Call it the "Tomb of the Unknown Soldier," which is what most Americans think it is called.
Call it the "Tomb of the Unknowns," a clumsy name which doesn't say what it is. (Unknown what?? Unknown cat? Unknown tennis shoe? Unknown library card?)
The fact is, this memorial to unidentified military personnel, located at the Memorial Amphitheater in Arlington National Cemetery, has no official name. Nor has it ever been dedicated.
There are some astonishingly dumb myths about the Tomb. Like: The thing you see actually contains human remains. (It does not.) Like: It has always been guarded. (It has not.) Like: It has existed since Arlington National Cemetery was formed. (Nope.) Like: It contains an unknown soldier from every war America has fought in. (It has not, and it does not. In fact one body was removed!)
Veterans Day is celebrated in the United States on November 11. That is the day in 1918 on which World War I ended. It used to be called "Armistice Day." The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier came about because of World War I, and it behooves us to know more it about because it is such an important part of our Veterans Day observances.
So let's begin.
Arlington National Cemetery was founded in 1864. Thousands of dead in the Civil War, on both sides, were not identified. In 1868, U.S. Army Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs ordered that more than 2,100 bodies from First and Second Bull Run and from the U.S. Army's retreat along the Rappahanock River be disinterred. The bodies were reburied in a huge circular concrete vault in what used to be Mrs. Robert E. Lee's rose garden, and a massive granite and marble rectangular monument (built to look like the Ark of the Covenant) created on top of it. This was the "Memorial to the Civil War Unknown Dead." And it was America's first memorial to its unidentified war dead.
The sinking of the USS Maine in the harbor of Havana, Cuba, in 1898 gave the colonialist administration of William McKinley the opportunity to seize Spanish colonies by prompting the Spanish-American War. In December 1898, 150 of the bodies from the Maine were brought to Arlington National Cemetery and interred in a mass grave in Section 22 of the cemetery beneath a sandstone pillar. Hundreds more were brought up from the harbor's depths in 1912, and buried in mass graves around this monument. The mast of the Maine was also raised here, and constituted a memorial to the Spanish-American War unidentified dead. This was America's second memorial to unidentified war dead.
On May 15, 1920, a massive new marble amphitheater, Memorial Amphitheater, was dedicated at Arlington National Cemetery. A smaller, wooden amphitheater built around a grass bowl had existed at Arlington since 1874. But it was too small, so a bigger, marble one was proposed. Memorial Amphitheater had a small Memorial Hall topped with office in front, a stage in the rear, and could seat 5,000. Originally, the main (east) entrance had a rectangular granite plaza in front of it, from which some short marble steps led down to a slightly elliptical granite plaza surrounded by a marble balustrade. From this overlook, you could see a rectangular grass lawn 20 feet below. But this soon changed.
The amphitheater was first approved in 1913. In 1917, America entered World War I. More than 1.3 million Americans served in Europe during the war, and more than 116,516 had died. (Another 205,000 were wounded, for a total casualty rate of 25 percent. For consideration: Units are considered to lack combat readiness when they suffer 20 percent casualties, and to lack cohesion when they suffere 40 percent casualties.) Just 4,221 were unidentified or missing; the missing (3,173) were the vast majority of them. Nonetheless, 1,100 "unidentified" American war dead was a burden on the national conscience, and the media focused heavily on grieving mothers with no body to bury.
Some American generals had suggested in 1919 that a "Tomb of an Unknown Soldier" be created in the United States. The idea didn't gain traction at first, but in 1920 both England and France held huge public ceremonies honoring their unknown dead. These received much press attention in the United States, and on February 4, 1921, Congress enacted legislation establishing a memorial. Some veterans' groups proposed burying the unknown soldier in the crypt beneath the Capitol Rotunda -- a crypt originally planned for George Washington (but politely declined by his family). Terrified that the Capitol might become a mausoleum, Congress instead chose Arlington National Cemetery as the site for the new memorial. On March 4, 1921, with just hours left in his presidency, President Woodrow Wilson signed the legislation into law.
