SERVING OUR VETERANS: The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (pt. 2)
In my last column, I wrote about the history of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I got as far as the World War I Unknown who was laid to final rest, in Arlington, on November 11, 1921. In this column, I will conclude this topic going forward to include the World War II, Korean, and Vietnam Unknowns.
In 1926, the Army requested and received $50,000 to complete the construction of the Tomb. The original Tomb was modest, no more than knee high. The plans for the tomb had always called for a larger, grander structure, but Congress never appropriated the money. Now the bidding and construction could move ahead. The final plan specified the Tomb to be eight feet wide, thirteen feet long, and eleven feet tall. The six wreaths, inverted to represent mourning, on the north and south sides, stand for six major campaigns in World War I. The eastern front contains three classical figures: Victory, holding a palm branch; Peace, holding a dove; and Valor, holding a sword. The western front faade bears only the famous inscription seen by visitors from all over the world:
“HERE RESTS IN HONORED GLORY AN AMERICAN SOLDIER KNOWN BUT TO GOD”
The completed work on the Tomb was unveiled to the public on April 9, 1932.
On Memorial Day in 1958, the Unknowns from World War II and Korea were interred. Congress and President Harry Truman had provided, by law, for a World War II unknown in June 1946, but those plans stopped when the Korean War broke out in June 1950. By 1956, Congress passed and President Dwight Eisenhower signed a new law providing for a double interment of a World War II and a Korean War unknown. The selection mirrored the detailed and secretive rituals for the World War I unknown. During their funeral service, they too, like the World War I unknown, were honored by receiving the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, a 21 artillery gun salute and Taps. Three days later, the two new crypts were sealed with a marble top inscribed with dates: 1941-1945 and 1950-1953. On the same day, the dates 1917-1918 were carved into the stone in front of the Tomb. Now, three Unknown brothers-in-arms commanded the high ground of Arlington.
As the new Unknowns arrived at their eternal home, American troops were arriving in Vietnam for a seventeen year conflict. Within months of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, Congress directed an unknown soldier from the Vietnam War to be buried at Arlington. A crypt was built for the Vietnam unknown the next year, between those for the World War II and Korean War Unknowns. But the story of the Vietnam Unknown would be longer and more complicated as the war itself. Following rituals, like in the past, the Vietnam Unknown was laid to rest in the Tomb on Memorial Day in 1984, presided over by President Ronald Reagan. Later that night, cemetery workers lowered the casket into the crypt and sealed it with a marble top again inscribed with dates and nothing more: 1958-1975. But, the crypt would not remain sealed. Ten years later, after evidence of the Vietnam identity surfaced, the Department of Defense decided to exhume the Unknown for DNA testing. A few weeks later, DNA testing positively identified the Unknown as First Lieutenant Michael Blassie. Michael Blassie was then returned to his family and he received a full-honor funeral at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery outside St. Louis, near his childhood home. As President Reagan had said when this Unknown lay in state, “This American hero may not need us, but surely we need him.” This is true of the other three Unknowns as well. For they are a reminder of the sacrifice made, for all of us, for our freedom we have today. The Vietnam crypt now reads: HONORING AND KEEPING FAITH WITH AMERICA’S MISSING SERVICEMEN, 1958-1975.
So, let us always remember and honor all the Unknowns, from all wars. As is often said, “They didn’t just give up their lives for our country; they also gave up their identities.” They did this for our nation.
If you would like more detailed information on the history of the Tomb of the Unknowns, and the Old Guard sentinels, I highly recommend the book, “Sacred Duty” by Tom Cotton. He is a presently a U.S. Senator from Arkansas and an Army veteran who had served with the Old Guard while on active duty. Much of the information I have written about in these two columns, I found in this book.
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