Tomb of the Unknowns

From Academic Kids

The Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, although it has never been officially named) is a monument in Arlington National Cemetery dedicated to the American soldiers who have died without their remains being identified.

The Tomb of the Unknowns. The World War I unknown is below the marble sarcophagus. The other unknowns are beneath the white slabs on the ground. They are (from left to right) the World War II unknown, the Vietnam unknown, and the Korean War unknown
The Tomb of the Unknowns. The World War I unknown is below the marble sarcophagus. The other unknowns are beneath the white slabs on the ground. They are (from left to right) the World War II unknown, the Vietnam unknown, and the Korean War unknown

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 white marble sarcophagus has a flat-faced form and is relieved at the corners and along the sides by neo-classic 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 six wreaths carved into the north and south of the tomb represent six major battles of World War I: Chateau-Thierry, the Ardennes, Oisiu-Eisue, Meuse-Argonne, Belleau Wood and the Somme.

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), Korea (south) and Vietnam (middle). Those three graves are marked with white marble slabs flush with the plaza.

President George W. Bush lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Memorial Day.
President George W. Bush lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Memorial Day.

The Unknown of World War I

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, Oct. 24, 1921.

Sgt. 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 USS Olympia. 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.

The Unknowns of World War II and Korea

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The unknown soldier from Korea joins the two candidates from World War II aboard the USS Canberra

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 USS Canberra, a guided-missile cruiser resting off the Virginia capes. Navy Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, then the 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 Sgt. Ned Lyle made the final selection. Both caskets arrived in Washington, DC 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 Unknown of Vietnam

The designation of the unknown soldier from Vietnam has proven to be extremely difficult because with improvements in DNA testing, it is possible that no soldier from the Vietnam War will be unidentified.

The Memorial Bridge leading from Washington, D.C., to Virginia is lined with a joint-service cordon as the remains of the Vietnam War Unknown are taken by motor escort to Arlington National Cemetery for interment in the Tomb of the Unknowns.

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The presidential wreath was brought forward toward President Reagan during the interment ceremony for the Unknown Serviceman of the Vietnam Era at the Tomb of the Unknowns on May 28, 1984.

The Unknown service member from the Vietnam War was designated by Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg Jr. during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, May 17, 1984.

The Vietnam Unknown was transported aboard the USS Brewton to Alameda Naval Base, Calif. The remains were sent to Travis Air Force Base, Calif., May 24. The Vietnam Unknown arrived at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., the next day.

Many Vietnam veterans and President and Mrs. Ronald 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.

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.

The Tomb Guards

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Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns

It is considered one of the highest honors to serve as a Sentinel for the graves of the Unknown Soldiers. Over 80% of soldiers who try out for this duty do not make it.

Walking the Mat

There is a meticulous ritual the guard follows when watching over the graves:

  1. The soldier walks 21 steps across the Tomb. This alludes to the 21-gun salute, which is the highest honor given any military or foreign dignitary.
  2. On the 21st step, the soldier turns and faces the Tomb for 21 seconds.
  3. The soldier then turns to face the other way across the Tomb and changes his weapon to the outside shoulder.
  4. After 21 seconds, step 1 is repeated.

This is repeated until the soldier is relieved of duty at the Changing of the Guards.

Changing of the Guards

During the summer months, from April 1 to September 30, the guard is changed every half hour. During the winter months, from October 1 to March 31, the guard is changed every hour.


The Tomb of the Unknowns has been guarded continuously, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, since July 1, 1937. Inclement weather does not cause the watch to cease. Soldiers are specially trained to not show the effect the weather may have on them.

The Tomb Guards make personal sacrifices to have the honor of serving. They work on a team rotation of 24 hours on, 24 hours off, 24 on, 24 off, 24 on, and 96 hours off. An average guard takes 8 hours to prepare his uniform for the next day's work. In addition to preparing the uniform, guards also complete physical training, Tomb Guard training, and haircuts before the next work day.

A special Army decoration, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Guard Identification Badge is authorized for nine months of duty as a Tomb Guard.


In 2003 as Hurricane Isabel was approaching Washington DC, the US Senate and House took two days off in anticipation of the storm. On the ABC Evening News, it was reported that because of the dangers from the hurricane, the military members assigned the duty of guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier were given permission to suspend the assignment. They respectfully declined the offer: "No way, Sir!" Soaked to the skin, marching in the pelting rain of a tropical storm, they said that guarding the Tomb was not just an assignment.

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