Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
Remarks by Secretary Robert Wilkie
Arlington National Cemetery
November 11, 2018
Thank you, Colonel, [Larry Romo, National Commander of the American G.I. Forum].
To my colleagues in the Cabinet, to my friend Elizabeth Dole, to Leader Pelosi, to the Veterans represented here on both active and retired status, it is my pleasure on behalf of the President of the United States to welcome you to Arlington.
I have had the privilege in my life of seeing this military world from many angles. As a dependent, as the son of a gravely wounded combat soldier, as an officer, and as a leader in the Pentagon. I have a spent a lifetime watching those who have borne the battle, and I have seen it through the eyes of my elementary school classmates at Fort Sill and Fort Bragg, whose fathers did not come back from Vietnam. It may seem a little strange, that for someone with my background, I am constantly contemplating the meaning of service, and what it means to be a veteran.
I think General Eisenhower had it about right. A few months after he was inaugurated, he gathered forty Korean War soldiers on the presidential yacht, the Williamsburg. Some were horribly disfigured, others were missing limbs. Eisenhower walked among them and he asked them to stand at attention, and those who could, did. And he said, “Your country can never compensate you for what you have given to your country. But you have a charge from me…You never put your uniform away. You live to remind your fellow citizens why they sleep soundly at night.”
This day reminds all Americans that they sleep soundly at night because of the sacrifices of millions of ordinary men and women. Today marks the 100th Anniversary of the sadly named War to End All Wars. On the 11th hour, of the 11th day of the 11th month, men who had lived and fought in trenches that scarred the face of Europe emerged after four years of fighting, and for the first time smelled the warm air of peace.
A hundred years ago, my great-grandfather left a small-town law practice in the Mississippi Delta and a part-time law job at Ole Miss to join up with the Army assembling at Camp Gordon, Georgia. Across the cantonment from him was an infantry outfit, and on its muster roles was a reluctant soldier from Pall Mall, Tennessee, who would go on to become the greatest American hero of that war.
In another part of Georgia was my wife’s grandfather, a teenager. In his short life he had never ventured much beyond two or three counties in North and South Carolina, but by the time he was 18 he was marching up the Champs Elysees into the bloody cauldron of the Meuse Argonne.
Needham Roberts and William Johnson were also there. Members of the legendary 369th Infantry Regiment from New York. Their regiment spent 191 days in the front lines – more than any other American regiment. They suffered 1,500 casualties, more than any other unit in the American Expeditionary Force. Their fighting was so ferocious that the Kaiser himself gave them the nickname “The Harlem Hell Fighters.” Over one hundred soldiers from the 369th were awarded the Coix de Guerre, and no regiment received more recommendations and honors than it did.
At the Marne, a soldier who was a barber in peacetime volunteered as a messenger to deliver an important order to another unit. Just as he reached his destination, he was killed in a hail of German fire. A diary, later found on his blood-stained blouse, contained this passage, “America must win the war. Therefore, I will work, I will save, I will sacrifice, I will endure, I will fight cheerfully and do my utmost as if the whole issue of the struggle depended on me alone.”
A Marine, who had already earned two Medals of Honor, decided that at the age 44 the Corp had not had enough of him, and he volunteered for France and won three more combat medals. At Belleau Wood he crawled out under heavy enemy fire and rescued a half dozen wounded Marines who were pinned down. Then, he single-handedly captured thirteen German soldiers, and then took out a heavily fortified German machine gun nest with nothing more than a handful of grenades and a Colt .45. Shortly after that, a brigade of Marines became pinned down under heavy German artillery fire, and suddenly, that lone figure jumped up on the parapet, clutched his rifle, and charged. The men of the brigade saw that act of bravery, went over the top, and overwhelmed the German positions. On the 26th of June, 1918, Colonel George Marshall handed General Pershing the following telegram: “Woods now U.S. Marine Corps’ entirely.”
Earlier this year, the President of the French Republic presented to President Trump a sapling for the White House grounds taken from Belleau Wood—a place renamed by a grateful ally The Wood of the Brigade of Marines.
And finally, there was a less celebrated warrior, a nearsighted farmer from Jackson County, Missouri, who cheated and lied to get into the field artillery because he could not stand the thought of his friends and neighbors going to war and he not being there to support them. He would go on to become one of the greatest presidents in our history.
So, there they are—Captain Abram Somerville, my great-grandfather, Sergeant Alvin York, Private Onslow Bullard, my wife’s grandfather, Corporals Needham Roberts and William Johnson, Private Martin Tripp, Sergeant Dan Daily, and Captain Harry S. Truman. They are the testament to the ordinary citizens who have performed extraordinary deeds in the defense of this republic from Lexington to Afghanistan.
All told, more than 41 million American men and women have served during times of war, and almost 700,000 have given the last full measure. And if you ask any of them why they did it, they would tell you it was the right thing to do. This day is for them. It is for those who have served through all of the lonely outposts in the military, at home, and in distant lands who left families and loved ones and who overcame challenges that many of us will find unimaginable.
The towering figure of 20th Century American Literature, William Faulkner, when he accepted the Nobel Prize for literature in 1950, was ostensibly speaking to novelists and journalists; but, I believe that he was also speaking to the heart of the soldier that he longed to be during the Great War. He spoke of, and I quote, “A life’s work spent in the agony of sweat of the human spirit, not for glory, but to make out of the material of the human spirit something which was not there before. He must teach himself that the basis of all things is to be afraid, and teaching himself that forget it forever, leaving no room for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart. The old universal truths lacking, without which any story is doomed, and they are love and honor, pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he relearns those things, he will write as though he stood and watched the end of man. But no matter what the soldier sees, no matter how terrible, it is he who declines to accept the end of man. It is the soldier who endures.”
I will leave you with the prayer of General Matthew Ridgeway, who tossed restlessly in his cot on the evening of June 6th, 1944 as the 82nd Airborne Division and the 101st Airborne Division prepared to launch the liberation of Europe. The great man asked for the prayer that God gave to Joshua. “I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee.
In May of 1986, as Ronald Reagan awarded General Ridgeway the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he said of him, “Heroes come when they’re needed. Great men step forward when courage seems in short supply.” This day is about great men and women whom we can never forsake.
So, may God bless you. God bless all who have served this great republic. And may God continue to bless the United States of America.
Thank you all very much.