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Remembering The Tomb Of the Unknown Soldier

History of the tomb and its sentinels

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.

October 24, Sgt. Edward F. Younger, wounded in combat and highly decorated for valor, selected the Unknown Soldier for World War I 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. Nov. 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 onto the surface.

The three figures of Valor, Victory and Peace are sculpted into the panel, which faces Washington. On the plaza face the words "Here Rests in Honored Glory An American Soldier Known But To God," are inscribed

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. Petty Officer 1st 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 lost their lives in Korea were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. Master Sgt. Ned Lyle made the final selection. Both caskets arrived in Washington May 28, 1958, where they lay in the Capitol 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 beside their World War I comrade.

May 28, 1984, President Ronald Reagan presided over the interment ceremony for the Vietnam Unknown servicemember. Like his predecessors, he was laid to rest in the plaza of the tomb during a ceremony that received national coverage.

Since then, DNA testing proved the Vietnam Unknown servicemember's remains were those of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie. His remains were returned to his family July 10, 1998, and he was buried in his hometown, St. Louis.

Originally, a civilian watchman was responsible for the security of the Tomb of the Unknowns. 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 daylight hours. In 1948, the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, "The Old Guard," assumed the post, following the unit's reactivation in the nation's capital. Members of the regiment's Honor Guard continue to perform this duty today.

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 number 21 is symbolic of the 21-gun salute.

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 1800s. Tomb guards 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.

Content in last section (History of the tomb and its sentinels) courtesy of