I have visited the Tomb of the Unknowns a number of times. Each visit is emotional as are the
to The Wall, just a few miles away. I enjoy watching the guards perform their precise
movements as they honor our fallen comrades in arms.
The Tomb of the Unknowns, also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, is a monument dedicated to American service members who have died without their remains being identified. The Tomb is located in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. The original marble tomb was part of the honors bestowed on soldiers that fought in the First World War. Besides the US, England, France and other nations created tombs for the unidentified remains left from that war.
On Memorial Day, 1921, four unknown servicemen were exhumed from four World War I American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat, highly decorated for valor and received the Distinguished Service Cross in "The Great War" selected the Unknown of World War I from four identical caskets at the city hall in Chalons-en-Champagne, France, on October 24, 1921. Sgt. Younger selected the World War I Unknown by placing a spray of white roses on one of the caskets. He chose the third casket from the left. The chosen Unknown was transported to the United States aboard the USS Olympia. Those remaining were interred in the Meuse Argonne Cemetery, France.
The World War I Unknown lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda from his arrival in the United States until Armistice Day, 1921 when President Warren G. Harding officiated at the interment ceremonies at the Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery. During the ceremony, the World War I Unknown was awarded the Victoria Cross by Admiral of the Fleet Lord Beatty, on behalf of King George V of the United Kingdom. (The United Kingdom Victoria Cross was placed with the soldier. Earlier, on March 4, 1921, the British Unknown Warrior was conferred the U.S. Medal of Honor by General of the Armies John Pershing.) In 1928, the Unknown Soldier was presented the Silver Buffalo Award for distinguished service to America's youth by the Boy Scouts of America.
On August 3, 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill to select and pay tribute to the Unknowns of World War II and the Korean War. The selection ceremonies and the interment of these Unknowns took place in 1958. Two Unknowns from World War II, one from the European Theater and one from the Pacific Theater, were placed in identical caskets and taken aboard the USS Canberra, a guided-missile cruiser resting off the Virginia Capes. Navy Hospital Corpsman 1st Class William R. Charette, then the U.S. Navy's only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient selected the World War II Unknown. The remaining casket received a solemn burial at sea.
Four unknown Americans who died in the Korean War were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. Army Master Sergeant Ned Lyle made the final selection.
Both caskets arrived in Washington on May 28, 1958, where they lay in the Capitol Rotunda until the morning of May 30, when they were carried on caissons to Arlington National Cemetery. President Eisenhower awarded each the Medal of Honor, and the Unknowns of World War II and the Korean War were interred in the plaza beside their World War I comrade.
The designation of the Vietnam Unknown has proven to be more difficult. With improvements in DNA testing it is possible, though unlikely, that the recovered remains for every Unknown Soldier killed in the Vietnam War will be identified.
The Vietnam Unknown service member was designated by Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, May 17, 1984. The Vietnam Unknown was transported aboard the guided missile frigate USS Brewton (FF-1086) to Naval Air Station Alameda, California. The remains were then sent to Travis Air Force Base, California on May 24. The Vietnam Unknown arrived at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, on May 25.
Many Vietnam veterans and President Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan visited the Vietnam Unknown in the U.S. Capitol. An Army caisson carried the Vietnam Unknown from the Capitol to the Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day, May 28, 1984.
The Tomb guards stood at death watch for the entire day as thousands of people braved the dreary weather to pay their respects. President Reagan presided over the funeral, and presented the Medal of Honor to the Vietnam Unknown, and also acted as next of kin by accepting the interment flag at the end of the ceremony. The interment flags of all Unknowns at the Tomb of the Unknowns are on view in the Memorial Display Room.
In 1994, Ted Sampley, a POW/MIA activist, determined that the remains of the Vietnam Unknown were likely those of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie, who was shot down near An L?c, Vietnam, in 1972. Sampley published an article in his newsletter and contacted Blassie's family, who attempted to pursue the case with the Air Force's casualty office without result. In January 1998 CBS News broadcast a report based on Sampley's investigation which brought political pressure to support the identification of the remains. The body was exhumed on May 14, 1998. Based on mitochondrial DNA testing, Department of Defense scientists confirmed the remains were those of Blassie. The identification was announced on June 30, 1998, and on July 10, Blassie's remains arrived home to his family in St. Louis, Missouri; he was reinterred at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery on July 11.
The slab over the crypt that once held the remains of the Vietnam Unknown has since been replaced. The original inscription of "Vietnam" and the dates of the conflict has been changed to "Honoring and Keeping Faith with America's Missing Servicemen." as a reminder of the commitment of the Armed Forces to fullest possible accounting of missing service members.
In the 1920s people would chip pieces off the marble tomb. A guard was then detailed to protect it. The tomb guards are now soldiers of the United States Army's 3rd Infantry Regiment. It is considered one of the highest honors to serve as a Sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Fewer than 20 percent of all volunteers are accepted for training and of those only a fraction passes training to become full-fledged Tomb Guards. This attrition rate has made the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Guard Identification Badge the second least-awarded decoration of the United States military (the first being the Astronaut Badge).
The soldier "walking the mat" does not wear rank insignia, so as not to outrank the Unknowns, whatever the ranks may have been. Non-commissioned officers (usually the Relief Commander and Assistant Relief Commanders), do wear insignia of their rank when changing the guard only. They have a separate uniform (without rank) that is worn when they actually guard the Unknowns or are "Posted".
The duties of the sentinels are not purely ceremonial. The sentinels will confront people who cross the barriers at the tomb or who are disrespectful or loud.
There is a meticulous routine that the guard follows when watching over the graves. The Tomb Guard base their actions and movements on 21. Twenty-one was chosen because it symbolizes the highest military honor that can be bestowed-the 21-gun salute. Their movements are:
1. Marches 21 steps south down the black mat laid across the Tomb.
2. Turns and faces east, toward the Tomb, for 21 seconds.
3. Turns and faces north, changes weapon to outside shoulder, and waits 21 seconds.
4. Marches 21 steps down the mat.
5. Turns and faces east for 21 seconds.
6. Turns and faces south, changes weapon to outside shoulder, and waits 21 seconds.
7. Repeats the routine until the soldier is relieved of duty at the Changing of the Guard.
After each turn, the Guard executes a sharp "shoulder-arms" movement to place the weapon on the shoulder closest to the visitors to signify that the Guard stands between the Tomb and any possible threat.