ARLINGTON — The U.S. Navy made good on a 150-year-old promise Friday when it buried two Civil War sailors lost in the sinking of the pioneering ironclad warship USS Monitor.
Laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery with the solemn pomp and circumstance of a mournful band and a 50-man honor guard, the sailors' names remain unknown despite more than a decade of intensive forensic detective work by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command.
But from the Secretary of the Navy — who spoke at their packed memorial service — to the white-capped, white-gaitered sailors in formal dress blues who carried two extra caps as poignant reminders — the long-lost crewmen were embraced as not just returning shipmates but brothers.
"I'm so thrilled that we're going to honor not just these two but all 16 of Monitor's missing men, because what we're doing to honor them symbolizes what it means to be a sailor," said retired Capt. Bobbie Scholley. Scholley led the Navy divers who recovered the remains and the Monitor's turret from the Graveyard of the Atlantic in 2002.
"We are all part of the same crew, the same team, the same family. And that bond is something you never forget."
More than 20 descendants of the Monitor's crew attended the service and interment as guests of the Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which also staged a luncheon for the families and other guests in Arlington.
Made up of many children as well as adults, they all wore badges announcing not only their own names but the names of their Monitor ancestors, including seaman Jacob Nicklis, yeoman William Bryant and boatswain's mate Wells Wentz, all of whom were lost when the Monitor went down in a Cape Hatteras, N.C., storm just nine months after its historic clash with the CSS Virginia in the March 9, 1862, Battle of Hampton Roads.
Jamie Nicklis grew up in Ohio hearing stories about his Civil War relative, who had served as a sailor aboard "a famous ship."
But not until he was contacted by the Navy about 18 months ago did he and his family realize that the famous ship was the Monitor.
He and his 15-year-old son, Brock, later donated DNA for the battery of ultimately fruitless tests carried out in an attempt to determine the identity of the younger set of remains. But despite the inconclusive results, the whole family as well as numerous cousins traveled to Arlington to honor their relative and his newly discovered service.
"We can't prove it was him. The tests didn't work out. But I don't have any doubt," Nicklis said, citing the close match between the age and height listed on his ancestor's enlistment records and the skeletal remains.
"So it was an honor to come down and show our respect. Jacob gave his life for his country."
Other expressions of respect came from unexpected places as the remains made their way by air from the Central Identification Lab in Hawaii.
Escorted by Superintendent David Alberg of the Newport News-based Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, the somber silver-gray caskets sparked unusual interest in Atlanta, where scores of Delta Air ground workers lined up to honor the lost sailors with a spontaneous salute.
Alberg saw the same kind of curious reverence among the passengers in the plane's cabin as they talked about their solemn cargo during the flight.
"I had prepared remarks. But my perspective has changed over the past few days as I've traveled with the remains of these sailors," he told the audience of some 200 gathered for the descendants' luncheon.
"Their story is much more than another fact in a history book. It's a story that has touched Americans across the country.
"And it's our job to keep it moving forward so their sacrifice will be remembered."