The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier honors troops and sailors from WWI, WWII, the Korean War, and Vietnam.
Editor’s note: This digest version of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier comes from an extensive description in the official Arlington National National Cemeteries Tours site.
Overlooking the nation’s capital from its serene expanse, Arlington National Cemetery lies on the resplendent west bank of the Potomac River. The hallowed ground serves as the final resting place for numerous presidents, Supreme Court justices, astronauts, and other public servants, including more than 400,000 military personnel, veterans, and their immediate families.
This national landmark is the country’s largest and most important military cemetery. Still an active burial ground, it conducts over 25 funerals each weekday. The cemetery, Arlington Memorial Bridge, the Hemicycle, and Arlington House make up the Arlington National Cemetery Historic District that was added to the National Historic Register in 2014.
History of an honored cemetery
Arlington National Cemetery occupies land once owned by George Washington Parke Custis, the adopted grandson of Martha and George Washington. He built the Arlington House as a memorial to the nation’s first president. In 1857, the property was bequeathed to his daughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, who had married Robert E. Lee 26 years earlier. With the secession of Virginia from the Union, the family evacuated the property. Federal troops incorporated the land into their defensive fortifications around Washington. Part of the property was used as a Freedman’s Village where former slaves received assistance after their liberation.
As the number of casualties climbed during the Civil War, the federal government needed additional cemetery space to inter the dead. To meet this demand, 200 acres of the plantation serve as a national cemetery. Note: The US government purchased the property after the Civil War. George Washington Custis Lee sued the federal government for the return of the land, which he argued the Union Army seized illegally. In 1882, the Supreme Court ruled in his favor and the federal government paid Lee $150,000 for the property, which is equivalent to about $3.9 million in 2021.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is the most visited site in the cemetery
Nowhere within the hallowed grounds of Arlington National Cemetery receives more visitors than The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. On high ground at almost the perfect geographic center of the cemetery, the tomb sits bearing witness to the US unknown soldiers.
There are four unknown soldiers buried under the Tomb
The first unknown soldier from World War I was honored on Armistice Day in November 1921. The body lay in state in the Capitol rotunda. On the following day, a caisson transported the unknown soldier to Arlington National Cemetery. During the procession, the casket was escorted by members of the military, President Warren G. Harding, Vice President Coolidge, Chief Justice Taft, and the remaining justices of the Supreme Court. Members of the Cabinet, Senate, and House, along with several hand-picked Generals, were also on hand to witness the presenting of the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross to the unknown dead.
The Tomb we see today was completed and put in place without a formal ceremony on April 9, 1932.
On August 3, 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill into law whose purpose was to select and pay tribute to the fallen unknown soldiers of the Korean War and World War II (WWII) by interring them with honors in a specially designated area in Arlington National Cemetery. WWII honors an unknown soldier from both the European and the Pacific war theaters.
WWII and Korean War Unknown Soldiers were added in 1958
When the 1958 procession entered the cemetery grounds, a squadron of 20 fighter planes flew overhead with one plane missing from each formation to symbolize a fallen or missing brother-in-arms. The Marine Band played the National Anthem and a bugler sounded attention three times. After a long moment of silence, President Eisenhower placed a Medal of Honor on each casket.
Today, modern science allowed the identification of the Vietnam Unknown Soldier. The military decided that the crypt that contained the remains of the Vietnam Unknown will remain vacant. The crypt cover has been replaced with one that has the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”
The Tomb is protected by the “Old Guard”
The Army 3rd Infantry Regiment is entrusted with tending to and guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The unit also coordinates any and all burials that take place in Arlington National Cemetery. It is affectionately known as the ‘Old Guard.’ For those select few that answer the sacred call to become a Tomb Sentinel, it is a responsibility that is taken with the utmost grace.
It is a role fraught with pomp and circumstance of the highest order. For those in training to become full-fledged Sentinels, the rigors are many. From 5-5:30 am, there is a daily inspection of living quarters after which the prospects themselves are evaluated. Uniforms are inspected with a fine-tooth comb to ensure that the garment is immaculate down to the prescribed distances between medals and other parts of the uniform jacket.
The Changing of the Guard
If there is one reason, besides paying their respects and the historical significance of the place, that visitors from all over the world visit Arlington National Cemetery, it is to witness the iconic changing of the guard.
Since April 6, 1948, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has been guarded 24/7. The guards change every hour during winter. Otherwise, the changing takes place every half hour during the summer and daylight hours.
One guard relieves another from their post in a ceremony with the precision of a Swiss watch. While on duty, the Tomb Sentinel marches 21 steps across a black mat passing the grave markers of each of the unknowns. He then turns 90-degrees and faces east for exactly 21 seconds.
In an elaborate military ballet, the commanding officer inspects the guard. The new guard’s weapon and uniform face extreme scrutiny. If all is in order, the relieved guard calmly makes his way back to quarters. His replacement makes his way to the center of the plaza to begin his watch.
Each weekday burials take place at Arlington National Cemetery
An average of four funerals a day take place at Arlington National Cemetery. Watching full military funeral processions with a caisson pulled by horses and listening to the 21-gun salute impresses everyone.
Many other sites sit within this national cemetery. It can be visited day after day. Monuments to soldiers’ battles and their leaders are spread through the grounds.
Fabulous DC airport art is tucked away in the damnedest places!
Discover where you live. It can add local color to your life.
Photos of Arlington National Cemetery are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Charlie Leocha is the President of Travelers United. He has been working in Washington, DC, for the past 14 years with Congress, the Department of Transportation, and industry stakeholders on travel issues. He was the first consumer representative to the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections appointed by the Secretary of Transportation from 2012 through 2018.