Washington, D.C. – June 1, 2004
Rest easy, sleep well my brothers. Know the line has held, your job is done.
Rest easy, sleep well. Others have taken up where you fell, the line has held.
Peace, peace, and farewell.
J.P. Kilroy counted the number of steps the soldier took before executing a precise ninety-degree turn to face the huge white marble sarcophagus. He paused for what seemed like twenty-one seconds before making another ninety degree turn. The guard deftly shouldered his bayonet-tipped rifle to the damp white-gloved hand facing the gallery before beginning his march back. J.P. watched intently as he stood at the entrance to the Tomb of the Unknowns.
The young soldier was not much over twenty but he moved with a smooth grace and dignity that defied his age. His army dress blue uniform was impeccable and he glided softly down the narrow black carpet, past the Tomb and down to the other end. Waiting there, next to a small green canvas guardhouse, was a sergeant and another physically perfect specimen of a soldier. They executed a series of precise moves, with muted verbal orders, until the second soldier had replaced the first and was “walking post” at the guard position. He would do so for thirty minutes. Though the amphitheatre was full of spectators, not a sound was heard. Even the birds and the breeze seemed to stop as the Sentinel continued his silent vigil in the sober stillness.
The Tomb of the Unknowns was a striking rectangular structure of white marble originally erected in 1931. The Sentinels, as they were called, guarded it continuously since 1937. Seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day, the sleek and trim young soldiers from the Third Infantry Regiment, The Old Guard, paid homage to the deceased warriors by protecting their resting place.
It was a rare privilege to become a member of the Honor Guard who accepted only twenty-percent of those who applied. They had to be formidable of mind and body and dedicated to the duty. Their training was rigorous and meticulous. They had to memorize the resting places of 175 notables within Arlington National Cemetery. To spend five hours each day preparing their uniforms and shining their equipment for duty was not unusual.
Although he lived in Washington, J.P. Kilroy had never been to the Tomb before. He read the pamphlet while he waited. The Third Infantry Regiment, stationed at Fort Myers, Virginia, was the oldest active-duty infantry unit in the army, serving since 1784. The Old Guard remained the army’s official ceremonial unit and escort to the President. They also provided the Honor Guard for burials in Arlington National Cemetery as well as for funeral processions for dignitaries.
The most prestigious and desirable assignment for an enlisted person was to be accepted as a Sentinel. Their ranks were commanded entirely by enlisted men and women.
The view past the Tomb was spectacular. Below and beyond, in the distance across the Potomac River, was the city of Washington D.C. with all of its dazzling white monuments and memorials glistening in the brilliant sunshine. On this bright and clear June day the visibility was virtually limitless but J.P. had difficulty looking past the engraving on the tomb.
HERE RESTS IN
KNOWN BUT TO GOD
The entire scene before him was a moving experience and J.P. felt himself choke up as he observed the reverence and respect the Honor Guard displayed toward their fallen brethren. He once heard someone say that a soldier does not die until he is forgotten. If that were true, he concluded, the Sentinels would assure their comrades in arms would live forever.
At that moment J.P. felt a tug on his sleeve. He turned to meet the smiling gaze of Frank West. The old soldier was wearing his Screaming Eagle windbreaker and American Legion cap festooned with medals and patches. A digital camera hung around his neck. He held one finger to his lips while he grabbed a sleeve and led J.P. down the path out of the amphitheatre. Frank was spry for his age but his short choppy steps were now aided by a rather sturdy bamboo cane with a carved Eagle’s head for a handle. He looked older than the last time J.P. saw him. When they were out of earshot he grabbed J.P. and gave him a hug.
“It’s so good to see you again, young fella’. Thanks for meeting me here. How long has it been? Two years since Lincoln’s funeral?”
“Yes, Lincoln died in oh-two. Time flies. It seems like just yesterday that we met and talked in Bedford at the D-Day Memorial with Dad. September 11. I’ll never forget that day.”
“No one will.”
J.P. continued. “Why did you pick this place to meet? It’s a long walk up this hill.”
“I always enjoy watching the Honor Guard. I never miss a chance to see them. Impressive, isn’t it?”
“Very. I read somewhere that in order to serve in the Honor Guard a soldier must not speak to anyone for the first six months and swear to never drink or curse for the rest of his life.”
Frank smiled at J.P. “Not true. They can do whatever they choose in their off-duty hours. But obviously any disgraceful conduct unbecoming would result in forfeiting their Honor Guard badge. And since there are only about four hundred of them in existence, that’s a big deal. It’s the best deterrent against bringing dishonor to the group and the mission.”
J.P. looked confused. “What about the story that during Hurricane Isabelle last year the Sentinels were ordered to take shelter and not march but did so anyway?”
“It’s a great story but that’s not true either. They were never ordered to stand down but the safety of the troopers would override any ceremonial duties if it came to that.”
“How do you know all this?”
Frank chuckled. “My grandson is a Sentinel. You were watching him back there. I came up here to see him and to pay my respects. That’s why I called you.”
“To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“Since I was in town anyway, I wanted to see you for two things, Mister Kilroy. First, I wanted to visit your father’s grave. I’m sorry I missed the funeral last year. I screwed up my back and was in traction for a few weeks.” Frank paused but got no reaction from J.P. “Would you show me where his grave site is?”
“Sure, it’s down this way.”
They walked in silence for a few minutes on a path named Wilson Drive until they came to a fork. The mature trees provided ample shade and the breeze seemed to pick up in the shadows.