The process of choosing an unknown soldier was meticulous. A potential grave had to be unearthed, and the body and uniform inspected for any identifying marks. Only those remains which were completely and absolutely unidentifiable could be used. A body was identified at Aisne-Marne, Meuse-Argonne, Somme, and St. Mihiel. Each disinterment team was given an identical gray steel casket and a wooden shipping crate. All caskets and crates had to be absolutely clean before being transported. The four caskets were shipped on October 23, 1921, to Châlons-sur-Marne in France and placed in the main foyer of the City Hall. The paperwork for each casket was then burned in an alley in back of the building, so no one could tell which cemetery each casket came from. The caskets were removed from the shipping case, the case turned upside down to be used as a bier, the casket placed on top of the case, and an American flag draped over the casket. The townspeople were permitted to view the caskets during the day. More than 3,000 people did so, many of them leaving behind flowers, weeping openly, and blessing the caskets. That night, the City Hall was shut and four French and four American sentinels stood watch over the caskets. On the morning of October 24, the flowers were removed. Brasseur Buffer, a French citizen of the town who had lost two sons in the war, presented the major in charge of the operation with a bouquet of roses. These were given to Sgt. Edward F. Younger, an American soldier who had served in every major action in France and been wounded twice. Younger entered the City Hall, and the doors were closed behind him. Younger circled the four caskets in the dark room, and then made his choice by laying the flowers on the second casket. The Unknown Soldier was removed from the steel casket and placed in an ebony casket decorated with silver.
Back in the room, one of the remaining three bodies was removed from his original casket and put into the now-empty casket to further confuse any possible identification. The three bodies were transported back to the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery, where they were buried in graves 1, 2, and 3 of Row 1, Block G. They remain there to this day.
The Unknown Soldier traveled by train across France. Thousands of weeping French people turned out at each stop to throw flowers and offer bottles of champagne. The train passed through Paris to the port of Le Havre, where the casket was put aboard the USS Olympia (Admiral Dewey's flagship at the Battle of Manila). French Minister of Pensions André Maginot (later Minister of War, and creator of the famous Maginot Line of defensive forts) stepped forward. His left leg had been shattered during the war. "The whole of France bows down with me before your coffin," he said. He leaned down, kissed the casket, and placed the Cross of the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor -- France's highest honor -- on the casket. At 3:20 p.m. on October 25, with the casket guarded by six sailors and two Marines, the Olympia departed for the United States. Schoolchildren tossed flowers at the ship as it left. A French destroyer issued a 17-gun salute, which was returned by the Olympia.
Back in the United States, preparation for the "Tomb of the Unknown Solider" (as it was originally called) were frantically under way. The newly-formed American Legion (a congressionally-chartered veterans' lobby group) was pressing as late as May 1921 for the body to be buried in the Capitol's crypt. This debate was not resolved until mid-July, and by then very little time remained to create the monument. Where to build the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery continued until October, when it was decided that the view from the Memorial Amphitheater's plaza was the most appropriate site for the new memorial.
The Tomb was cut unto the center of the short steps which led down to the granite overlook. Diggers buried downward 20 feet until they reached the level of the lawn below. They then continued another 20 feet below the surface. The subsurface shaft was 16 feet-2 inches east-west and 9 feet-6 inches north-south, and filled with solid concrete. This formed the footings for the vault above. The footings had to be that deep and that large because tons of marble were going to be placed on top of them, and the memorial could not be permitted to sink or become destabilized. The vault itself was lined with marble. The vault's walls ranged in thickness from 7 feet at the bottom to 2 feet-4 inches at the top.
A plinth (or "sub-base") was set on top of the vault walls. The plinth serves as the base of the memorial proper, and also helps to conceal the rough, unfinished top of the vault walls. The plinth was made of three finished, rectangular pieces of marble which fitted over the vault walls like a collar. These are on the north, south, and west sides of the vault, and were the only part of the substructure visible in 1921. (They remain visible today.)
Four rectangular marble pieces form the actual base of the memorial. These were mortared to the top of the plinth. A rectangular marble capstone with curved sides was placed on top of the base. The capstone was pierced with the a hole to permit the coffin to be lowered into through the base, through the plinth, and to the bottom of the grave vault. The bottom of the vault was lined with two inches of French soil, taken from various battlefields in France.
