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SERVING OUR VETERANS: The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (pt. 1)

By Staff | Aug 16, 2019

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is the most famous and popular destination within Arlington National Cemetery. More than four million visitors pass through the cemetery gates each year and most will climb the hill to the Memorial Amphitheater to watch the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb. Like the Tomb itself, the Tomb guards are the most famous and iconic troops within the Old Guard. The Tomb Platoon is the most specialized unit in The Old Guard. While the majority of Old Guard soldiers train for and perform a variety of funerals and ceremonies, Tomb guards only mission is to guard the Tomb, which they have done every minute of every day for eighty-two consecutive years.

The story of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier began as the guns fell silent on the eleventh hour of the eleventh month in 1918. The American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) had proved decisive in World War I. But despite its late entry, the AEF lost more than 116,000 troops. But, thanks in part to the recent introduction of identification tags, fewer than two thousand remained unidentified. Thus, for the first time the nation faced the question of how to handle large numbers of identified remains in an overseas war.

Senior Army leaders generally preferred not to disturb the war dead. But, war mothers and war widows wanted their late sons and husbands returned home. Congress sided with them and most Gold Star families brought their loved ones home, though nearly 31,000 Americans remained in Europe in eight newly established cemeteries, where they still rest today under the care of the American Battlefield Monuments Commission.

This policy left unsettled the question of what to do with the unidentified remains. Some advocated for a memorial to an unknown which would represent all the unknowns. But, some Army leaders resisted such proposals. However, on Armistice Day, 1920, France and Great Britain buried an unknown soldier at the Arc de Triomphe and Westminster Abbey in elaborate funerals before huge crowds. The pageantry and emotion of the day galvanized American public opinion. General John J. Pershing, who had led the AEF, testified to Congress in favor of a memorial for an unknown soldier, as did other senior military officers. Congress quickly passed legislation to honor an unknown at Arlington and President Woodrow Wilson signed it on his final day in office.

The funeral for the unknown would occur on Armistice Day in 1921, giving the Army’s Grave Registration Service in Europe eight months to select the remains of an unknown soldier. They went to great lengths to ensure anonymity, exhuming four unknowns from four cemeteries, destroying all related records, and even rearranging the caskets in secret before the selection. Sergeant Edward Younger, who had served in the AEF’s biggest campaigns, made the selection on October 24th by laying white roses on the casket.

The Unknown arrived in Washington, D.C. on November 9th. A large ceremonial procession escorted him from Washington Navy Yard to the Capitol Rotunda, where he lay in state and received visits from President and Mrs. Warren Harding and senior officials from all three branches of the government. When the Capitol’s east doors opened the next morning, thousands of soldiers, veterans, and fellow citizens were gathered to pay their final respects, including Gold Star families of missing unidentified soldiers, perhaps wondering if it was their loved one resting in the casket.

On the morning of Armistice Day, the Unknown was honoured with a funeral procession from the Capitol to Arlington. Along-side the military escort, President Harding and General Pershing led hundreds of dignitaries, including Supreme Court justices, Cabinet officials, governors, legislators, Medal of Honor recipients and other soldiers and veterans. Inside the Amphitheater, President Harding gave an emotional address and decorated the Unknown with the Medal of Honor and Distinguished Service Cross, the two highest awards for gallantry under fire. After a committal service on the Plaza, the Unknown was lowered into the Tomb, a bugler sounded Taps, and the artillery fired a final twenty-one gun salute. The Unknown now rested in his eternal home, the high ground of Arlington.

I will conclude this story, on the Tomb of the Unknown, in my next column.

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