Postcard From The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

I recently heard of a remarkable action at the Tomb of the Unknowns, commonly known as The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery and I thought I would share it with you. Being a veteran myself, I should know more facts about this distinguished memorial so I did a little research.

The marble for the Tomb of the Unknowns was furnished by the Vermont Marble Company of Danby, Vt. The marble is the finest and whitest of American marble, quarried from the Yule Marble Quarry located near Marble, Colorado and is called Yule Marble. The Marble for the Lincoln memorial and other famous buildings was also quarried there. The Tomb consists of seven pieces of rectangular marble:

Four pieces in sub base; weight 15 tons; One piece in base or plinth; weight – 16 tons; One piece in die; weight – 36 tons; One piece in cap; weight – 12 tons.

Carved on the East side (the front of the Tomb, which faces Washington, D.C.) is a composite of three figures commemorative of the spirit of the Allies of World War I. In the center of the panel stands Victory (female). On the right side, a male figure symbolizes Valor. On the left side stands Peace, with her palm branch to reward the devotion and sacrifice that went with courage to make the cause of righteousness triumphant.

The north and south sides are divided into three panels by Doric pilasters. In each panel is an inverted wreath. On the west, or rear panel (facing the Amphitheater) is inscribed: HERE RESTS IN HONORED GLORY AN AMERICAN SOLDIER KNOWN BUT TO GOD

The current Tomb was completed and the area opened to the public at 9:15 a.m. April 9, 1932, without any ceremony. The cost of the tomb was $48,000, under budget by $2,000.

The first Tomb was created in 1921 and was unguarded. However, people climbed on it, sat on it, took pictures of each other standing on it and even had picnics on it so a day-time civilian guard was placed on duty in 1925 and a military guard replaced the civilians in 1926. The 24-hour military guard began in 1937.

Bodies of the unknown soldiers are not contained in the memorial itself, but rather in tombs. The tombs contain unidentified remains of soldiers from World War I, World War II, and Korea. There is an empty tomb where the unidentified remains of a soldier from Vietnam once laid. With the availability of more extensive records of combat action during Vietnam and due to the technical ability of identification through DNA, the previously unknown soldier was identified in 1998 as Air Force First Lieutenant Michael Joseph Blassie, who was killed in action when his plane was shot down in South Vietnam in 1972.

Each of the unidentified remains were awarded the Medal of Honor by the then sitting president of the United States. First lieutenant Blassie’s Medal of Honor had to be rescinded upon his identification. Upon removal of his body, a marker was placed on the now empty tomb which reads, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen.”

The Third Infantry Regiment at Fort Myer has the responsibility for providing ceremonial units and honor guards for state occasions, White House social functions, public celebrations and interments at Arlington National Cemetery and standing the very formal sentry watch at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

A few interesting facts:

How many steps does the guard take during his walk across the tomb of the Unknowns and why? – 21 steps. It alludes to the twenty-one gun salute, which is the highest honor given any military or foreign dignitary.

How long does he hesitate after his about face to begin his return walk and why? – 21 seconds, for the same reason as answer above.

Why are his gloves wet? – His gloves are moistened to prevent his losing his grip on the rifle.
Does he carry his rifle on the same shoulder all the time, and if not, why not? – No, he carries the rifle on the shoulder away from the tomb. After his march across the path, he executes an about face and moves the rifle to the outside shoulder.

How often are the guards changed? – Guards are changed every thirty minutes in the summer and every hour in the winter, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Other facts of the Guard:

A guard’s tour at the tomb is normally 1 year, but can be longer.

After extensive training, passing a special test, and 9 months of experience, the guard is given a Tomb Guard Identification badge that is worn over the right pocket of the uniform signifying they served as guard of the tomb. It is considered to be an honor of high prestige. There are only 525 presently worn.

Every guard (they call themselves “Sentinels”) spends approximately 6 – 8 hours every “off” day getting his uniforms ready for guard duty the next day. When a guard begins his shift, there can be no wrinkles, folds or lint on his uniform.

The Sentinels Creed:
My dedication to this sacred duty is total and wholehearted. In the responsibility bestowed on me never will I falter. And with dignity and perseverance my standard will remain perfection. Through the years of diligence and praise and the discomfort of the elements, I will walk my tour in humble reverence to the best of my ability. It is he who commands the respect I protect. His bravery that made us so proud.
Surrounded by well meaning crowds by day, alone in the thoughtful peace of night, this soldier will in honored glory rest under my eternal vigilance.

Most people think that when the Cemetery is closed to the public in the evening, the show stops. To the men who are dedicated to this work, it is not a show; it is a “charge of honor.” The formality and precision continues uninterrupted all night. During the nighttime, the drill of relief and the measured step of the on-duty sentry remain unchanged from the daylight hours. To these special men, the continuity of this post is the key to the honor and respect shown to these honored dead, symbolic of all unaccounted for American combat dead. The steady rhythmic step, in rain, sleet, snow, hail, heat, and cold must be uninterrupted. Uninterrupted is the important part of the honor shown.

And the story I wanted to tell you? Last year, hurricane Isabel roared through this area and did an incredible amount of damage – thousands of trees down, power outages, traffic signals out, roads filled with downed limbs and tons of debris everywhere. There was flooding and devastation throughout the area. At the height of the storm, the Regimental Commander of the U.S. Third Infantry sent word to the nighttime Sentry Detail to secure the post and seek shelter from the high winds to ensure their personal safety.

The men walking their post disobeyed his order. During winds that turned over vehicles and turned debris into projectiles, withstanding the stinging, pelting rain, the measured step continued. One of the soldiers later said “Guarding the Tomb is not just an assignment, it’s the highest honor that can be afforded a service person. Besides, I’ve got buddies getting shot at in Iraq who would kick my butt if word got to them that we let them down. I sure as hell have no intention of spending my Army career being known as the idiot who couldn’t stand a little breeze and shirked his duty.” Then, in response to a female reporter’s question regarding “silly, purposeless personal risk” he said, “I wouldn’t expect you to understand, ma’m,. It’s an enlisted man’s thing.”

The tomb has been patrolled continuously, 24/7, since 1937.