The Unknowns: An Interview with Patrick K. O’Donnell

Patrick K. O’Donnell has loved history his whole life. When other kids were reading dinosaur books, he was at the library checking out massive volumes on the American involvement in World War One. He had a library of 500 or 600 books by the time he was eight or nine—almost all of them military history, along with the Hardy Boys, of course.

He could also be found dragging his family to yet another historic battle site in and around the Cleveland area where he grew up. “We would go to museums on weekends. I’ll never forget these priceless memories, such as visiting an old mansion turned into a museum that displayed a Doughboy’s WWI helmet and gas mask. I was fascinated by this stuff and the places we visited. My love for history just grew and grew. It’s not something that just came about recently is what I’m trying to get at!” he says laughing. “This is a lifelong passion. I’ve been to many of the battlefields in North America. My father shared and fueled my passion for history, but sometimes, I’d go too far, and Dad would say, ‘You’ve seen one battlefield, you’ve seen ‘em all. They’re all the same.’ And I would respond, ‘No they’re not! We’ve got to go to one more, Dad!’”

Mr. O’Donnell has written many books on American history, ranging from the Revolutionary War to serving with (and writing about) our current warriors overseas in the Middle East. His newest book, The Unknowns: The Untold Story of America’s Unknown Soldier and WWI’s Most Decorated Heroes Who Brought Him Home, is a grand tour of the Great War, told from many different vantage points by many different men. One commonality, though, is that they all served with honor and distinction—taking part in some of the most daring and brutal moments of the war.

The Body Bearers chosen by General Pershing.

In 2013, as a volunteer guide, he accompanied the Marines of the Wounded Warrior Regiment to the hallowed ground of Belleau Wood—since renamed Bois de la Brigade de Marine for the heroics demonstrated there by the Marine Corps during WWI. As Patrick walked the battle-scarred earth, a fellow guide mentioned the exploits of one Ernest A. Janson, whose bravery earned him the first Medal of Honor given during the Great War. He also mentioned Janson was one of the men personally chosen by General Pershing to carry the remains of the Unknown Soldier home. Intrigued, Mr. O’Donnell wondered who the other Body Bearers were, and if they had unique stories as well.

Body Bearer Earnest A. Janson.

When asked about what he’d like people to know about his latest book, he responded,The Unknowns is multiple stories wrapped into one story. It’s the story of the Unknown Soldier. It’s the story of the ceremony around it. It’s really the story of Pershing’s Body Bearers; these are eight men that were selected by General Pershing to bring back the remains. It’s also the story of Edward Younger, who selects the Unknown Soldier. But this story tells the larger narrative of World War One through the American experience and the American Expeditionary Forces. Each one of these men represents a service branchthe Army, the Marine Corps and the Navy, and then combat specializations within that—the cavalry, the field artillery, the heavy guns, the coast artillery, and others. It provides a different viewpoint that most people aren’t familiar with. The Unknowns is a very personal book—it’s character driven. It’s also the story of the 49th Company—one of its most decorated units in the Marine Corps—that saw some of the toughest combat. It goes through the entire war with them; it’s a ‘Band of Brothers’ on the 49th.”

General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing.

When asked about his writing process, he says “I think all the stories that I’ve written have found me in one way or another serendipitously. Ideas. And ideas are incredibly valuable. Fortunately, all eleven books sort of found me in one way or another, and taking that raw idea and creating a story is really an art, not a science. My process is I try not to ever look at what I do as work. I like what I do—I love what I do. I just like to journey along and explore things and find things; I don’t really like to look at it as a process or anything like that. Books are a journey and fun. I don’t think I’ve really worked for twenty years—that’s kind of the way I look at it, even though I spend an enormous amount of time doing what I do. I do all my own research and I have interviewed thousands of veterans from WWI to Iraq. Had a hand in designing the jackets, and all the titles and subtitles. I’m involved at all levels even though I have very established publishers and an exceptional editor. My editor—he’s awesome, he’s been doing this for over thirty years and I treasure the partnership.”

