Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
Remarks by Secretary Robert Wilkie
National World War I Memorial Wreath-Laying
Pershing Park, Washington, DC
November 8, 2018
Commissioner Hamby, Colonel Pritzker, Commissioners, Colonel Morin, my friend, the former National Commander of the American Legion, we are standing on a spot a few feet from where that great American institution was born at the behest of the man who is standing behind me. We are also privileged today to have with us Mrs. Helen Patton, granddaughter of the man whose greatest inspiration is standing beside me today.
One hundred years ago, my great-grandfather Captain A.D. Somerville left a small-town law practice in the Mississippi Delta and a part-time teaching job at Ole Miss Law School to join the Army assembling at Camp Gordon, Georgia. Across the cantonment from him was a reluctant soldier, a scratch farmer from Pall Mall, Tennessee, by way of Buncombe County, North Carolina, who would go on to become the greatest American hero of that war, Alvin York.
In another part of Georgia was my wife’s grandfather. He was a teenager. He never ventured much beyond two or three counties in North and South Carolina, but before he was 19 he was marching up the Champs-Élysées into the Meuse-Argonne.
But there were people who were already there. Members of the legendary 369th Infantry Regiment, the Harlem Hellfighters who, because of what existed in our country at that time, were going into battle not wearing the tin pot of the American infantry, but wearing the helmet of France. Two corporals of the 369th, Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts, were the first Americans to win the French Croix De Guerre. Their regiment spent more days on the front line, received more casualties, and were given more American and French decorations than any other American unit in that war.
Less celebrated a warrior was a farmer from Jackson County, Missouri, who lied and cheated to get into the field artillery because he could not bear the thought of his friends and neighbors going to war without him to support them. He would go on to become one of the greatest presidents in our history, and his name was Harry Truman.
We can also not forget the professionals—the professional soldiers, sailors, and Marines who were taken to France by the most formidable of American warriors, the only man in our history to wear six stars on his shoulders, John J. Pershing.
So, when I was asked to come here, I wanted to talk about the ordinary Americans—not the great generals and captains of battle, Douglas McArthur and those who would go on to lead millions in World War II like George C. Marshall. I wanted to talk about those ordinary Americans who were called upon to do extraordinary things, and allow the American nation to erupt on the world stage. And when I was thinking about what they went through, what my great-grandfather went through, what my wife’s grandfather went through, those thoughts were brought back to me.
Last week I was privileged to visit Rowan Oak in Oxford, Mississippi, the home of the towering figure of twentieth-century American literature William Faulkner. And I reflected on the speech he gave when he accepted the 1950 Nobel Prize. At its face, it was speaking about writers, people of letters, but at its heart I really believe it was speaking to the soul of the soldier, the soldier that William Faulkner had hoped and prayed to be during the Great War.
Faulkner spoke, and I quote, of “a life’s work spent in the agony and the 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 in his heart for anything but the old verities, the old truths, the universal truths lacking, which any story is ephemeral and doomed: love, honor, pride, and compassion, and, above all, sacrifice. … Until he relearns these 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 always endures.
So let this monument remind us of that long-ago generation by reminding us of their courage, their sacrifice, and their common bond as citizens of the greatest republic in history. So may God continue to bless our nation. May He bless all American men and women living and past, to whom we give thanks, and for whom we sleep soundly at night because of their sacrifices.
Thank you all very much.