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Behind Arlington’s ‘Tomb of the Unknown Soldier’

Under falling snow, Army Sgt. Dontae Skywalker lays a rose on one of the crypts of the Unknowns, signalling the end of his watch over the Tomb. Credit: DoDLive.

A stark white block of marble can be seen overlooking the nation’s capital at Arlington National Cemetery.

If you get closer, you’ll soon realize that it takes the shape of a sarcophagus. Flat-faced and serene, with intricate columns and inscriptions set in the stone.

Three Greek figures adorn the East side, each with a purpose: for Peace, Victory, and Valor. On either side, three wreaths can be seen, representing the six major campaigns of World War I.

Underneath the sarcophagus is a warrior laid to rest. Behind him are two more.

“Here rests an American soldier known but to God”.


The original Unknown Soldier

Two years shy of a century ago, four soldiers were exhumed from American cemeteries in France.

They had two things in common: each had fallen in the line of duty during the Great War, and all bore no known name.

Sgt. Edward F. Younger, a Distinguished Service Medal recipient, was given the honor of choosing one soldier to be returned to American soil. He selected the third casket from the left; who would then sail back to the States on the USS Olympia, on Memorial Day.

The remaining soldiers were interred in France’s Meuse Argonne Cemetery.

Inter: to place in a grave or tomb, typically with funeral rites. In this case — full military honors.

A couple walking by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, May 1943. Credit: Time Magazine.

Construction of the tomb

On November 11, 1921, President Warren G. Harding officiated the interment ceremony for the Unknown Soldier. He was entombed in the plaza of the new Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery, below three levels of marble.

It wasn’t until 1931 that the sarcophagus was built.

Congress authorized the completion of the tomb in July of 1926, at the cost of $50,000. It took several years for an appropriation and formal contract to be secured. Then came the planning.

73 designers submitted work; 75 men quarried the marble in Colorado over the course of a year; the 56-ton block was divided into seven pieces, transported to Arlington and assembled, where it could be carved by the Piccirilli Brothers.

Fun fact: the Piccirillis were an Italian family known for their incredible marble work. They also sculpted Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial.

Finally, on April 9, 1932, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was finished.


The other Unknowns

After 35 years of solitude, the Unknown Soldier of World War I gained two companions.

On August 3, 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill for the selection of an unknown service member from both World War II and the Korean War. The process began with a casket from the European Theater, and another from the Pacific theater, which were both loaded onto the USS Canberra.

1st Class William R. Charette, who was the Navy’s only active Medal of Honor recipient, chose one to be the Unknown of World War II. The second was honorably buried at sea.

Army Sgt. Ned Lyle chose between four heroes from the Korean War, who had been buried at the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. Back in Washington, crypts were prepared for the new unknowns to the west of their WWI comrade.

The Unknown of Korea and the Unknown of WWII arrived in the capital on May 28, 1958.

The morning of May 30, they were each awarded the Medal of Honor before taking their places in the plaza.


The Unknown of Vietnam

Rightfully, another unknown was chosen from the Vietnam War.

Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellog, Jr. of the Marine Corps made this selection. On May 17, 1984, the Unknown of Vietnam was transported from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.

On Memorial Day, President Ronald Reagan presided over his funeral and presented him with the Medal of Honor, even accepting the interment flag at the end of the ceremony.

The Vietnam Unknown was laid to rest between the Unknowns of WWII and Korea, under a similar slab of marble to match the sarcophagus.

Surprisingly, he would be unearthed a mere 14 years later.

After evidence of the Unknown’s identity came to light, the body was exhumed on May 14, 1998. DNA testing determined him to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie, who was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam in ‘72.

Blassie’s remains were sent back to his family in St. Louis, Missouri, and he was reinterred at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery that July. His crypt at Arlington has been left vacant, and the slab protecting it was freshly labeled.

“Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen”.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt visits the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Armistice Day. Credit: CNN.

Remembering all the unknowns

Since its creation in 1921, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has represented all the unnamed heroes who have given so much for our country.

This Memorial Day, we honor these unknown service members who have sacrificed their lives under sacred oaths.

We may not know their names, faces or stories, but we know one inexplicable part of them, one that cannot be erased: they were soldiers.

Here rests our American soldiers, known but to God. And let them rest in peace.


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