Tomb of the Unknowns
On March 4, 1921, Congress approved a resolution providing for the burial of an unidentified American soldier, following the custom adopted by other allied countries after World War I. The site was to be the plaza of Arlington National Cemetery’s Memorial Amphitheater, which had been dedicated the previous year.
On Memorial Day, 1921, an unknown was exhumed from each of four cemeteries in France. The remains were placed in identical caskets and assembled at Chalon sur Marne.
On October 24, Army Sergeant Edward F. Younger, wounded in combat and highly decorated for valor, selected the unknown soldier for World War 1 by placing a spray of white roses on one of the caskets. Those remaining were interred in the Meuse Argonne Cemetery, France. The Unknown Soldier then returned home to the U.S. to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda until Armistice Day. On November 11, 1921, President Warren G. Harding officiated at the interment ceremonies at the Amphitheater.
The monument which rests on top of the Unknown grave is a sarcophagus simple but impressive in its dimensions. Its austere, flat-faced form is relieved at the corners and along the sides by neo-classic pilasters, or columns, set unto the surface.
Sculpted into the panel which faces Washington are the three figures of Valor, Victory, and Peace. On the plaza face the words "Here Rests in Honored Glory An American Soldier Known But To God".
On August 3, 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill to select and pay tribute to the Unknown Soldiers of World War II and Korea on Memorial Day 1958. The World War II Unknown was selected from 19 remains exhumed from military cemeteries in Hawaii, Europe, and the Philippines.
Two Unknowns from World War II, one from the European Theatre and one from the Pacific Theatre, were placed in identical caskets and taken aboard the U.S.S. Canberra, a guided missile cruiser resting off the Virginia capes. Hospital Man First Class William R. Carrette, then the Navy’s only active duty Medal of Honor recipient, selected the Unknown Soldier of World War II. The remaining casket received a burial at sea.
Four unknown Americans who had lost their lives in Korea were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. Master sergeant Ned Lyle, U.S. Army made the final selection. Both the caskets arrived in Washington on May 28, 1958 where they lay in the Capital Rotunda until May 30.
That morning they were carried on caissons to Arlington National Cemetery. President Eisenhower awarded each the Medal of Honor and the Unknowns were interred in the Plaza beside their comrade of World War 1.
Twenty six years later, on Memorial Day, May 28, 1984, after a search made difficult because of advances in technologies used to identify the remains of unknown soldiers, President Ronald Reagan presided over the interment ceremony for the Vietnam Unknown service member. Like his predecessors, he was laid to rest in the plaza of the Tomb during a ceremony that received national coverage.
The Sentinels of the Tomb
Originally a civilian watchman was responsible for the security of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Then, March 24, 1926, a military guard from the Washington Provisional Brigade (forerunner of the U.S. Army Military District of Washington) was established during the day-light hours. In 1948 the 3d U.S. Infantry "The Old Guard" assumed the post following the units reactivation in the nation’s capital. Members of the 3d Infantry’s Honor Guard continue to serve in this distinguished duty today.
A soldier seeking the honor of serving as a sentinel at the Tomb must possess exemplary qualities, to include American citizenship, a spotless record, and impeccable military bearing.
While on duty the sentinel crosses a 63-foot rubber surfaced walkway in exactly 21 steps. He then faces the Tomb for 21 seconds, turns again, and pauses an additional 21 seconds before retracing his steps. The 21 is symbolic of the highest salute according to dignitaries in military and state ceremonies.
As a gesture against intrusion on their post, the sentinel always bears his weapon away from the Tomb.
Only under exceptional circumstances may the guard speak or alter his silent, measured tour of duty. He will issue a warning if anyone attempts to enter the restricted area around the Tomb, but first will halt and bring his rifle to port arms.
The Guard wears the Army Dress Blue Uniform, reminiscent of the color and style worn by soldiers during the late 1800’s. Tomb Guards are privileged to wear the Tomb Identification Badge on the right breast pocket. The design is an inverted open laurel wreath surrounding a representation of the front elevation of the Tomb. The words "Honor Guard" are engraved at the base of the badge. A guard leaving after at least nine months of service is entitled to wear the badge as a permanent part of the uniform.