The Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, although it has never been officially named) is a monument dedicated to American servicemen who have died without their remains being identified. It is located in Arlington National Cemetery in the United States. The "Unknown Soldier" of World War I is a recipient of the Medal of Honor, the Victoria Cross, and several other foreign nations' highest service awards. The U.S. Unknown Soldiers who were interred afterwards are also recipients of the Medal of Honor, presented by the U.S. presidents who presided over their funerals.
In late 1920 the United Kingdom had buried one of their unknown warriors in Westminster Abbey. France soon followed with their Tomb of the Unknown Soldier beneath the Arc de Triomphe, and on March 4, 1921, the United States Congress approved the burial of an unidentified American soldier from World War I in the plaza of the new Memorial Amphitheater. The tomb's design was selected in a competition won by architect Lorimer Rich.
The white marble sarcophagus has a flat-faced form and is relieved at the corners and along the sides by neo-classical pilasters, or columns, set into the surface. The stone was quarried in Marble, Colorado. Sculpted into the east panel which faces Washington, D.C., are three Greek figures representing Peace, Victory, and Valor. Inscribed on the western panel of the Tomb are the words:
The Tomb sarcophagus was placed above the grave of the Unknown Soldier of World War I. West of the World War I Unknown are the crypts of unknowns from World War II (north) and Korea (south). Between the two lies a crypt which once contained an unknown from Vietnam (middle). His remains were identified in 1998 as First Lieutenant Michael Blassie and removed. Those three graves are marked with white marble slabs flush with the plaza.
On Memorial Day, 1921, four unknowns were exhumed from four World War I American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat, highly decorated for valor and received the Distinguished Service Medal in "The Great War, the war to end all wars," selected the Unknown Soldier of World War I from four identical caskets at the city hall in Châlons-en-Champagne, France, on October 24, 1921.
Younger selected the unknown by placing a spray of white roses on one of the caskets. He chose the third casket from the left. The chosen unknown soldier was transported to the United States aboard . Those remaining were interred in the Meuse Argonne Cemetery, France.
The Unknown Soldier lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda from his arrival in the United States until Armistice Day, 1921. On November 11, 1921, President Warren G. Harding officiated at the interment ceremonies at the Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery. During the ceremony, the Unknown Soldier was awarded the Victoria Cross by Admiral of the Fleet Lord Beatty, on behalf of King George V of the United Kingdom. (The Victoria Cross being the highest award for valour issued in the UK, on par with the Medal of Honor. Earlier, on October 17, 1921, the British Unknown Warrior was conferred the U.S. Medal of Honor by General John Pershing.) In 1928, the Unknown Soldier was presented the Silver Buffalo Award for distinguished service to America's youth by the Boy Scouts of America.
On August 3, 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill to select and pay tribute to the unknowns of World War II and the Korean War. The selection ceremonies and the interment of these unknowns took place in 1958. The World War II Unknown was selected from remains exhumed from cemeteries in Europe, Africa, Hawaii, and the Philippines.
Two unknowns from World War II, one from the European Theater and one from the Pacific Theater, were placed in identical caskets and taken aboard the , a guided-missile cruiser resting off the Virginia Capes. Navy Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, then the U.S. Navy's only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, selected the Unknown Soldier of World War II. The remaining casket received a solemn burial at sea.
Four unknown Americans who died in the Korean War were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. Army Master Sergeant Ned Lyle made the final selection. Both caskets arrived in Washington on May 28, 1958, where they lay in the Capitol Rotunda until May 30.
That morning, they were carried on caissons to Arlington National Cemetery. President Eisenhower awarded each the Medal of Honor, and the Unknowns were interred in the plaza beside their World War I comrade.
The designation of the unknown soldier from Vietnam has proven to be difficult. With improvements in DNA testing it is possible, though unlikely, that every unknown soldier killed in the Vietnam War will eventually be identified.
