On March 4, 1921, the United States Congress approved the burial of an unidentified American serviceman from World War I in the plaza of the new Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery.
On Memorial Day, 1921, four unknown servicemen were exhumed from four World War I American cemeteries in France and placed in identical caskets.
Then U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross and highly decorated for his valor and wounds in combat during “The Great War” was asked to select the Unknown of World War I.
On October 24, 1921, Sgt. Younger faced four caskets at the city hall in Châlons-en-Champagne, France and was asked to place a bundle of white roses on one of the caskets.
He chose the third casket from the left.
The chosen “World War I Unknown” was then transported back to the United States aboard the USS Olympia.
The three remaining unknown servicemen were interred in the Meuse Argonne Cemetery, France.
Upon arrival in Washington, D.C. the World War I Unknown lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda until Armistice Day, 1921.
The tomb was constructed from three levels of marble quarried from a Yule Marble Quarry located near Marble, Colorado, the same quarry that provided the marble for the Lincoln Memorial and other famous monuments.
A rectangular opening was left in the center of each level through which the unknown remains could pass.
Then on November 11, 1921, President Warren G. Harding officiated at the interment ceremonies.
During the ceremony, the World War I Unknown was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Harding and the Victoria Cross by Admiral of the Fleet Lord Beatty, on behalf of King George V of the United Kingdom. (Earlier, on March 4, 1921, the British Unknown Warrior was conferred the U.S. Medal of Honor by General of the Armies John Pershing.)
The Tomb of the Unknowns has never been officially named, though it has become known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Since 1921, the intent was to place a superstructure on top of the Tomb, but it was not until July 3, 1926, that Congress authorized the completion of the Tomb and the expenditure of $50,000 (with a completed cost of $48,000).
A design competition was held and won by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones.
In 1928, the Unknown Soldier was presented the Silver Buffalo Award for distinguished service to America’s youth by the Boy Scouts of America.
An appropriation from Congress for the work was secured and on December 21, 1929, a contract for completion of the Tomb itself was entered into.
The monument would be dedicated to all American service members who had sacrificed their lives without their remains being identified and consist of seven pieces of marble in four levels (cap, die, base and sub-base) of which the die is the largest block with sculpting on all four sides.
Then in late January of 1931, a 56 ton die of Yule marble (quarried 3.9 miles south of Marble, Colorado by the Vermont Marble Company) was lifted out of the quarry. The quarrying involved 75 men working one year. When the block was separated from the mountain inside the quarry it weighed 124 tons. A wire saw was then brought into the quarry to cut the block down to 56 tons.
On February 3, 1931, the block reached the marble mill site (in the town of Marble) where it was crated, then shipped to Vermont on February 8th.
The block was cut to final size in West Rutland, Vermont and fabricated by craftsmen in Proctor, Vermont before it was shipped by train to Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia where it was carved by the Piccirilli Brothers under the direction of the sculptor Thomas Jones. (The brothers also carved the Lincoln statue for the Lincoln Memorial).
The Tomb was then dedicated in April of 1932.
North and South panel with 3 wreaths on each side represent “a world of memories” but later the six major battles engaged in by American forces in France; Ardennes, Belleau Wood, Château-Thierry, Meusse-Argonne, Oisiu-Eiseu, and Somme. Each wreath has 38 leaves and 12 berries.
East panel that faces Washington, D.C., are three Greek figures representing Peace, Victory, and “American Manhood” but later “Valor” instead of “American Manhood”
Western panel is inscribed the words (centered on the panel):
HERE RESTS IN
KNOWN BUT TO GOD
The Unknowns of World War II and Korea
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. The World War II Unknown was selected from remains exhumed from cemeteries in Europe, Africa, Hawaii, and the Philippines.
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 Unknown of Vietnam
The designation of the Vietnam Unknown has proven to be 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, May 24. The Vietnam Unknown arrived at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, the next day.
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.
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.
Identification of the Unknown
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 Lộc, 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.
Re-designation of the crypt
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.
A civilian guard was first posted at the Tomb on November 17, 1925, to prevent, among other things, families from picnicking on the flat marble slab with views of the city. A military guard was first posted on March 25, 1926. The first 24-hour guard was posted on midnight, July 2, 1937. The Tomb of the Unknowns has been guarded continuously, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, since that time. Inclement weather, terrorist attacks, et cetera, do not cause the watch to cease.
Since 1948, the Tomb Guards, a special platoon within the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) work on a team rotation of 24 hours on, 24 hours off, for five days, taking the following four days off.
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 pass 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 their 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.
Changing of the Guard
During the day in summer months from April 1 to September 30, the guard is changed every half hour. During the winter months, from October 1 to March 31, the guard is changed every hour. After the cemetery closes to the public (7 p.m. to 8 a.m. April through September, and 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. October through March), the guard is changed every 2 hours. The ceremony can be witnessed by the public whenever Arlington National Cemetery is open.
The guard change is very symbolic, but also conducted in accordance with Army regulations. The relief commander or assistant relief commander, along with the oncoming guard, are both required for a guard change to take place. The guard being relieved will say to the oncoming guard, “Post and orders remain as directed.” The oncoming guard’s response is always, “Orders acknowledged.”
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