Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier Marks 100 Years Of Honor

Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier Marks 100 Years Of Honor

Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier Marks 100 Years Of Honor

On this Veterans Day in 1921, an unknown soldier of World War I was given a state funeral at Arlington National Cemetery, and laid to rest in a tomb there.

While that soldier was eventually joined by other unknowns from World War II and the Korean War at the tomb in 1958 (and by a Vietnam War unknown in 1984 who was later identified and disinterred), this year marks the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as a permanent and honored memorial grave that is eternally guarded.

The creation of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was inspired by similar interrments by Great Britain and France after World War I. In an age where DNA testing was unknown and identification difficult, many American soldiers were unidentified and buried in France during World War I. The story of how this particular set of remains was chosen was a long process, ensuring permanent anonymity and finally, an honored burial place.

In December 1920, New York Congressman and World War I veteran Hamilton Fish Jr. proposed legislation that provided for the interment of one unknown American soldier at a special tomb to be built in Arlington National Cemetery. The purpose of the legislation was “to bring home the body of an unknown American warrior who in himself represents no section, creed, or race in the late war and who typifies, moreover, the soul of America and the supreme sacrifice of her heroic dead.”

In October 1921, four bodies of unidentified U.S. military personnel were exhumed from different American military cemeteries in France. On October 23, 1921, the four caskets arrived at the city hall of Châlons-sur-Marne (now called Châlons-en-Champagne), France.”

Town officials and members of the U.S. Army’s Quartermaster Corps had prepared the city hall for the selection ceremony. Early on the morning of October 24, 1921, Maj. Robert P. Harbold of the Quartermaster Corps, aided by French and American soldiers, rearranged the caskets so that each rested on a shipping case other than the one in which it had arrived. Major Harbold then chose Sgt. Edward F. Younger of Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 50th Infantry, American Forces in Germany, to select the Unknown Soldier. Sgt. Younger selected the Unknown by placing a spray of white roses on one of the caskets.”

From Châlons-sur-Marne, the Unknown journeyed by caisson and rail to the port town of Le Havre, France. From Le Havre, the USS Olympia transported the Unknown Soldier’s casket to Washington, D.C. The Unknown arrived at the Washington Navy Yard on November 9, 1921. After arriving in Washington, D.C. on November 9, 1921, the Unknown lay in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. About 90,000 visitors paid their respects during the public visiting period on November 10, 1921.”

On November 11, 1921, the Unknown was placed on a horse-drawn caisson and carried in a procession through Washington, D.C. and across the Potomac River. A state funeral ceremony was held at Arlington National Cemetery’s new Memorial Amphitheater, and the Unknown was interred in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Nationwide, Americans observed two minutes of silence at the beginning of the ceremony. President Warren G. Harding officiated at the ceremony and placed the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military decoration, on the casket. Numerous foreign dignitaries presented their nations’ highest awards, as well.”

The marble monument that we now see over the burial place of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was designed by Thomas Hudson Jones and Lorimer Rich as part of a contest for the final tomb design. In 1932, the completed marble sarcophogus was revealed to the public, with the inscription “Here Rests In Honored Glory An American Soldier Known But To God” etched on the front. The Army began a 24 hour guard of the Tomb on July 1, 1937. The honor of guarding the Tomb was given to the United States Army’s 3rd Infantry Regiment – “The Old Guard” – in 1948. Those who guard the Tomb take their duty seriously.

For a fuller history of The Old Guard, their duties around Arlington National Cemetery, and the guarding of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, I heartily recommend Senator Tom Cotton’s excellent book “Sacred Duty,” which describes his time serving at Arlington in The Old Guard.

To mark the centennial anniversary of the Tomb’s dedication, the public was allowed to lay flowers at the Tomb itself. This is something that only a select few are allowed to do at any other time, and only when a wreath laying ceremony occurs. I had the privilege of being involved in a wreath laying ceremony myself in 1992 while on a school trip. This involved dressing for the occasion (yes, Arlington has a dress code for this) and walking in formation down the center aisle steps toward the Tomb itself. Opening the plaza to the public for the centennial was an extremely big moment, and one not likely to happen again for a very long time (probably not for another hundred years).
As the public came to lay flowers, the line was occasionally stopped and The Old Guard moved the individual flowers to surround the marble monument itself, as can be seen at the beginning of the above video, and the photo below.

For those of us unable to participate in person, the centennial ceremony today at the Tomb was livestreamed by multiple outlets can be watched here. Arlington National Cemetery also published a commemorative guide to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier that can be viewed online (best viewed on a screen bigger than a phone) as well.

While there will likely never be another Unknown placed in the Tomb, the three who lay there are more than just individuals. They are symbols, and they are stand-ins for all those who never came home. They are venerated not for who they were, but for what they represent. On this Veterans Day, while we thank and honor all those who served, living and dead, we also honor our Unknowns, as we have for the last hundred years, as they rest in honored glory.

Welcome Instapundit Readers!

Featured image: the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, personal photo taken in April 2014 by the author

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  • John C. says:

    Other countries have their kings and legendary war leaders. The U.S. has the Unknown Soldier. We don’t know anything at all about him, whether he had been rich or poor, native born or immigrant. All we know is that he was one of us, and that he made the ultimate sacrifice for us, and that is enough.

  • Bob says:

    “Other countries have their kings and legendary war leaders. The U.S. has the Unknown Soldier. We don’t know anything at all about him, whether he had been rich or poor, native born or immigrant. All we know is that he was one of us, and that he made the ultimate sacrifice for us, and that is enough.” One of the most eloquent comments I have ever read.

  • Deborah B. says:

    Thank you for this post. It is beautifully done.

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