Graves B. Erskine: Marine Hero Who Commanded the Unknown Soldier’s Honor Guard

By Kevin M. Hymel, Historian on 11/4/2021

In honor of the 246th birthday of the United States Marine Corps (USMC) on November 10, and the 100th anniversary of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on November 11, we highlight Graves B. Erskine, who is buried in Section 5 of the cemetery. A USMC World War I veteran and future general, then-Captain Erskine commanded the guard of honor that watched over the Unknown’s casket during its turbulent voyage from France to the United States aboard the USS Olympia from October 25 to November 9, 1921.

Graves Erskine, a decorated, wounded-in-action Marine Corps veteran of World War I, commanded the honor guard that escorted the Unknown Soldier to the United States. (USMC)

Thirty-eight Marines had joined the USS Olympia for this special mission. Under Erskine’s command, they played an important role in the ceremonies as the ship departed Le Havre, France, with the Unknown Soldier, sailed across the Atlantic, and eventually arrived at the Washington Navy Yard. While Erskine may have been selected for this role based on his French skills (which turned out to be mediocre, in his own assessment), it is more probable that his record in the war contributed to his selection for this important assignment.

Erskine had served in several of the war’s major engagements and had been wounded in combat. The 21-year-old lieutenant fought in the Battle of Belleau Wood in early June 1918, survived a bout with influenza, and then sustained a wound during the fight for Soissons a month later. On September 13, 1918, the second day of the Battle of St. Mihiel—the first major independent offensive of the American Expeditionary Forces—a German machine gunner hit Erskine in the right leg, shattering his thigh bone. This last injury took him out of the war. Nonetheless, Erskine had not only survived, but had also attained a distinguished service record during just three months of combat.

A native of Columbia, Louisiana, Erskine joined the National Guard in 1912, while he was a student at Louisiana State University. He served along the Mexican border in 1916, and, after graduating that year, joined the U.S. Marine Corps as a second lieutenant with a probationary commission. After the United States declared war on Germany on April 2, 1917, Erskine reported to Quantico for officer training. He encountered difficulties because the other men could not understand his southern accent. Unsatisfied with his training, he tried to resign his commission and join the Canadian Army, but his superior officer did not forward his request to do so. In October 1917, Erskine took command of a platoon in Captain Randolph T. Zane’s 79th Company, part of the 2nd Battalion of the newly-formed Sixth Marine Regiment. Erskine, and the rest of the battalion, departed Quantico on January 18, 1918, and shipped out from Philadelphia to sail for France.

Two months later, the Sixth Marine Regiment reached the battle lines near the relatively quiet sector of Verdun, where it was attached to the U.S. Army’s 2nd Division. Like many American officers waiting to enter combat, Erskine attended a month-long course on automatic weapons and musketry. When he learned that the German Army had broken through the Allied line and was advancing toward Paris, he took an abrupt leave and rejoined the 2nd Battalion in the town of Meaux, inaccurately telling his battalion commander that he had completed his training.

During the Battle of Belleau Wood in June 1918, Erskine personally overran a German machine gun nest manned by a single gunner. Nonetheless, the intense fighting in and around Belleau Wood reduced Erskine’s platoon from fifty-eight men down to five or six. When he sent a message back to Captain Zane that his platoon was pinned down, Zane ordered him to keep advancing. Erskine led his men forward, helping to capture the town of Boureches, behind Belleau Wood. Reinforced by about twenty engineers, Erskine and his men dug in behind a high hedge northeast of the town. German forces attacked Erskine’s group three times and were repulsed each time. After Captain Zane was seriously wounded, Erskine took over the company for the rest of the battle.

After the fighting ended, Erskine was promoted to captain, but soon came down with influenza. The global influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 affected between 20 and 40 percent of American military personal; more than 55,000 U.S. service members are believed to have died of influenza. The virus overwhelmed field and general hospitals and reduced the numbers of new soldiers arriving from the United States.

