Have you ever heard a story that was so unforgettable that you even remember where you were and when it was told? I can recall such a story our teacher shared with our class in May of 1959, an account that has remained burned in my memory ever since.
There was a little boy, about five years old who was the delight of his mother and father. One day he raced outside and began playing near a tulip bed. His blond curls were almost as yellow as the tulips. When the sun came out from behind a cloud, several yellow butterflies hovered over his head. His mother marveled and said, “They think you’re a flower, Dick. It’s good luck to have a butterfly land on your head. A butterfly is the symbol of immortality.”
The mother told her husband of the butterfly event and they looked for pictures of yellow butterflies to be able to identify what variety they were. It was determined that they were Cloudless Sulphur butterflies that migrate from north to south and back each spring and autumn. They often hide near the ground and only come out when the sun shines.
The young boy’s father died when he was only eleven which drew the mother and son even closer to each other. According to his mother, Dick continued to grow in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man. He grew into a loving man of upstanding character and he was his mother’s joy.
Even though he completed his education at a university, when war in Europe broke out and America joined in, he decided not to enter service as an officer but as a doughboy.
Like any mother, she expressed her concern for him, but Dick replied, “The best thing to do with a life is to give it away, you taught me that and this certainly is the best way to give it, for our America. Nothing can happen that’s unbearable.” After his training, Dick was shipped overseas, and for a long time, the mail they shared kept him and his mother as close as possible. But the day came when she received a notice that Dick was missing in action.
The mother never lost hope, even as the war drew to a close and the men began returning home. She thought of her son as a symbol of all that was good in America even if he never returned home.
Congress approved a resolution on March 4, 1921, providing for the burial of an unidentified American Soldier at a memorial to the war to be built in Arlington National Cemetery. Dick’s mother felt certain that the Unknown Soldier was her beloved son. She saved money so that she could travel to and attend the dedication of the monument and she asked God for a sign that it was her precious Dick who was to be interred there.
On Memorial Day that same year, an Unknown Soldier was exhumed from each of four cemeteries in France. These remains were placed in identical caskets and in October a highly decorated, wounded veteran chose the Unknown by placing white roses on one of the caskets. This would be the Unknown Soldier that would represent all of the unknowns. On Armistice Day Nov. 11, 1921, President Warren G. Harding officiated at the interment ceremonies in Arlington. Inscribed on the tomb are the words,
“Here Rests in Honored Glory
An American Soldier Known But To God.”
Dick’s mother was at the Navy Yard when the ship carrying the flag-draped coffin arrived and she was in attendance at the long ceremony. The next day she was among thousands who attended the internment; still certain it was her son who would represent all the missing. She only needed the sign she believed God would provide. She gave a soldier her own flowers to add to the many already gracing the grave. When the ceremony ended the attendees drifted away, and she was left to wonder, where was God’s sign?
She went home to Kentucky but returned to Arlington Cemetery the next April. She scattered yellow tulips on the grave and pleaded with God for the reassurance she sought. She bent and kissed the yellow tulips and got up to leave. As the noon hour bells rang, she turned to give a last look at the tomb where she saw a mass of Cloudless Sulphur butterflies hovering over the tomb before lighting on the yellow tulips. She believed it was the sign she had asked for and was convinced God had given her the sign that here rested her son, a proud and patriotic American still serving his nation.
Over the years I’ve wondered about the veracity of this story and, with access that the internet allows, it was easy to research. Yellow Butterflies, by Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews, was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1922. Whether the author’s story was entirely fiction or based on actual events remains a mystery, much like the American WWI hero entombed at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington.
To learn more about the fascinating history of the Tomb of the Unknowns and the remarkable sentinels who stand guard every day, see: