The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Sergeant Aaron Lopez-Stoner, assigned to the Third U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), conducts his last walk at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, January 15, 2017. (Staff Sergeant Terrance D. Rhodes/US Army)

A love story for the men and women of our Armed Forces

Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from Tom Cotton’s new book, Sacred Duty: A Soldier’s Tour at Arlington National Cemetery.

The story of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier begins on the battlefields of Europe as the guns fell silent on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. The American Expeditionary Forces had proved decisive in World War I, the Great War that would shape so much of the coming century. But despite its late entry, the AEF lost more than 116,000 troops. Thanks in part to the recent introduction of identification tags, though, fewer than two thousand remained unidentified. Thus, for the first time the nation faced the question of how to handle large numbers of identified remains in an overseas war.

Senior Army leaders generally preferred not to disturb the dead, but war mothers and war widows wanted their late sons and husbands returned home. Not surprisingly, Congress sided with them and most Gold Star Families brought their loved ones home, though nearly 31,000 Americans remained in Europe in eight newly established cemeteries, where they still rest today under the care of the American Battle Monuments Commission.

This policy left unsettled the question of what to do with the unidentified remains. Some advocated for a memorial to an unknown soldier who would represent all the unknown fallen, but some Army leaders resisted such proposals. On Armistice Day 1920, however, France and Great Britain buried an unknown soldier at the Arc de Triomphe and Westminster Abbey in elaborate funerals before vast crowds. The pageantry and emotion of the day galvanized American public opinion. General John Pershing, who had led the AEF, testified to Congress in favor of a memorial for an unknown soldier, as did other senior military officers. Congress quickly passed legislation to honor an unknown at Arlington and President Woodrow Wilson signed it on his final day in office.

The funeral would occur on Armistice Day 1921, giving the Army’s Graves Registration Service in Europe eight months to select the remains of an unknown soldier. They went to great lengths to ensure anonymity, exhuming four unknowns from four cemeteries, destroying all related records, and even rearranging the caskets in secret shortly before the selection. Sergeant Edward Younger, who had served in the AEF’s biggest campaigns, made the selection on October 24 by laying white roses on a casket. America’s Unknown Soldier then crossed France to great fanfare before departing for home the next day aboard the U.S.S. Olympia, Admiral George Dewey’s flagship in the Battle of Manila Bay.

Meanwhile, the Military District of Washington prepared a welcome befitting a General of the Armies for the Unknown’s arrival on November 9. A large ceremonial procession escorted him from the Washington Navy Yard to the Capitol Rotunda, where he lay in state on the Lincoln Catafalque and received visits from President and Mrs. Harding and senior officials from all three branches of government. When the Capitol’s east doors opened the next morning, thousands of soldiers, veterans, and fellow citizens were gathered to pay their final respects — including Gold Star Families of missing or unidentified soldiers, perhaps wondering if it was their son or husband or dad resting in that casket. By midnight, nearly one hundred thousand people had passed through the Rotunda to honor the Unknown.

On the morning of Armistice Day, the Unknown was honored with a funeral procession from the Capitol to Arlington. Alongside the military escort, President Harding and Gen. Pershing led hundreds of dignitaries, including Supreme Court Justices, cabinet officials, governors, legislators, Medal of Honor recipients, and other soldiers and veterans. Inside the Amphitheater, President Harding gave an emotional address and decorated the Unknown with the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross. After a committal service on the Plaza, the Unknown was lowered into the Tomb, a bugler sounded Taps, and the artillery fired a final twenty-one-gun salute. The Unknown now rested in his eternal home, the high ground of Arlington.

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Within a year, the absence of a guard at the tomb began to generate controversy. Some contrasted the Tomb unfavorably with the guarded unknown shrines in Europe. Senior Army leaders declined proposals for a guard, however, with one senior quartermaster explaining “there is no place at the Amphitheater where a sentry may be quartered, and the posting and relieving of guards would probably be inconvenient at Fort Myer.” Having walked too many times to count from Fort Myer to the Tomb and beyond — usually in steel-plated ceremonial shoes — I must say this argument is not terribly persuasive.

Even stronger opposition came from the commander of the Military District of Washington, whose opinions sound an ironic note given the Tomb’s popularity today. He contended that “the placing of an armed sentry at this tomb during the day would not lend dignity to the shrine.” Besides, he believed, “the average American visitor to the tomb would not be impressed, or would probably not even notice the fact that a sentry was stationed nearby.” He also observed that visitors to Washington “can reach the distantly located tomb only with great difficulty” and further predicted that the Tomb “is not and never will be visited by the thousands of visitors as is done in England, France, and Italy.”

In 1923, though, the Army reacted to negative newspaper reports of photographers “soliciting business” at the Tomb, “laughing, thoughtless women,” other tourists “laughing and talking,” and men not removing their caps, among other offenses. A senior quartermaster instructed the cemetery’s superintendent to direct the “watchmen at the Amphitheater” to stop professional photographers and prevent anyone from sitting or leaning on the tomb. Another quartermaster noted that “a neat picket fence now protects the Tomb from encroachment.”

A picket fence and an Amphitheater guard — there matters stood until the Army, responding to more negative publicity and congressional inquiries, assigned a civilian guard specifically to the tomb for the first time on November 17, 1925. Sensing momentum, the advocates for a military guard redoubled their efforts, and a resolution was introduced in Congress calling for “a special guard armed and equipped as for field service during the World War” to guard the Tomb “from sunrise to sunset.” Within days, President Calvin Coolidge settled the matter, ordering a military guard to be posted when the cemetery was open. On March 25, 1926, soldiers from the 3rd Cavalry at Fort Myer assumed responsibility for guarding the Tomb, with occasional support from other nearby Army units.

The Army may have lost the battle over a military guard at the Tomb, but it did not come away empty-handed because it requested and received $50,000 to complete its construction. The original Tomb was modest, no more than knee-high, which is why visitors could sit on it. The plans for the Tomb had always called for a larger, grander structure, but Congress had never appropriated the money.

Now bidding and construction could move ahead. Any Tomb Sentinel not only knows that architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones won a prolonged competition in 1929, but also can describe their design. The Tomb is eight feet wide, 13 feet long, and eleven feet tall. The six wreaths — inverted to represent mourning — on the north and south sides stand for six major campaigns in World War I. The eastern front contains three classical figures: Victory, holding a palm branch; Peace, holding a dove; and Valor, holding a sword. And the western facade bears only the famous inscription seen by visitors the world over: Here Rests in Honored Glory an American Soldier Known but to God.

The marble for the Tomb came from the Yule Marble Quarry outside Marble, Colorado, the same source for the Amphitheater and the Lincoln Memorial. After a yearlong search for the seven massive pieces of marble that would become the Tomb, the marble went to Rutland County, Vermont, home of some of the country’s finest stoneworkers. They cut and polished the marble pieces, which arrived for assembly at Arlington on August 29, 1931. But an imperfection in the base halted work for three months as a new piece repeated the journey. Workers then moved quickly to construct the Tomb, placing the cap on New Year’s Eve 1931 — no doubt giving everyone involved good cause to celebrate that night. Now Jones and his team could finally start carving and sculpting the design into the Tomb. They completed their work and the new Tomb was unveiled to the public on April 9, 1932.

*  *  *

Throughout it all, the 3rd Cavalry continued to guard the Tomb during the day, with support from other units at nearby Fort Washington and Fort Belvoir. Eventually, the 3rd Cavalry extended their guard duty beyond the cemetery’s hours of operation. At midnight on July 2, 1937, they posted a guard and ever since, for 82 years and counting, not a minute has passed without a military guard on the Plaza. In December 1940, the 12th Infantry joined the 3rd Cavalry. For the next year, the 3rd Cavalry stood guard the first half of the month and the 12th Infantry the second half. All that changed after Pearl Harbor, however, as both regiments were reassigned to other bases to prepare for World War II. During the war, the Military District of Washington maintained a small ceremonial detachment to guard the Tomb and to perform funerals and ceremonies.

Upon its reactivation at Fort Myer in 1948, The Old Guard resumed responsibility for guarding the Tomb, which it has done now for 71 years. While the Tomb Platoon has a meticulous daily log starting in 1959, no one seems to know who served the first guard shift for The Old Guard. But not much has changed over the years, as the Tomb guards attest. Staff Sergeant Shane Vincent, a two-time Sentinel, explained to me that “the standards are pretty much the same since 1948. Old Sentinels return and recognize pretty much everything.” Gavin McIlvenna, a Tomb guard from 1997 to 1998, retired as a sergeant major and now serves as President of the Society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the platoon’s alumni organization. He confirmed to me that video recordings as far back as 1960 reveal the same basic sequences for guarding the Tomb and the Changing of the Guard. Likewise, the Tomb guards’ uniforms and weapons have evolved along with those of the broader Army. The guards started in the Army’s classic World War II–era “pink and green” uniform, whereas they now wear the ceremonial blue uniform. The platoon adopted the M14 rifle in 1964 in place of the earlier M1903 Springfield and M1 Garand, then added the Beretta M9 in 1988. As the Army switched from the M9 to the SIG Sauer M17, the Tomb Platoon had a small ceremony in October 2018 with SIG Sauer to accept four new pistols, custom-made for the Tomb guards.

The most meaningful change to their uniforms was probably the introduction of the Tomb Badge—or more precisely, the Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Identification Badge. The badge, designed by early guards based on the Tomb, is silver and approximately two inches in diameter, with an inverted wreath around the Tomb’s eastern front above the words honor guard. The Army authorized it for wear on February 1, 1958, and the first badge was awarded six days later to Master Sergeant William Daniel, a prisoner of war in World War II and Sergeant of the Guard for more than three years. He returned that original badge to the Tomb Platoon in 1996 and it now hangs prominently in the Tomb Quarters. Msg. Daniel passed away in 2009 and now rests in Section 35, just a few steps south of the Tomb.

While the badge was initially limited to Sentinels serving at the Tomb, the Army authorized it in 1963 as a permanent award. Thus, a Sentinel who completes training and serves at least nine months at the Tomb may wear the badge forever, much as the Ranger Tab and Parachutist Badge are permanent awards once earned. With only 666 Tomb Badges awarded to date — each badge’s number is engraved on its back — the Tomb Badge is among the rarest skills badges in the Army, second for many decades only to the Astronaut Badge. (And as a common joke among Sentinels goes, who joins the Army to be an astronaut?)

Unusually for a skills badge, though, the Tomb Badge may be revoked for bad conduct, even after a badge-holder leaves the Army. Under Army regulations, The Old Guard commander is the revocation authority. Colonel Jason Garkey, the regimental commander, explained to me that “a revocable offense is anything that would bring discredit to the Tomb Platoon and the Unknowns. The punishment might seem harsh, but it simply reflects the highest standards of integrity that we, as a nation, expect from the soldiers guarding our Unknowns. I never spoke with one Sentinel who disagreed.

*  *  *

Yet the introduction of the Tomb Badge was not the most significant event at the Tomb in 1958, for on Memorial Day of that year, the Unknowns from World War II and the Korean War were interred. Congress and President Harry Truman had provided by law for a World War II unknown in June 1946, but those plans stopped when the Korean War broke out in June 1950. By 1956, Congress passed and President Dwight Eisenhower signed a new law providing for a double interment of a World War II and a Korean War unknown.

The selection process for both unknowns mirrored the rituals used for the World War I Unknown. The Army selected two finalists for a World War II unknown, one each from the Atlantic and Pacific theaters, and selected the Korean Unknown at the same time. All three sets of remains were transferred to the USS Canberra off the Virginia coast on May 26, 1958, where Hospital Corpsman 1st Class William Charette, a Navy Medal of Honor recipient from the Korean War, chose the World War II Unknown by placing a wreath on one of the caskets. The two Unknowns then sailed for Washington, while the other World War II finalist was buried at sea. Upon arrival, the two Unknowns were escorted to the Capitol Rotunda. Vice President Richard Nixon led the large party of dignitaries and laid a wreath in honor of the Unknowns. They lay in state for two days and took turns on the Lincoln Catafalque. Again, more than one hundred thousand people paid their respects.