Despite his illness, when Erskine learned that his company was headed to Soissons, he left the sickbay and hitchhiked rides until he was able to locate his company in the Forêt de Retz. In what became known as the Aisne-Marne Offensive, the Marines attacked the advancing German Army and, by July 15, 1918, stopped it from further moving toward Paris. On the second day of fighting, an exploding enemy shell knocked Erskine unconscious, and he had to be evacuated from the battlefield.

After doctors restored his hearing from the blast, Erskine rejoined his unit in time to participate in the Battle of St. Mihiel. On the second day of the battle, casualties mounted, and a machine gun bullet hit Erskine’s right leg. The injury proved so serious that Erskine had to be sent back to the United States. As he recovered at a naval hospital in Norfolk, Virginia, the war ended on November 11, 1918. He had survived the war, unlike more than 2,400 of his fellow Marines—some of whose remains would never be identified.

Possibly for his service during World War I, Captain Graves B. Erskine was made commander of the guard of honor sent to France to escort the Unknown Soldier’s body back to the United States. On October 25, 1921, at the port of Le Havre, France, the Unknown’s casket was carried aboard the USS Olympia. Erskine and his Marines presented arms on the dock, while the Olympia’s band played the French and American national anthems, as well as Frédéric Chopin’s “Funeral March.” During the Olympia’s two-week voyage from France to Washington, D.C, Erskine and his Marines stood watch over the casket, despite the rough seas.

Following his role in the World War I Unknown Soldier’s journey to the United States, Erskine went on to have a distinguished military career. During the interwar period, he served at various posts in the Caribbean, Central America and China. When the United States entered World War II, he became the youngest brigadier general in the Marine Corps. In the Pacific theater, he helped plan the Allied invasion of the Gilbert Islands in 1943, and accompanied the landing forces at Kwajalein, Saipan and Tinian (Marshall and Mariana Islands) in 1944, earning the Legion of Merit. He then led the 3rd Marine Division against Japanese forces on the island of Iwo Jima from February to March 1945, receiving the Navy Distinguished Service Medal for his actions.


Erskine's headstone at Arlington National Cemetery. (U.S. Army photo/Liz Fraser)

After World War II, Erskine remained in the Marine Corps and headed initiatives to help servicemen return to civilian life. He retired from the Marine Corps in 1953 as a four-star general, and was appointed as an assistant to the Secretary of Defense. In his Pentagon career from 1953 to 1961, he served under four secretaries of defense, specializing in special intelligence operations. Erskine passed away on May 21, 1973 and was buried in Section 5 of Arlington National Cemetery.

Although Erskine survived his combat injuries from World War I, he and the Unknown Soldier shared the experience of the war’s horrors, and both made sacrifices to serve their country.  Erskine’s role in the transportation of the World War I Unknown connected him to the Tomb for the remainder of his life, through his many years in the Marine Corps and his service in World War II. It is fitting that they both rest at Arlington National Cemetery, honored together among their comrades on these hallowed grounds.

Selected Sources Consulted

•  Alexander, Joseph H. and Edwin Howard Simmons. Through the Wheat: The U.S. Marines in World War I. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2008.

•  Fargey, Kathleen. “The Deadliest Enemy: The U.S. Army and Influenza, 1918-1919.” Army History, Spring 2019.

•  “Gen. Graves Erskine, 75, Dead; Led Third Marines at Iwo Jima.” New York Times, May 23, 1973.

•  Graves Erskine Biographical Files. Edwin H. Simmons Marine Corps History Center, Quantico, Virginia.

•  Marine Corps Archives and Special Collections Branch, Library of the Marine Corps, Gray Research Center. “Graves B. Erskine: A Register of His Papers in the Marine Corps Archives and Special Collections.” 2008.

•  U.S. Army Center of Military History. Over There, Issue 3, September 2017.

•  Yockelson, Mitchell. Forty-Seven Days: How Pershing’s Warriors Came of Age to Defeat the German Army. New York: NAL Caliber, 2016.

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Kevin M. Hymel