J.P. led them to the right on Roosevelt Drive in front of, and well below, the Tomb. He couldn’t help but consider that Frank was the last person alive who knew the secret. While J.P. tried hard to let that whole affair slip quietly into his past, every time one of the men died the whole experience came swirling back into his mind. He never got validation of the secret from any of the old men and he never sought to identify his biological father. It was an effort he was not inclined to commit.
Ever since he found out that his dad was not his biological father, he assumed he already knew what the old men were trying to keep from him. But Frank said something at the D-Day Memorial in Bedford that made him question his conclusion. The shock of September 11, along with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that followed, were more than enough to occupy his mind to the exclusion of most anything else. Cynthia Powers occupied any spare moments left in his life. But every time he came in contact with any of the conspirators, the old curiosity was resurrected and he found himself questioning his conclusion that the secret was already revealed.
They made a left on Porter Drive adjacent to Section 3 of the cemetery. They walked for a few moments when Frank came to a sudden stop.
“It’s a little further up,” J.P. advised.
Frank slowly took off his hat. He was staring at a simple white marble gravestone. A small cross was inscribed at the top.
WORLD WAR I
WORLD WAR II
JUL 2 1898
AUG 22 1975
Frank slowly saluted the marker. “I heard he was buried at Arlington with his wife, son and daughter. This was one great man.”
“Who was he?”
“He took command of the division when we went into Bastogne. General Taylor was back in the States at the time. He gave the famous ‘NUTS’ reply when the Germans called for our surrender. It fired up all the troops.”
Frank snapped a picture of the headstone and they began walking again. “Bastogne was hell,” Frank continued. “That was where Lincoln won the Medal. I wrote the recommendations and got a bunch of eyewitness accounts, too. I told Lincoln about the all-black parachute battalion forming back in the States. I wrote a letter, got him in.” Frank was repeating what he had previously told him but J.P. just let him continue.
“Go on,” J.P. kindly encouraged.
“The Jerrys threw everything they had at us. Surrounded us, cut us off and pounded the crap out of our perimeter and bombed the town. Four or five divisions at one time or another, maybe more, who knows, but we stopped them and stacked bodies. It was freezing cold, snowed every day; fog as thick as smoke, and they kept coming and we kept putting meat on the table. Around Christmas the Jerrys gave him,” Frank waved at the grave marker, “an ultimatum. Surrender or be destroyed. He answered with one word. ‘NUTS’!”
J.P. smiled. He had heard the account either on the History Channel or the National Geographic Channel. It was an inspirational story. They continued walking.
“That boost in morale came at the right time. We were low on everything and Jerry was pressing us really hard. It gave us a rallying cry and pumped up our spirits. McAuliffe basically told the Germans to ‘go to hell’ with that answer.”
As they walked, Frank was gazing into the distance as if trying to read the story from some far-away journal. “We held out for eight days. It was so cold. They say pain has no memory but I can still remember the cold and I get chills when I think of it. When the sun finally came out, we got supplies by air and our Thunderbolts and Mustangs gave the Jerrys hell, bombing and strafing their positions. Then we went on the offensive and kicked the crap out of whatever Jerrys were left. Kicked their asses all the way back to Germany. We lost a lot of guys in the Bulge. They were the bravest men I ever knew and they were mostly boys. By the spring of forty-five we were pretty much on occupation duty. After Hitler surrendered most of the high-point men were rotated back to the States. Jake and Johnny were a little short so they stayed on. We all expected to be fighting Japs by the summer.”
J.P. jumped in before Frank could continue. “So, sometime after the War in Europe ended, Jake died. I’m still trying to find out how that happened.” J.P. could not help himself. There were still some loose ends surrounding the conspiracy.
“Shit happens in the military, son. Let it go.”
“It’s something I really want to find out the truth about.” J.P. stopped walking. “Here we go.”
Frank stepped over the low chain and walked up to the headstone. He removed his hat and bowed his head. The top of the arched white stone had an engraved cross. The inscription read:
WORLD WAR II
FEB 9 1924
OCT 15 2003
Frank handed his digital camera to J.P. “Would you mind?”
Frank walked up to the stone and struggled to kneel beside it. With his arm around the stone he motioned to J.P. “Get closer.” J.P. moved in a few steps, snapped a few pictures and helped Frank to his feet.
“Thank you, son. I just had to pay my respects.” They continued walking on Porter Drive.
“You said you were in town anyway. What for?” J.P. asked.
Frank looked at him as if he had three heads. “They dedicated the World War II Memorial this past Saturday. The place was packed with old veterans the whole Memorial Day weekend. I wouldn’t have missed that for the world. Not for anything!”
“Of course.” J.P. mentally slapped himself in the head. How could he have forgotten the official dedication this weekend even though the site had been open to the public since late April?
“You said you wanted to see me for two things. What was the other?”
Frank smiled. “I’m buying lunch today. It’s just me paying off an old debt.”
J.P. laughed. “There’s no need to…”
“I insist. Besides, you’ll be celebrating a birthday soon. Call it an early birthday present. How old? Of course, I know.” Frank did some mental math. “Born on D-Day. That would make you an even sixty this year. Congratulations, young man.”
J.P. smiled. To Frank he was a young man. Then why was he feeling so old? They came to another intersection and Frank led them left on Grant Drive. They continued walking.
“In that case, if you insist,” J.P. smiled. “But I don’t have a lot of time.”
“Big shot reporter like you can grab a long lunch hour occasionally, I’m pretty sure,” Frank stated emphatically.
“I suppose,” J.P. agreed. “Are we going now?”
“In a few minutes, Mister Kilroy. Right after we pay a short visit to my old friend, Lincoln.”