Remains of USS Monitor sailors arrive at Dulles Airport

The wind rustled the red, white and blue flags on the two caskets. It blew the pantlegs of the waiting ceremonial guard, and it lifted the jumper flaps on the sailors’ uniforms.

It might have seemed familiar to the two shipmates whose bones were borne from the hold of an aircraft Thursday, a century and a half after they perished in a storm off the North Carolina coast.

But the two men, who died aboard the USS Monitor in 1862, were safe from the winds now, and back in the white-gloved hands of fellow sailors who were readying them for their burial Friday at Arlington National Cemetery.

The two sets of remains, which were found when the famous Monitor’s 150-ton turret was raised from the bottom of ocean in 2002, arrived at 11:30 a.m. at Washington Dulles International Airport.

They were flown through Atlanta on a Delta Airlines commercial flight from a military identification laboratory in Hawaii. There they had been studied for the past 10 years, and their identities sought, in vain.


The crew of the USS Monitor sit on the deck. (Library of Congress)

As the plane landed, passengers could be seen taking snapshots from the windows, and the plane’s pilot, Capt. Steve Manley, came down from the cockpit, stood at attention and saluted near the nose of his jet.

Manley had told the passengers about the remains, explained the history of the Monitor and asked that people stay in their seats until the caskets were unloaded.

As the gusts came, and quiet commands were issued, the caskets were then carried by a Navy Ceremonial Guard to two gray hearses, which took them to an Arlington funeral home to await burial Friday.

One of the most renowned vessels in history, the Monitor is famous for engaging in the first battle between ironclad warships on March 9, 1862. Its opponent was the formidable Confederate ship CSS Virginia, formerly the USS Merrimack.

The battle in Hampton Roads was a draw, but many people thought the Monitor had saved the Union from the Confederate behemoth.

The Monitor and its crew became national heroes. The ship was swarmed with visitors who begged for autographs. One woman, given a tour, kissed the guns. An emotional President Abraham Lincoln went aboard and reviewed the assembled crew, hat in hand.

But 10 months later as the Monitor was being towed off the coast of North Carolina, it got caught in a fierce storm, capsized and sank. It went undiscovered until a scientific team located the wreck in 1974.

Most of the Monitor’s crew escaped the sinking, but 16 men died, including the two who were trapped in the turret.

The names of all 16 are known, but experts could not determine which of them were the ones who were recovered.

One was a younger man, about 21, whose skull showed he had suffered a broken nose and whose feet were clad in a pair of beat-up, mismatched shoes.

The other man was older, about 35, and his bones showed that he might have had a limp from a previous injury. He also had a groove in his left front teeth, probably from clenching a pipe, and he wore a gold ring with a crude swirling pattern on a right-hand finger.

The arrival at Dulles was emotional for some of those who had been working on the Monitor project for years.

“I was thinking of the irony that these men who fought to preserve the Union flew over a United States last night that they couldn’t even have comprehended in 1862,” said David W. Alberg, superintendent of NOAA’s Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, who was aboard the plane.

“It’s reassuring that everything that they fought for was not in vain, that the nation not only survived but has thrived,” he said.

The funeral Friday is open to the public. After a service at the adjacent Fort Myer chapel, the men are to be buried at 4:30 p.m. in the cemetery’s Section 46.

Assistant Secretary of the Navy Juan M. Garcia, who was on hand to meet the plane, said: “It’s delivering on a commitment we make to every one of our sailors . . . you will to the maximum extent possible, you will be brought home . . . even if it takes a century and a half.”

Mike is a general assignment reporter who also covers Washington institutions and historical topics.
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