ARLINGTON, Va. – For over a 100 years, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has served as the heart of Arlington National Cemetery.
Since 1921, the Tomb has provided a final resting place for one of America’s unidentified World War I service members, and Unknowns from later wars were added in 1958 and 1984.
On November 11, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over a ceremony that saw the interment of an unknown soldier representing World War I.
Prior to the interment, the soldier who was chosen at random, was placed on a horse-drawn caisson and carried in a procession through Washington, D.C. and across the Potomac River where a state funeral ceremony was held at the then newly-built Arlington National Cemetery’s Memorial Amphitheater.
Since that time, the remains of three other soldiers — one each representing World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War — have been interred in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Here are some things you may not know about those ceremonies, the Sentinels and what it takes to guard the tomb.
1. Architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones designed the Tomb. The Piccirilli Brothers carved the Tomb. The same brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial.
2. Since midnight, July 2, 1937, the Tomb has been guarded 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The guard has not ceased, even during the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
3. The 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, traditionally known as “The Old Guard,” is charged with guarding the Tomb. The Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. If a member of the 3rd Infantry Regiment wants to be part of the unit that guards the Tomb — a Sentinel — they must apply. If accepted, they are trained and must pass tests on the guard process, weapons, uniforms and other issues. One test measures an applicant’s skill in memorizing the 35-page history of the Tomb.
4. It can take a Sentinel between six and eight hours to get ready to “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb. According to the Society of the Honor Guard, the guard is changed every half hour in the summer and every hour in the winter.
5. The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded in the U.S. Army, and he second least awarded badge in the military. The badge can be taken away for behavior that is considered disrespectful of the Tomb. The badge can be taken away even after a person has left the military.
6. Only five women have been chosen to guard the tomb. Women were first eligible to be in the 3rd Infantry Regiment in 1994. On Oct. 4, for the first time in 84 years, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier had its first all-female guard change.
7. The person chosen to be interred in the Tomb, called the Unknown, is selected at random. Four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different American cemeteries in France to be chosen as the first to be interred in the Tomb. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. At a ceremony where the caskets were lined up, Younger chose the third casket from the left. That casket was taken by the USS Olympia to the U.S. to be interred in the Tomb. The other three were buried at Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France.
8. A similar process was used to select the representative for World War II. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, was given the honor of choosing which casket would be interred. One person had served in the Pacific Theater of war and the other in the European Theater. Charette made his choice and the representative not chosen was given a burial at sea.
9. During the Korean War, there were four potential representatives for interment at the Tomb. Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was asked to choose the casket among the four soldiers who were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific on the island of Oahu.
10. Vietnam’s representative did not remain unknown after he was chosen due to advancements in identifying remains. Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., was asked to select the Vietnam War representative. The representative remained interred until May 14, 1998, when the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie. Per his family’s wishes, his body was moved and reburied in St. Louis. No other Vietnam representative was chosen. Instead, the crypt cover was replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”