HISTORY OF THE TOMB OF THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER: AN ACCOUNT FROM A FORMER GUARD
By Charlie Fowler
"In measured steps he makes his rounds, the click of heels the only sound." These are the first two lines of The Vigil, dedicated to SSG John Gallagher, a U.S. Army Special Forces soldier killed in action in Vietnam in 1968. The poem is also dedicated to the men who guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia. These soldiers, members of E Company, 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), have been guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier 24-hours a day since 1948.
The Old Guard was my first duty station, after enlisting in the Infantry in 2001. I participated in over 500 full-honor military funerals as a member of the D Company, and was then assigned a one-year detail at the Office of the Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs). After returning from the detail, I volunteered for duty at the Tomb, where I spent my last two years as an enlisted soldier. I was then selected for a two-year Green-to-Gold ROTC scholarship, and commissioned in 2008 into the Individual Ready Reserve as part of the JAG Corps Educational Delay. After three years of law school and passing the Oklahoma Bar exam, I was commissioned back on active duty as a Judge Advocate.
While many readers have visited Arlington National Cemetery, many may not know the history of the Tomb, and how the soldiers who are interred there were selected and laid to rest.
World War I Unknown Soldier
After World War I in 1920, England and France both interred an unidentified soldier to represent the thousands of soldiers lost in unmarked graves. In 1921, Congress authorized an unidentified American soldier to be interred in Arlington National Cemetery. In four war cemeteries in France, four American soldiers were disinterred, and one soldier from each of those cemeteries was selected; the twelve not selected were reinterred. The bodies of the four remaining soldiers were gathered in Chalons-sur-Marne, France. Sergeant Edward F. Younger, a World War I veteran and recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross, circled the four coffins, and randomly placed a spray of white roses on one of the caskets. The remaining three were reburied in France, and all the accompanying paperwork was destroyed, to ensure that the soldier would remain unknown. The chosen soldier sailed aboard the USS Olympia (Commodore Dewey’s flagship in the Battle of Manila Bay) and lay repose in the Capitol Rotunda until Veteran’s Day (then Armistice Day), 1921. A procession carried the Unknown Soldier from the Capitol to the Memorial Amphitheater in Arlington National Cemetery, where President Harding presided over the internment.
World War II and Korean War Unknown Soldiers
The outbreak of the Korean War delayed the selection of the World War II Unknown Soldier, and in 1956, Congress passed a bill authorizing the selection of an Unknown Soldier from both World War II and the Korean War. Two unidentified American World War II service members from the European and Pacific Theater were selected, and these soldiers were placed aboard the USS Canberra, the second guided-missile cruiser in the U.S. fleet and a survivor of a torpedo attack in World War II. Navy Petty Officer First Class William R. Charette, a World War II veteran and recipient of the Medal of Honor, selected one of the two unknown service members to be interred at Arlington; the other was buried at sea.
Four Korean War unknown service members were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii, and Army Master Sergeant Ned Lyle, a Korean War veteran and recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross, selected one to be interred in Arlington. The Korean Unknown joined the World War II Unknown aboard the USS Canberra, and both were carried to Washington, D.C., to lie in state in the Capitol until carried in a procession to Arlington National Cemetery, where President Eisenhower presided over the final internment.
Vietnam Unknown Soldier
In 1984, Marine Corps Sergeant Major Allen J. Kellogg, Jr., a Vietnam War veteran and recipient of the Medal of Honor, selected a single set of remains from a cemetery in Pearl Harbor as the Vietnam Unknown Soldier. The Vietnam Unknown was transported to Washington, D.C., to lie in the Capitol Rotunda, before being carried to Arlington for an internment ceremony presided over by President Reagan. In 1998, the remains were exhumed, and identified, through DNA, as Air Force First Lieutenant Michael J. Blassie. Upon request of his family, Lieutenant Blassie was reburied in Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, St. Louis, Missouri. Because of advances in identifying remains of service members, it is unlikely that an unknown soldier from the current or future conflicts will be interred in Arlington.
Selection and Training of Old Guard Soldiers
Although many soldiers have guarded the Unknowns, only 630 have been permanently awarded the Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Identification Badge – the second-rarest badge in the Army. Soldiers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment volunteer for a three-week temporary duty at the Tomb platoon, where they go through an initial orientation and screening. Those who make it through this three-week temporary duty are assigned to one of three squads, or reliefs, for an arduous six-month training and testing process. Along the way, the soldiers will be tested on knowledge of the Unknowns, the history of Arlington National Cemetery, and important figures buried in Arlington, as well as a meticulous uniform inspection and an inspection of the guard change sequence. Those who pass all four progressively more difficult tests are temporarily awarded the Tomb Guard badge, and are permanently awarded the badge after nine months of service at the Tomb.
The Unknown Soldiers are guarded 24-hours a day, seven days a week. Soldiers originally worked 12-hours on and 24-hours off, then the shift changed to 24-hour on and 48-hours off. Currently, each relief alternates 24-hours on and 24-hours off for five days, followed by four days off. The guard is changed every half-hour in the summer, every hour in the winter, and every two hours at night. It is in their off time that new soldiers must memorize, verbatim, 17 pages of information about their new job, work on their uniform, and still perform their regular soldier tasks – such as maintaining physical fitness and preparing for promotion boards. Guards press their own heavy wool uniforms and polish their shoes – a task that takes several hours a day. Accoutrements on the uniform are measured to the 1/64th of an inch, and must be cleaned and polished. Even the scabbard takes dozens of hours to turn from a corroded, green, standard-Army-issue item (that was most likely salvaged from the bottom of the most polluted of Great Lakes) into what is worn by the guards while on duty.
Serving at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was a life-changing experience. I had amazing coworkers, several of whom are now Special Forces soldiers, helicopter pilots, and commissioned officers. It instilled a work ethic that made college and law school seem (relatively) easy in comparison, and prepared me for the occasional 24-hour shift in the library. It also helped put everything in my life into perspective. We were guarding three soldiers who symbolized tens of thousands of Americans buried overseas in unmarked graves. Many of our visitors were veterans from wars past and wars present, coming to pay respects to their fallen comrades. One of our former guards, Staff Sergeant Adam L. Dickmyer, was killed in action near Kandahar, Afghanistan, on October 28, 2010.
After visiting Arlington National Cemetery, Audie Murphy wrote this untitled poem in 1948 which I think is as fitting and heartfelt today as when it was written:
Alone and far removed from earthly care,
The noble ruins of men lie buried here.
You were strong men, good men,
Endowed with youth and much the will to live.
I hear no protest from the mute lips of the dead,
They rest, there is no more left to give.