When I asked him to tell me about how another story serendipitously found him, he told me the jaw-dropping tale of Give Me Tomorrow his book on the Korean War. “I had just gotten out of combat with the Marines in Fallujah, and I had been involved in housetohouse fighting and everything else for well over a month. Then I went back to Iraq. When I came home to the United States, I came home with the men. It was a very powerful experience to be with the people that I had fought with. Many of the men were carrying two weapons: their own and also the weapon of a Marine who had died in combat. I sat next to one of those Marines. He was carrying the weapon of a man that I had carried out of a firefight. And sitting next to him, that was pretty powerful. It was the second time I had come home; but I told my parents not to come, and I came home alone from the war.”

Patrick K. O’Donnell

So, I came out and walked across the bridge with everybody, and they were there with their families and it was pretty weird. It was an eerie experience coming home to that because everybody had somebody—I didn’t. I was alone. And these older men came up to me and they asked me who I was. I told them I was a combat historian with Lima Company 3/1. And they said ‘Well, we were George Company 3/1, during the Korean War. You carried our battle guidon.‘Oh, wow,’ I responded. Next, they said to me, in an act of random kindness, ‘Do you want a ride?’ And I responded, ‘Thank you, I really could use a ride. I’m not completely sure how I’m going to get to the train station.’’

And the next thing I know, they asked me if I would like to go to lunch with them. And I said, ‘Absolutely. So we went back in time. I told them about Fallujah,and they told me about Korea. And they told me an amazing story of the First Sergeant, Rocco Zullo, who was manning a .50 caliber machine gun and helped lead the breakthrough into the Chosin Reservoir. And as George Company broke through to the Marine outpost at Hagaru Ri, he was shot in the stomach. There was no sign of life, and Zullo was left for dead. George Company thought he was killed, and he was put on a pile of about eight or nine dead Marines. Nobody in George Company had seen him after that point. George fought up East Hill. They held the hill, and to make a long story short, their actions helped save the 1st Marine Division and perhaps the war. Later, they asked me to come to their reunion, and I did that a year later. And I found out that at their very first reunion in the 1980s; the first sergeant that was killed, that they had not seen or heard from—it was amazing—somebody from another unit had found him on the pile after he had been sitting there for about nine hours. A Marine heard him cough, and they rushed him into a field hospital and saved his life—but nobody in the unit knew that. And when they had their first reunion he showed up—and didn’t tell anybody who he was. He walked around the room and people were saying ‘Rocco Zullo died in November 1950,’—and he calmly responded, ‘No, he didn’t. I’m Rocco Zullo.’ And that begins my book—when a ghost returns to the unit. And book is called Give me Tomorrow. That’s just how one of the books has found me.”

He continued, “Basically I had a situation where many people told me that that book would never happen or succeed because it was on the Korean War. ‘The book is on a forgotten war, a story that’s just moribund—the Korean War doesn’t sell books.’ But I believed in the story. I think it’s a movie—I still believe that—and it ended up being one of my bestselling books.”

The Great War saw the advent of the tank on the battlefield.

When I did asked him if it was therapeutic to exchange stories with the Korean veterans so soon after coming back from Iraq, he said, “Yes and no. I think that that’s something that’s kind of personal, and everyone has their own way of working though it. I guess it was sort of the realization that many, many generations of combatants had gone through similar experiences, and that I wasn’t alone in that. It’s easy to dwell on, but for me I found a lot of positive things that came out of Fallujah that were important for me. For instance, I would say my faith was reestablished in Fallujah. Before Fallujah, I was practically agnostic—and then when I was there, I was not afraid. I just felt a guiding spirit or something that just protected me—a sense of calm when the entire battle was raging around me and people were dying and things were blowing up. I felt a calm and heightened awareness that I can’t explain—somewhat of an inner peace. I reaffirmed my faith through that experience, when I look at the positives from the battle.”

Patrick fought shoulder to shoulder with the Marines in Fallujah and later penned a book about eight best friends in First Platoon (only three of the eight survived Iraq) titled: We Were One. The book was a selection of the USMC Commandant’s Professional Reading List (required reading for enlisted marines.) In a way, after reading and writing about war his whole life; he had finally come full circle—joining the brotherhood of men who know what it is to be at war—and on a battlefield.

“I was very impressed with the men I was with in combat, and the ways that they conducted themselves. It was really an extraordinary event for me, just to see how they performed under these extreme circumstances; just like the generations of the past—the greatest generations—they were their own greatest generation.”