The Vietnam Unknown was transported aboard the to Alameda Naval Base, Calif. The remains were sent to Travis Air Force Base, California, May 24. The Vietnam Unknown arrived at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, the next day.
Many Vietnam veterans and President Ronald Reagan and Mrs. Nancy Reagan visited the Vietnam Unknown in the U.S. Capitol. An Army caisson carried the Vietnam Unknown from the Capitol to the Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day, May 28, 1984.
President Reagan presided over the funeral, and presented the Medal of Honor to the Vietnam Unknown.
The President also acted as next of kin by accepting the interment flag at the end of the ceremony. The interment flags of all Unknowns at the Tomb of the Unknowns are on view in the Memorial Display Room.
The remains of the Vietnam Unknown were exhumed May 14, 1998. Based on mitochondrial DNA testing, Department of Defense scientists identified the remains as those of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie, who was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. The identification was announced on June 30, 1998 and on July 10, Blassie's remains arrived home to his family in St. Louis, Missouri; he was reinterred at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.
The crypt, which once held the remains of the Vietnam Unknown, has been replaced. The original inscription of "Vietnam" and the dates of the conflict has been changed to "Honoring and Keeping Faith with America's Missing Servicemen." as a reminder of the commitment of the Armed Forces to fullest possible accounting of missing service members.
It is considered one of the highest honors to serve as a sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Less than 20% of all volunteers are accepted for training and of those only a fraction pass training to become full-fledged Tomb Guards. The sentinels do not wear rank insignia on their uniforms so that they do not outrank the Unknowns, whatever their rank may have been. Soldiers serving in other roles, like Relief Commander and Assistant Relief Commander, do wear insignia of their rank when changing the guard although they are only allowed to "walk the mat", or post as a guard, with a uniform that has no rank.
This is repeated until the soldier is relieved of duty at the Changing of the Guard.
The mat is usually replaced twice per year: before Memorial Day and before Veterans Day. This is required due to the wear on the rubber mat by the special shoes worn by Tomb Guards. The guards have metal plates built into the soles and inner parts of their shoes to allow for a more rugged sole and to give the signature click of the heel during maneuvers. The guards are issued sunglasses, which are formed to their faces, due to the bright reflection from the marble surrounding the Tomb and the Memorial Amphitheater.
On the ground not covered by the mat, a wear pattern in the tile can be seen that corresponds to the precise steps taken during the changing of the guard. On the mat itself, footprints worn in by hours and hours of standing guard are also visible.
The guard change is very symbolic, but also conducted in accordance with Army regulations. The relief commander or assistant relief commander, along with the oncoming guard, are both required for a guard change to take place. The guard being relieved will say to the oncoming guard, "Post and orders remain as directed." The oncoming guard's response is always, "Orders Acknowledged." A guard change takes approximately 10 minutes. The ceremony can be witnessed by the public whenever Arlington National Cemetery is open.
The Tomb of the Unknowns has been guarded continuously, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, since July 2, 1937. Inclement weather does not cause the watch to cease.
The Tomb Guards, a special platoon within the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), make personal sacrifices to have the honor of serving. They work on a team rotation of 24 hours on, 24 hours off, for five days, taking the following four days off. A guard takes an average of 6 hours to prepare his uniform (which is solid wool regardless of the time of year) for the next day's work. In addition to preparing the uniform, guards also complete physical training, Tomb Guard training, cut their hair before the next work day, and shave twice per day. Tomb Guards are required to memorize 16 pages of information about Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, including the locations of nearly 300 graves and who is buried in each one.
A special Army decoration, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Guard Identification Badge is authorized for wear after passing a detailed test of 100 questions (from a pool of more than 300), a uniform test with two gigs (errors) or fewer (measured to the 1/64"), and a test on the guard changing sequence. After serving honorably for a period of nine months, and having passed the sequence of tests, a Tomb Guard is permanently awarded the Badge. Since 1959, many men have completed training and been awarded this Badge, as well as three women. A small number of Tomb Guard Identification Badges have also been retroactively awarded to soldiers who served as Guards before 1959. Those numbers make the Badge the second rarest award currently issued in the United States Army; only the Army Astronaut Badge is rarer.
