younger. National Personnel Records Center, Record Group 319 (Records of the Army Staff, 1903-2009), Series: Official Military Personnel Files, 1912-1998.

•  Younger, Edward F. "I Chose the Unknown Soldier," This Week, November 8, 1936. 

•  Younger, Edward F. "I Chose the Unknown Soldier," American War Mother Vol. 4, No. 7 (September 1937). 

ANC Historian
Tim Frank