The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
On March 4, 1921, the United States Congress approved the burial of an unidentified soldier who fought and died in World War I. He was buried on a Virginia hillside not far from the Potomac River in the Arlington National Cemetery—a symbol of those who have died to protect our freedoms. In respect, soldiers stand guard to protect his tomb.
Intriguing … who was this man? What was his story? Why do soldiers stand guard? What makes today’s solider want to be chosen for this duty? How did this tradition come about?
The story begins in France on Memorial Day, 1921, when wounded Army Sergeant Edward F. Younger was given the task to choose from four caskets of unknown soldiers to receive this honor. He placed a wreath of white roses on the third casket from the left. The casket was sent to the Capitol Rotunda where the unknown soldier lies in state from the day his casket arrived until November 11, 1921. President Warren G. Harding officiated at the internment ceremony.
In 1958, several “unknowns” were exhumed from cemeteries in Europe, Africa, Hawaii, and the Philippines to represent World War II. Two of these exhumed soldiers were chosen—one from the European Theater, and one from the Pacific Theater. These two caskets were taken aboard the USS Canberra where Navy Hospitalman 1st Class, William R. Charette selected the Unknown Soldier of World War II. The casket not chosen received a burial at sea.
This same year, four unknown Korean War Veterans were chosen from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. The final selection of two caskets was made by Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle. President Eisenhower conducted the ceremony of internment for the World War II and Korean War Veterans at Arlington Cemetery.
The Unknown Soldier from the Vietnam War was designated by U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg Jr. on May 17, 1984. President Reagan presided over this internment. In 1998, the Unknown Soldier from the Vietnam War was exhumed and, through DNA testing, was determined to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie. It was decided that the crypt containing 1st Lt. Blassie’s remains would remain empty.
The Guards of the Tomb
Guards of the tomb were created in 1926 as too many visitors were using the original crypt as a picnic table. By 1937, guards were stationed from the moment gates were opened in the morning, until gates closed at night. Guards are charged to prevent any desecration or disrespect to the tomb and crypts.
These guards are military soldiers who come from every walk of life, from every state in the union, and are hand-picked. Training for these men and women is rigorous. Over 80% of those who try out for this duty do not make it. Knowledge must be extensive about this monument, and strong military bearing a must. There are three Reliefs, consisting of nine soldiers, assigned with each guard. And each Relief is based on height of the soldiers. The Tomb is completely run by Non-Commissioned Officers and each soldier has a specific post to cover.
To serve at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a great honor.
Please join with me this Veterans Day to thank those who have served and the families who support them.