The World War I unknown was interred as scheduled on November 11, 1921. More than 100,000 people attended the ceremonies, including the Premier of France, Aristide Briand; the former Premier of France, Rene Viviani (who led France through the war); Marshal Ferdinand Foch (the French general who was Commander in Chief of Allied Forces in France); President Warren G. Harding; and former President William Howard Taft. (Former President Woodrow Wilson, his body and mind shattered from the massive stroke he suffered on October 2, 1919, and from which he had never fully recovered, was to weak to attend. He rode in the funeral procession, but then returned to his home.) One thousand "gold star mothers" (mothers who had lost a son in the war) attended the ceremony, as did every single living Medal of Honor winner. The entire Cabinet was there, and so was the entire Supreme Court. Every member of the House and Senate was present (although they had to stand in the colonnade). Also present was General John Pershing, who had led American forces in Europe; Lt. Gen. Nelson Miles, former Commanding General of the Army; Admiral of the Fleet David Richard Beatty of Great Britain; General Armando Diaz, Marshal of Italy; General Baron Alphonse Jacques de Dixmude of Belium; Frederick Lambart, 10th Earl of Cavan, commnander of British forces in Italy; British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour (for Prime Minster David Lloyd George of Great Britain); and Tokugawa, Prince of Japan. Also conspicuous was Chief Plenty Coups of the Crow Nation, in full battle regalia and headdress.
President Harding bestowed on the unknown soldier the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross (the latter of which was never awarded again). General Jacques presented the Croix de Guerre, Belgium's highest military honor. (He took from his own chest the medal, which had been bestowed on him by King Albert.) Admiral Beatty bestowed the Victoria Cross, which had never before been given to a foreigner. Marshal Foch bestowed the Medaille Militaire and the Croix de Guerre with palm, France's highest military honor. General Diaz gave the Gold Medal for Bravery, Prince Bibescu of Romania gave the Virtuta Militaire, Dr. Dedrich Stephenek of Czechoslovakia presented the Szechoslovakia War Cross, and Prince Lubomirski of Poland gave the Virtuti Militan. When the coffin was ready for lowering into the vault, Chief Plenty Coups removed his war bonnet and tenderly placed it and two coup-sticks on the coffin. He raised his hands to the sky. "I place on this grave of this noble warrior this coup stick and this war bonnet," he said, "every eagle feather of which represents a deed of valor by my race. I hope that the Great Spirit will will grant that these noble warriors have not given up their lives in vain and that there will be peace to all men hereafter."
An artillery battery fired, and the coffin began to be lowered. It was answered by a battery of fire from the Olympia laying at anchor in the Potomac River. "Taps" were played. Once the coffin lay on the floor of the vault, the centerpiece of the capstone was replaced and the tomb sealed.
Congress authorized completion of the monument in July 1926. The Secretary of War held a design competition, with judges from Arlington National Cemetery, the American Battle Monuments Commission, and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. Only architects of national standing were permitted to enter the competiton, and 74 submitted designs. Five were chosen as finalists, and required to submit plaster models of their proposals. Architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones won the competition. Their design imitated a sarcophagus, but really was a solid block of marble. In their design, a thin rectangular base was placed on top of the existing capstone. Then came the "die block" (the main monument), on top of which was a capstone. The die block featured Doric pilasters (in low relief) at the corners. On the east side (facing the Potomac River) was a sculpture in low relief of three figures, representing female Victory, Valor (male, to her left), and Peace (female). The north and south sides were divided into three sections by fluted Doric pilasters, with an inverted wreath on the upper portion of each section. On the west side (facing the amphitheater) was the inscription: "Here Rests In Honored Glory An American Soldier Known But To God." It is still not clear who came up with the phrase, but it had been used on crosses marking the graves of unknown soldiers in Europe as early as 1915.
The judges asked that the approaches to the Tomb be improved as well. Clarence Renshaw designed the steps. The balustrade was removed, and the short series of steps extended outward and downward until they reached the lawn. A small landing exists two-thirds of the way down, after which the steps continue (even wider than before). Congress approved funding for the memorial and new steps on February 29, 1929, and a contract to complete the tomb was awarded on December 21, 1929. Quartermaster General Brig. Gen. Louis H. Bash oversaw the construction, which was done by the firm of Hegman and Harris.
The Vermont Marble Company provided the marble. This proved problematic. The Yule Marble Quarry at Marble, Colorado, was chosen as the quarry. Yule marble is particularly finely-veined and white. But a year passed before suitable pieces of marble could be located and mined. Three pieces were mined and discarded before one suitable for the 56-ton die block was found. Three pieces were also mined and discarded before one was found for the 18-ton base. When the base arrived at Arlington, workers discovered an imperfection in the marble which caused it to be discarded. A fifth, sixth, and seventh piece of marble was then mined, but only the eighth piece was suitable and brought to the cemetery. Amazingly, a piece for the 14-ton capstone was found on the first try.