When I ask him to describe the similarities that exist between the two Marine units—one current day and the other set in the amber of the past in WWI, he says that it was their élan, willingness to do their duty and return back to the field—even after being wounded—to be side by side with their brothers in arms.

While he couldn’t pick a favorite Doughboy in The Unknowns, Patrick has a particular affinity for John Thomason. “He was with the 49th Company—the executive officer—and he was a writer. Some of the book is drawn upon his recollections of the scenes. His combat descriptions are incredible and he’s a very talented artist. I was drawn to him. He was very inspiring and was decorated for his bravery. There are some really compelling scenes in there. One for instance—he describes how this young lieutenant comes into battle and he almost has this girlish grin as he’s jaunting into battle twirling a pair of binoculars. Minutes later a shell hits and all that is remaining is this arm that’s stretched in the air that’s stiff holding the binoculars. The scenes that Thomason paints are very vivid and gripping.”

Captain John Thomason

A charity that Mr. O’Donnell supports and is involved in is the American Battlefield Trust (previously known as The Civil War Trust.) They provide historical preservation to hallowed battlefields in the United States. “That’s something I really support because it’s tangible. They have preserved nearly fifty thousand acres of battlefield in the United States. It’s a really great cause. And that’s a constant challenge because we are in danger of losing history from a variety of forces. History is America’s soul. History can heal. I am passionate about preserving it.”

He also says there is incredible history to be found in and around Brooklyn and Manhattan for anyone who wishes to explore. “I would suggest that people visit the battlefield of Brooklyn—that is exactly what I mean by history in plain sight. It’s a battle that is arguably more important than the Battle of Gettysburg because it was a situation where the entire Revolution could have been lost. And it’s tragic. There’s no national battlefield in Brooklyn. There’s very little of the battlefield marked, but in Brooklyn there are areas that you can go back in time. And then just looking around, interestingly enough, at the site of the base of Brooklyn Bridge, right there is where Washington crossed back over into Manhattan, in arguably one of the greatest military evacuations in history, which took place right under the eyes of the British when a fog sets in and screens the army from the British. Then there’s Fraunces Tavern, where Washington said goodbye to his officers. It’s a really great place to visit. It’s still a working tavern and then there’s a museum on the second floor.”

German U-Boat sinking a merchant ship in the Atlantic.

Patrick K. O’Donnell’s newest work is pure time travel for anyone who wishes to open the book, and I for one am very much looking forward to reading the story that serendipitously finds him next. When I ask him if there was one thing he would want to communicate to the American people about WWI, he said this: “Well, I would say that this is the hundredth anniversary, and very few people seem to notice or care. And I think that that’s really a shame. It’s an incredible injustice to that generation that’s really it’s own greatest generation. It’s a forgotten generation that did remarkable things, that changed the world, and they were just regular, average Americans that had to mobilize for war—in this case, total war. They were given poor equipment. The tactics that they received were not good initially, but they improvised and innovated and defeated one of the greatest armies: the Imperial German Army. It’s an extraordinary story of human endurance, innovation, American exceptionalism—it’s all there. The book captures America’s involvement in WWIsomething most Americans don’t have a clue about. It’s history in plain sight, and the stories are incredibly compelling and interesting. It’s not just the trenches if you will; it’s a lot of other experiences. The Unknowns is story and character-driven. It’s a hidden war within a war. It’s all about stories.”

In gray, drizzly weather, the Body Bearers carried the Unknown Soldier from the ship Olympia to the awaiting horse-drawn carriage caisson that transported the body to the U.S. Capitol.

The Unknowns is about all of these things and yet so much more—something greater. It’s about the responsibility not to forget; to remember the past so we can carry its hardearned lessons with us into the present day. The books reminds us that war was—and continues to be—truly hell, and not for the faint of heart. But most importantly, it is about the men who take up arms to protect and defend us, and how they are worthy of being known—even those that can’t be.

America’s most sacred monument is guarded twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year, regardless of whether conditions.

Check out Mr. O’Donnell’s other books at http://patrickkodonnell.com

You can also follow him on Twitter: @combathistorian