The U.S. Navy honored two unknown Sailors, found inside the sunken USS Monitor during an expedition to recover artifacts in 2002, with an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, March 8.
Special guests at the ceremony included Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, Acting Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere Kathryn Sullivan and James McPherson, Professor of American History, Emeritus, Princeton University.
Mabus spoke on the sacrifice the Sailors made during the Civil War and the importance of honoring the crew who paved the way for the modern Navy.
“This ceremony also honors every individual who ever put to sea in defense of our country,” said Mabus. “From the Marblehead men who rowed Washington across the Delaware, to these brave souls, to those who serve today in nuclear-powered carriers and submarines, Sailors have always been the same; they are at heart risk-takers, willing – even eager – to brave the unknown to peer past distant horizons.”
The date for the ceremony was chosen to recognize a historic day in naval history, the day Monitor arrived in Hampton Roads before its famous battle with Confederate iron clad CSS Virginia which took place 151 years ago March 9, 1962. Known as the Battle of Hampton Roads, it was the first fight between two iron-armored ships. Although the battle ended in a draw, Monitor fulfilled her orders to protect the Union ship Minnesota.
“This was one of the most important naval battles in history, one of those rare occasions when technology raced ahead of our understanding of how to fully employ it,” said Capt. Henry Hendrix, director of Naval History and Heritage Command. “The battle between USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia will always serve as an anchor point for U.S. naval history.”
The Monitor would only serve until Dec. 31, 1862 when she sank near Cape Hatteras, off the coast of North Carolina. She remained sunken for 112 years until the wreckage was discovered in 1974, and was designated the nation’s first national marine sanctuary.
In 2002, during an expedition to recover the ship’s gun turret, the remains of two sailors were discovered and transported to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command.
During Sullivan’s remarks to the more than 200 who attended the chapel service, she read a letter written by Dr. Grenville Weeks, the surgeon aboard the Monitor, which expressed his feelings on losing the sunken ship and his devotion to ensure she is remembered by future generations.
“Just as the crew of the Monitor fought tirelessly to keep their ‘old-time knight in armor’ afloat that day, so have many worked tirelessly since her loss to fulfill Dr. Weeks’ commitment to the ship, and her crew and to the 16 souls who were lost that night,” said Sullivan. “Today we take another somber step, laying two of her sailors to rest in the hallowed ground of Arlington National Cemetery. As we do so, let us all reaffirm our own commitment, to forever remember the work of the Monitor and to ensure her story is told to our children’s children.”
With the help of facial reconstruction created by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Louisiana State University’s Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services Laboratory, JPAC continues to search for the identity of the two Sailors.
In keeping with the Navy’s tradition to honor a service member’s final resting place, possible descendants of 30 family members from 10 different families, confirmed through a biological profile created by JPAC, were invited to take part in the ceremony.
“It’s amazing – what they went through and what we have today, and it’s a blessing to be here to pay final tribute to the [service members] who have given their lives to help us have a better life,” said Jamie Nicklis, descendant of Jacob Nicklis, one of the 16 sailors honored during the ceremony. “It was a beautiful service that they provided for us, and we are very thankful for the government and our country and for all the families here today.”
The unknown sailors and 14 other crew members who died as the Monitor sank will be memorialized on a group marker in section 46 of the cemetery.