The term “unknown soldier” was that given to a man—regarded as a type—who had been killed in the First World War. The concept originated in Great Britain, and took the form of selecting from a war cemetery in France the body of a soldier whose identity was unknown, to be buried in Westminster Abbey as a symbol of the entire nation’s homage to the fallen of that generation.
It was exhumed early in November 1920—two years after the guns had fallen silent on the Western Front—and taken to London on Armistice Day, Nov. 11th, where it was interred in the Abbey in soil brought across the English Channel from France.
On March 21, 1921—in the Administration of President Warren Gamaliel Harding—the United States Congress approved the burial of an unidentified American soldier from World War I in the Plaza of the new Memorial Ampitheater at Arlington National Cemetery.
The white marble sarcophagus –50 tons of it from Colorado—has inscribed on the back of the Tomb these words: “Here Rests in Honored Glory an American Soldier Known But to God.”
On Nov. 11, 1921, the body of an unknown American soldier was buried in the Tomb, having been returned to the United States aboard the Navy battleship USS Olympia, the flagship of Adm. George Dewey at the Battle of Manila Bay in 1898 in the Spanish-American War.
Today, the stately white Olympia is berthed at Philadelphia, and in 1921 was received at dockside at the Washington Navy Yard at Anacostia by General of the Armies John J. Pershing and other notables.
The Tomb of America’s Unknown Soldier is a Cenotaph, from the Greek empty tomb, where impressive ceremonies are held each year on both Memorial Day (May 30th) and Armistice Day (now Veterans Day) to honor all veterans of all our wars, on Nov. 11th at Arlington.
The Cenotaph is guarded 24 hours daily by sentries of the United States Army in dress blue uniforms.
The 19 men chosen from the 1st Battalion of the 3rd US Infantry are members of the famed “Old Guard” unit featured in the movie Gardens of Stone starring James Caan and Anjelica Huston. The sentinels pace back and forth before the white marble Tomb: 21 paces south, left face; 21 seconds, left face, left shoulder arms; 21 paces north, right face, 21 seconds, right face, right shoulder arms.
The figure “21” is symbolic in that it is that of the 21-gun salute reserved as and for the highest honor in the nation, given also for the President.
The guard is changed every half-hour in a solemn ceremony, and many people come just to watch the Changing of the Guard. “There’s a feeling a sentinel has when guarding the Tomb that words can’t describe,” related one soldier. “There’s a feeling of pride.”
There is also a Sentinel’s Creed: “My dedication to this sacred duty is total and wholehearted. In the responsibility bestowed on me never will I falter, and with dignity and perseverance my standard will remain perfection. Through the years of diligence and praise and the discomfort of the elements, I will walk my tour in humble reverence to the best of my ability.
“It is he who commands the respect I protect, his bravery that made us so proud. Surrounded by well-meaning crowds all day, alone in thoughtful peace of night, this soldier will in honored glory rest under my eternal vigilance.”
When the Tomb was dedicated in 1921 no one then realized that there would ever be such an entity as a Second World War, nor the possibility of a third. As more wars occurred, however, more unknown soldier crypts were located west of the Tomb for World War II, Korea and Vietnam, marked by white marble slabs flush with the Plaza.
On May 17, 1984, the Vietnam Unknown was placed aboard the Navy ship USS Brewton at Pearl Harbor, HI for shipment to Alameda Naval Base, CA, and on the 24th the remains were flown to Travis Air Force Base, then on to Andrews Air Force Base, MD.
The Vietnam Unknown was placed in the Rotunda of the US Capitol Building on the Hill, where it was visited by President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan. The following Memorial Day—May 28, 1984—an Army caisson took it from the Capitol Building to Arlington, where the President presided over the funeral and awarded the Medal of Honor to the Vietnam Unknown, and also acted as the next-of-kin in accepting the interment flag at the end of the ceremony on behalf of the unknown family and the people of the United States.
There it lay until the remains were exhumed on May 14, 1998, when—based on mitochondria DNA testing—scientists identified the remains as those of Air Force lst Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie, who was shot down by enemy fire near An Loc, Vietnam in 1972. The identification was announced on June 30, 1998, and it was then also decided
that the crypt that contained its remains would remain empty.
The history of Arlington National Cemetery itself is also very interesting. Before the American Civil War, it was the home of then-Union Gen. Robert E. Lee, his wife having received the estate from her father, the famed Custis-Lee Mansion overlooking the Kennedy gravesites that can all be visited today.
At the outbreak of the war, Lee was offered the command of the Union Army by President Abraham Lincoln, but chose instead to fight for his native Virginia, and hence the Confederacy. With Gen. Lee in Richmond and Lincoln able to see a Confederate flag from his window at the White House on the property at the Custis-Lee Mansion, Mrs. Lee fled as Union troops threatened occupation.
Indeed, the building was appropriated as their headquarters, and the Federal government later declared that she had forfeited the grounds by failing to appear in person to pay taxes on them. It then became a cemetery with the burying of slain Union soldiers there. By the time the US Supreme Court ruled in 1882 that the Federal government had misappropriated the land, thousands of Union war dead were already buried at Arlington.
The Lee family made a financial settlement out of court and the cemetery expanded to its present 624 acres, which holds the remains of more than 270,000 bodies such as soldiers, their families and high officials like the Kennedy brothers John and Robert.
Before the invention of “dog tags” for identification and modern forensic methods, more than 2,000 Civil War unknowns were placed in a corner of the cemetery near its western gate.
There is a special tribute entitled Memorial Day that I think is both fitting and appropriate for Nov. 11th as well as for the Fourth of July and Veterans Day:
“They were young, mostly our brothers, sons and dads. They had hopes and dreams…lives just begun, but their country called. The duty was theirs—defend our country, our way of life.
“Wars are made by older men, but it’s the young who die. Remember their courage, their sacrifice. Honor them. Pray that it doesn’t happen again,” but know that it always will. As the Greek philosopher Plato said, “Only the dead will have seen the end of war.”
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