by Derrick G. Jeter
In the American Cemetery at Romagne, France, lies the body of Joseph Thompson. An uncommon man with a common name. He was killed in battle in the Great War—“the war to end all wars”—World War I. He was buried by fellow soldiers where he fell, until the American Graves Registration Service recovered his body and laid him to rest in the American Cemetery.
The recovery of Joseph Thompson’s body was no more remarkable than the recovery of any soldier’s body in War World I, except for the man who was charged with retrieving—Joseph’s own brother, twenty-seven-year-old Army lieutenant Daniel Arthur Thompson. In a letter written to their father, dated May 24, 1919, Daniel described the scene of finding and reclaiming his brother’s body:
We left Romagne at 7:30 and got to the grave at the Harmont woods at noon. I had the colored fellows dig down the side of the grave until we struck the body, or could see the clothes. I saw his feet and legs first, and then the rest of his body, just as he fell.
He was dressed in new clothes, and had on his rain coat, and full pack, with the exception of the rifle and helmet. He was not in a box, as I expected, but merely a blanket thrown over the tope of his body, and some loose boards over that. We removed the blanket, boards, etc. And of course, the body was badly decomposed. . . . I then unbuttoned the coats and found his other identification tag about his neck, which then and there identified him without going further. . . .
I found in his clothes: your last letter to him, a pocket knife, fountain pen, his diary, testament, Book of Psalms, another book with annotations of all mail received and sent, some small pictures he had received from home, about 10 Francs in money, two watches, one his own, the other a German watch, a few German coins, and German post cards. . . .
Dad, these things are worth the world to you. I shall preserve them carefully; although they are in pretty bad shape, owing to the dampness of the ground and body. Also, they are badly stained and smell bad. I have soaked them in gasoline, and in a day or so, they will be O.K. . . .
Joe now rests beside Carl Coombs in the Romagne Cemetery, with 35,000 others. It is a beautiful place and our national Monument in France. I pray that you will let his body lie there in peace. I know he would wish it.
He is now buried deep in a coffin; and on Memorial Day, his grave will be beautifully decorated. General Pershing will be there to pay his last respects to his men who fought under him and it will be a beautiful ceremony. . . . As I stay over here longer, and see how well our cemeteries here will be taken care of, I am more convinced that our Joe should remain here. I have had one experience of moving his body, and it was so hard that I wish now that you all would allow it to remain here as part of our country’s great monument to the world war. . . .
I feel now that I have accomplished everything possible. The grave location is: Section 9, Plot 3, Grave 155. Joe is buried in the Northeast corner.1
Joseph Thompson was only one of an estimate 1.3 million men and women who gave their lives for freedom since our founding fathers took up arms. Most, like Joe Thompson, are unknown to the vast majority of Americans who live under the freedom they either secured or preserved. No books will be written extolling their heroism; no songs will be sung praising their courage; no poems will be recited lauding their bravery. They lived and they died, unknown—except to a few: their family, their friends, their brothers-in-arms, and God. May they rest in peace. And may we never forget, even if we know not their names, for they have done for us more than we will ever know. On this Memorial Day, I remember and offer this poem, “For Freedom,” in humble gratitude to all who have given their last measure of devotion to one unknown to them.
Row on row, white crosses filled
Hill and valley and green field.
“Peace” and “Honor” to each one killed—
For freedom, their blood was spilled.
’Twasn’t death’s wish or medals thrilled,
But country’s love they stood the shield.
Never to sleep and never to yield
For freedom their lives were stilled.
Grateful we, before them kneeled—
Their sacrifice a country healed.
’Tis our time to stand and wield—
For freedom . . . a hero’s grave they filled.
1. David A. Thompson to his father, May 24, 1919, in Grace Under Fire: Letters of Faith in Times of War, ed. Andrew Carroll (Colorado Springs, Co.: WaterBrook Press, 2007), 29, 31, 32.