A Story Waiting to be Told

We The Unknown (WETU) was conceived by Rob Hill, a retired Army Lt. Col and third-generation soldier whose paternal grandfather, John G. Hill, Sr., served in World War I. The idea came to him after hearing a brief history of how America’s Unknown Soldier was selected. Almost immediately, he wondered, “what if the person selected was gay or African-American or someone else we might not otherwise expect?” Initially, he considered almost every other format possible to tell the story—novel, film, play—but when he moved to Kansas City, home to the National World War I Museum and Memorial, and joined the Heartland Men’s Chorus (HMC), he decided that a choral work for men’s voices was the best medium to pay tribute not only to the Unknown Soldier but all who have served, many in silence.

Rather than use existing music, HMC’s artistic director, Dustin Cates, recommended a new commission and suggested composer Timothy C. Takach for the job. Takach, who co-created the theatrical production All is Calm: the Christmas Truce of 1914, with Peter Rothstein and sang with Cantus, one of the U.S.’s premier men’s vocal ensembles, is quickly becoming among the most sought-after choral composers in the nation.

Hill drafted the libretto based on a number of sources, particularly historical narratives about the role of Sgt. Edward F. Younger in choosing the Unknown Soldier. Younger’s task was to select one coffin among four and the libretto gives voice to the four lives represented by the coffins. The first speaks of his fear and trepidation facing battle, but also the comradeship he feels for his fellow Soldiers. The second, an African-American, speaks of his desire to be seen as equally-committed to his country and equally-deserving of respect and honor. The third speaks of his love for another Soldier, hoping to see a better tomorrow for them both. The fourth, spoken through his mother — representative of Gold Star Mothers — conveys a coming-of-age and how, even in war, beauty is still possible.

The libretto is a mix of original lyrics, poetry and narrative of the WWI era, to include Alan Seeger’s I Have a Rendezvous with Death and John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields. Once he completed the draft, Hill felt a poet’s touch was needed. After some research, he reached out to Pat Daneman, past director of Hallmark Card’s writing studio, whose refinement of the lyrics gives each character their unique, very human voice.


Alan Seeger (1888-1916)

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath—
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows ‘twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear…
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

Pvt. John G. Hill, Sr., a Kansas farm boy from the Hillsboro/McPherson area, served with the 35th Division. After serving in WWI, he attended West Point, served in WWII and Korea and retired as a Brig. Gen. His grandson, Rob Hill, conceived WETU in tribute to his grandfather.