U.S. Military History: The Tomb

Ross Dunfee

“Soldier, put those bodies in the graves and get them buried.” “Sargent, what names should I put on each of the grave markers?” “I don’t know. For now, just mark it Unknown.” This conversation has occurred throughout many wars around the world. Identifying and repatriating the deceased is a logistical nightmare. It is estimated that nearly half of the Civil War dead are unidentified.

The Arlington National Cemetery, one of two cemeteries operated by the U.S. Army, currently houses about 400,000 deceased service members on 639 acres. It was first acquired during the Civil War and currently provides for more than 30 funerals each week. The property was obtained (apparently illegally) by the U.S. government from the (Robert E.) Lee’s family failure to pay a $92 tax bill in 1864. Actually, the government refused to accept the tax payment. The Lee family sued the U.S. government and the case was ultimately settled by the U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 9, 1882, with the U.S. government losing by a 5-4 vote. The land was returned to the Lee family who later sold it back to the government on March 3, 1883.

Through the efforts of a Washington, D.C., attorney, Ivory Kimball, the cemetery added a Memorial Amphitheatre (1,500 seats) to honor America’s servicemen/women. The Amphitheatre cornerstone, which contained 15 items, was laid 1913 and the Amphitheatre was completed 1921. The cornerstone contents, which included a Bible and copy of the Constitution, were retrieved July 29, 2011.

Almost before the concrete was cured on the Amphitheatre the U.S. chose to follow the British and French example of honoring the ‘Unknown,’ and in December 1920 New York Congressman and WWI veteran Hamilton Fish Jr. proposed legislation for the interment of an unknown U.S. soldier at the cemetery. October 1921, through an elaborate, random selection process, the casket of one exhumed serviceman in France was selected for interment at Arlington. On Nov. 9, Unknown lay in state at the Capitol Rotunda while 90,000 visitors paid their respects until Nov. 11 when Unknown was interred at the top of the steps leading to the Amphitheatre. On Nov. 11, 1921, a tomb for an unknown American warrior that represented the soul of America and the supreme sacrifice of her heroic dead now had an occupant. It was exactly three years since the signing of the WWI armistice.

To protect the site from damage and disgrace, private citizens first protected the tomb until 1926 when soldiers took on the responsibility. Beginning in 1937 the 3rd infantry (known as the ‘old Guard’) has been protecting the tomb 24/7/365. The tomb guard marches exactly 21 steps down the black mat behind the Tomb, turns, faces east for 21 seconds, turns and faces north for 21 seconds, then takes 21 steps down the mat and repeats the process. (The number 21 symbolizes the highest military honor that can be bestowed, i.e., the 21-gun salute.)

Four warriors were originally interred at the tomb as follows: WWI interred Nov. 11, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided; WWII and Korean War interred May 30, 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower presided; Vietnam War interred May 28, 1984, President Ronald Reagan presided. The Vietnam warrior was exhumed and identified through DNA testing, then repatriated to his hometown. Until recent years the DNA testing process was not available for identification. It is intended that the Vietnam War coffin remains empty.

The original tomb was under a flat marble slab until 1931 when a sarcophagus was added above the WWI grave. The Tomb sarcophagus is decorated with three wreaths on each side panel (north and south). On the front (east), three figures represent Peace, Victory, and Valor. The back (west) features the inscription: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.” The name of our U.S. soldier might be Unknown here on earth but God knows their name.

SOT-AZ (Support Our Troops-Arizona) honors our warriors (living, deceased, known, and unknown) by presenting 628 USA flags along the boulevards in Robson Ranch 11 times each year. Visit www.sotaz.org to learn more about SOT-AZ.