Work began in September 1931, but stopped for three months after the flaw in the base was found. Work resumed in December, and all three pieces were in place on December 31, 1931. Fabrication was completed on-site, with sculptor Jones working five days a week. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was completed and opened to the public on April 9, 1932. There was no dedication ceremony, and the memorial has never been officially named. (Unfortunately, the Tomb began to fall apart almost immediately. Chips and spalls [pieces broken off after heating and contracting] were found coming off the base in 1933. By 1963, a huge primary horizontal and a secondary vertical crack had appeared in the die block -- probably caused by the release of pressure after the marble was mined. Acid rain and pollution have caused the marble sculptures to wear down appreciably, such that today they are only about half as sharp as they once were. Although there is no likelihood that the monument will collapse, debate continues to rage as to whether the monument should be replaced.)
Beginning on July 2, 1937, the U.S. Army began permanently stationing an honor guard at the tomb. The 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment ("The Old Guard") formally took over these duties on April 6, 1948. It is guarded 24 hours a day, seven days a week, all year long. The guard is changed once every hour, on the hour. Out of respect for the dead, the guard carries his rifle on the outside shoulder -- away from the tomb. The guard is not permitted to speak or break his march, unless someone enters the restricted area around the tomb. If this happens, the guard must come to a halt and bring his rifle (loaded with live ammunition) to port-arms. This is usually enough to make the person move back. (No one has ever gone further than the sharp slap of the rifle in the guard's hands.)
In June 1946, Congress approved the burial of unknown American from World War II at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Thirteen American unknowns were exhumed from cemeteries in Europe and Africa and shipped to Epinal, France. Maj. Gen. Edward J. O'Neill, U.S. Army, chose one of these caskets on May 12, 1958, as the "trans-Atlantic Candidate unknown." These three caskets were transported by air to Naples and placed aboard the USS Blandy. Two American unknowns were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii and four American unknowns disinterred from Fort McKinley American Cemetery in the Philippines. The six unknowns were taken by air to Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii. On May 16, 1958, Col. Glen Eagleston, U.S. Air Force, selected a "trans-Pacific Candidate unknown," which was placed aboard the USS Canberra. The Blady and Canberra rendezvoused off Virgina in May 1946, at which time the trans-Pacific Candidate unknown was transferred to the Canberra. Hospitalman First Class William R. Charette, the Navy's only active enlisted holder of the Medal of Honor, then placed a wreath at the foot of the casket on his right. (The other remains were buried at sea.)
In August 1956, Congress approved the burial of a Korean War unknown at the Tomb. The remains of four unknown Americans from the Korean conflict were exhumed from the National Cemetery of the Pacific. On May 15, 1958, Master Sergeant Ned Lyle placed a wreath on the fourth casket to choose the Korean War Unknown. (The other three unknowns were reinterred in the National Cemetery of the Pacific.)
Because so much time had passed, the World War II and Korean War unknowns were chosen at the same time. The Unknown of Korea was transported aboard the Canberra at the same time as the "trans-Pacific Candidate unknown."
After the World War II Unknown was chosen, both the WWII and Korean War remains were taken back to the Blandy, which transported them to Washington, D.C. Like the World War I Unknown, they lay in state in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol. Both were interred in vaults on the west side of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Memorial Day, May 30, 1958. Rather than enlarge the WWI vault, new vaults were dug in the plaza on the west side of the Tomb.
Congress authorized the entombment of a Vietnam War casualty in 1973. But with advances in identification of remains, no unknown remains could be found. Pressure from Vietnam veterans' groups was making the issue politically potent by the early 1980s, especially with Republican Ronald Reagan in office as president. And that's where the scandal began... In May 1972, 24-year-old U.S. Air Force pilot Michael Blassie was shot down in South Vietnam close to the Cambodia border. In October 1972, American ground patrols found Blassie's identity card, some American money, shreds of a USAF flight suit, and some skeletal remains near where Blassie went down. The I.D. card and money went missing soon thereafter. Pentagon officials declared the remains "likely to be" Blassie's, but no firm identification was ever made. By 1980, only four sets of Vietnam War-era remains could be declared unidentified, and one of these were the Blassie remains. In 1980, for unknown reasons, an Army review board ruled that the bones were not Blassie's. Soon thereafter, all documents in the file were removed and destroyed.
On May 8, 1984, the no-longer-"likely" remains were declared "unknown." The Vietnam Unknown was "selected" by Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr. (a Medal of Honor recipient) at Pearl Harbor on May 17, 1984. The unknown's remains were transported by the USS Brewton to Alameda Naval Base in California. They arrived on May 23, 1984, and transported by automobile to nearby Travis Air Force Base on May 24. The remains were transported by air to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on May 25, and lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda from May 25 to May 28. They were interred in a new vault in front of the Tomb on May 28, 1984. President Reagan presented the Medal of Honor to the unknown soldier.
The possibility that the remains were Blassie's was first raised by a man investigating missing-in-action cases. The story broke into the press in January 1998, and in April the two U.S. Senators from Missouri and Blassie's family were demanding answers. After a high-level Pentagon review, the Secretary of the Army recommended on April 26 that the remains be disinterred. The Secretary of Defense ordered exhumation on May 6, and the remains came above ground on May 13. A DNA sample was obtained from the remains on June 15, and on June 29 the remains were identified as Blassie's. Blassie was buried in his home town of St. Louis on July 10, 1998, with handfuls of soil from Arlington National Cemetery. The following month, Blassie's family asked to keep the Medal of Honor, but the Pentagon refused -- saying it was intended to go to the unknown, not to Blassie (who had not won it). In June 1999, with no further unidentified Vietnam War remains available, Pentagon officials said they would keep the vault empty. The Vietnam War crypt was rededicated on September 16, 1999.
The Department of the Army and Arlington National Cemetery bear sole responsibility for maintaining, repairing, and replacing the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
This is causing problems, as the tomb is deteriorating quickly. By early 1964, the two horizontal cracks had extended to 34 feet. When next measured in 1974, the cracks were more than 40 feet in total length. By 1989, they were 44.6 feet long.
Surface repairs to the primary and secondary cracks were conducted in 1975. This required the cracks to be widened so that grout could be placed in them. This is the first recorded attempt to repair the cracks. The grout failed in 1989 and was removed. The cracks were cleaned and regrouted. This time, the grout had a high percentage of lime, which would bettwer withstand the elements. Also, a polymer glue was added to the grout to help it bond better to the existing marble as well as to improve its flexibility (an important consideration, as the tomb expands and contracts with heat and cold).
The tomb was studied by the architectural restoration firm of Oehrlein and Associates in 1988 and 1989. Radar thermography and photogrammertry were used to examine the die block. The radar thermography revealed that the cracks are not just superficial: They extended deep into the monument, and by 2010 would extend completely through the die block. However, because the cracks were uneven, the monument was not likely to collapse. (The cracks are like the jaws of a gear, helping to hold the monument together.) Oehrlein and Associates also discovered that acid rain, pollution, and weather have removed 2.85mm of the surface of the tomb. This has made the low-relief carvings on the tomb's side indistinct, and the study found that by 2010 the carvings would be so deteriorated that visitor appreciation for the tomb would be seriously impacted. Oherlein and Associates suggested either enclosing the tomb, or replacing it.
Arlington National Cemetery began inspecting the the tomb yearly in 1989. These inspections showed that the cracks continued to increase horizontally.
In 2003, Metzler approved a preliminary decision to have the Tomb replaced. His fear was that some of the sculptural detail on the tomb might fall off in public and that repair was not a long-term solution. Public uproar over the decision as well as congressional opposition led to the suspension of this plan in May 2003.
In 2004, Arlington National Cemetery and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) signed a "memorandum of understanding" (MOU) regarding the tomb. The VA has responsibility for the grave markers at Arlington, and there was concern that the VA would be held responsible for any decision to replace the tomb monument. This MOU said that Arlington National Cemetery would be solely responsible for deciding to replace the tomb. The VA would be responsible only for locating, selecting, transporting, and carving a replacement.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was studied again in July 2005. Several experts in marble and stone conservation studied the tomb, and provided recommendations for its repair and possible replacement. None of their conclusions varied much from that of Oerhlein and Associates in 1990.
In 2008, Congress passed the National Defense Reauthorization Act which contained among its provisions a requirement that Army formally study tomb replacement and repair. The legislation barred any replacement until this study was completed. The study, released in August 2008, identified four alternatives: 1)do nothing; 2) repair the tomb until it cannot be repaired any further; 3) repair the tomb but begin planning for replacement; and 4) replace the tomb immediately. In June 2009, Metzler announced that the third option would be implemented. A Denver car dealer had secured a perfect replacement die block from the same Yule marble quarry in 2005, but the cemetery had rejected it. Now, Metzler accepted the donation and said it would be used in case the tomb was to be replaced.
In 2010, the polymer/lime grout failed. The tomb's cracks were filled with new grout, but these repairs lasted only a few months. A study of the cracks and design of a new grout in June 2011. In September 2011, the cracks were filled once more, and the repair work declared a success on October 21, 2011.