On Memorial Day, the Unknowns had another grand procession from the Capitol to Arlington, this time with caissons from The Old Guard and an honor cordon of Old Guard troops. The procession crossed Memorial Bridge, which had opened in 1932. Awaiting the Unknowns at the Amphitheater was President Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in World War II. He paid them tribute and presented them with the Medal of Honor, then the Unknowns moved a final time to the Plaza. Rather than new tombs, the Unknowns would lie in crypts on the Plaza by the original Tomb. After the committal service, Old Guard troops closed out the ceremony: the Presidential Salute Battery fired the twenty-one-gun salute, a firing party rendered the traditional three volleys, and a bugler played Taps. The casket teams folded their flags and presented them to President Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon, who stood in as next of kin for the Unknowns. The funeral concluded and the dignitaries departed, while Old Guard troops guided members of the public who wished to pay respects.

Three days later, the two crypts were sealed with a marble top inscribed with the dates and nothing more: 1941–1945 and 1950–1953. On the same day, the dates 1917-1918 were carved into the stone in front of the Tomb. Now, three Unknown brothers-in-arms commanded the high ground above Arlington.

*  *  *

As the new Unknowns arrived at their eternal home, American troops were arriving in Vietnam. Over the next seventeen years, a small advisory mission became a major conflict. Within months of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, Congress directed an unknown soldier from the Vietnam War to be buried at Arlington. A crypt was built for a Vietnam unknown the next year, between those for the World War II and Korean War Unknowns. But the story of the Vietnam Unknown would be longer and more complicated, as was the war itself. And the story ends not with an unknown soldier resting in Arlington, but a quarter century later with the exhumation of First Lieutenant Michael Blassie.

Blassie was shot down in May 1972, and his remains were tentatively identified when recovered five months later. But forensic experts later reclassified the remains as unidentified — one of very few from the war, given scientific advances — and they ultimately became the Vietnam Unknown. Thus, the newest Unknown began a two-week journey from a Hawaii laboratory to Arlington in May 1984, with the highest military honors at every step — many rendered by Old Guard soldiers, caissons, and artillery guns. On Memorial Day, after lying in state for three days, the Unknown moved in a funeral procession from the Capitol Rotunda to the Amphitheater, where President Ronald Reagan consecrated the Unknown’s sacrifice and presented him with the Medal of Honor. After the committal service on the plaza, a twenty-one-gun salute from the Presidential Salute Battery, and Taps, President Reagan stood in as next of kin and accepted the flag. Later that night, cemetery workers lowered the casket into the crypt and sealed it with a marble top again inscribed with dates and nothing more: 1958–1975.

But the crypt would not remain sealed. Ten years later, after evidence of the Unknown’s identity surfaced, the Blassie family asked the Air Force to reopen the matter, without success. Then, CBS Evening News examined the controversy in January 1998. The Department of Defense ordered an investigation and decided to exhume the Unknown for DNA testing.

The night of May 13–14, 1998, was unlike any other in the Tomb’s long history. A wall was placed around the three crypts to shield the dignity of the site. The Sentinels continued their vigil as workers cut into the Vietnam crypt with a diamond-tipped saw. A few minutes midnight—0029:25, down to the second, as any Sentinel can recount today—the Unknown was exhumed, draped with a flag, and placed on a catafalque. That morning, with the Tomb and the Plaza restored to immaculate condition, Secretary of Defense William Cohen hosted a brief removal service. The Unknown departed in a hearse, bound for Walter Reed. A few weeks later, DNA testing made known the Unknown. Michael Blassie was returned to his family and he received a full-honor funeral at the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery outside St. Louis, near his childhood home.

The saga of the Vietnam Unknown has long generated controversy, strong emotions, and even ill will, which I believe is unfortunate. Because in the end, the story of all the Unknowns is a love story — the love we hold in our hearts for the men and women of our Armed Forces who have given their lives to protect our nation. We venerate the Unknowns, including Michael Blassie for fourteen years, not merely as representatives of the unknown dead from four wars, but as heroes who embody the courage and sacrifice of all our war dead, from Lexington and Concord to Iraq and Afghanistan. As President Reagan said when the Unknown lay in state, “This American hero may not need us, but surely we need him.” That love is why the Vietnam crypt now reads, Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958–1975. That love is why the Sentinels keep a framed rubbing of Michael Blassie’s headstone at Jefferson Barracks in their Quarters. And indeed, that love is why we as a nation have committed to guard the Tomb without fail for 82 years — a symbol of our boundless love for America’s fallen heroes.

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