The Tomb Guard Identification Badge is the only badge awarded by the United States Army that can be revoked after a soldier has left the military. The Regimental Commander of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment has the authority to revoke a Badge from any Guard (past or present) for any act that would bring discredit upon the Tomb of the Unknowns.
The badge was designed in 1956 and first issued to members of the Honor Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on February 7, 1958. The badge was first issued only as a temporary wear item, meaning the soldiers could only wear the badge during their tenure as members of the Honor Guard. Upon leaving the duty, the badge was returned and reissued to incoming soldiers. In 1963, a regulation was enacted which allowed the badge to be worn as a permanent part of the military uniform, even after the soldier's completion of duty at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Cracking and erosion are causing concerns for the long-term preservation of the Tomb Monument. A November 1963 report first recorded horizontal cracking of the monument's marble die block. Though this was the first time that the damage was documented, the report made it clear that the cracks had become visible some time before that date.
In 1963-1964, there were two cracks—referred to as "primary" and "secondary"—extending approximately 34 feet around the die block. By 1974, they had extended to 40 feet. They grew another 4.6 feet over the next 15 years. Inspection has determined that the cracks have increased horizontally since 1990. Analysis also indicates that the cracks are not surficial but extend partially through the block and will eventually extend all the way through.
The 1990 report documented deterioration of the marble's surface. As much as 2.85mm of the marble surface has been lost through weathering. The study projects that before 2010, the Tomb Monument will be eroded enough to have a negative effect on the experience of the visitors and concludes the only solutions are to enclose or replace the monument.
Several options have been considered to deal with the damage. Officials at Arlington National Cemetery determined that proper repair can return the Tomb Monument to an acceptable appearance. However, because the cracks will continue to lengthen and widen, continuous grouting, regrouting, touch-up, monitoring, and maintenance would be required. Therefore, a report commissioned by Arlington National Cemetery and published in June 2006 confirmed the Cemetery's conclusion that "replacement of the three pieces of the Tomb Monument is the preferred alternative". A final decision was scheduled to be made on September 30, 2007.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation objects to the plan to replace the authentic Tomb Monument. The Trust expressed concern that Arlington National Cemetery seeks to replace the existing monument with marble from the original quarry, which experts agree is likely eventually to crack.
The Trust has observed that the Cemetery’s own 1990 report recommended that the monument be repaired and that the Cemetery, in fact, commissioned Oehrlein Architects to repair the stone. In 2007, Mary Oehrlein informed Congressional staff members that: "The existing monument can easily be repaired, as was done 17 years ago, using conventional conservation methods to re-grout the cracks. Once repaired, the fault lines would be virtually invisible from the public viewing areas.
On September 26, 2007, U.S. Senator Daniel Akaka announced that an amendment crafted by him and Senator Jim Webb will be added to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008 (H.R. 1585) which would require a report on the plans of the Secretary of the Army and the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to replace the monument at the Tomb of the Unknowns. The secretaries would be required to advise Congress on the current efforts to maintain and preserve the monument. Additionally, they would have to provide an assessment on the feasibility and advisability of repairing rather than replacing the Tomb Monument. Finally, if the secretaries choose replacement, they would have to report those plans and detail how they intend to dispose of the current monument. Once the report is provided, the secretaries are prevented from taking action to replace the monument for at least 180 days. The Akaka-Webb amendment was included in the bill, which is under debate, by unanimous consent of the Senate. An amendment to the Fiscal Year 2008 Defense Authorization Bill authorized a review of the monument's condition. The bill also authorized repair, but not replacement, of the monument.
Final passage of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2008 (H.R. 4986) was signed by President Bush on January 28, 2008.