The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, also known as The Tomb of the Unknowns, is one of the most well-known features in Arlington National Cemetery, just outside of Washington, DC.  The tomb is located in the plaza of the Memorial Amphitheater at the top a hill overlooking the cemetery, Washington, and the region.
The Unknowns
On March 4, 1921, Congress approved the burial of an unidentified American soldier from World War I in a tomb this location. On Memorial Day 1921, four unknown servicemen were exhumed from four World War I American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was highly decorated for valor, selected the Unknown of World War I from four identical caskets at the city hall in Châlons-en-Champagne, France, on October 24, 1921. The chosen Unknown was transported to the United States aboard the USS Olympia and was interred on November 11, 1921.
On August 3, 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill to select and pay the tribute to the Unknowns of World War II and the Korean War. In 1958, 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 Hospital Corpsman 1st Class William R. Charette, then the U.S. Navy‘s only active-duty, enlisted Medal of Honor recipient, selected the World War II Unknown. Four unknown Americans who died in the Korean War were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii and 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 the morning of May 30, when they were carried on caissons to Arlington National Cemetery. President Eisenhower awarded each the Medal of Honor, and the Unknowns of World War II and the Korean War were interred in the plaza beside their World War I comrade.
On May 17, 1984 Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr. selected the Vietnam Unknown during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, May 17, 1984. The Vietnam Unknown arrived at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, on May 25th. The Tomb guards stood at death watch for the entire day as thousands of people braved the dreary weather to pay their respects. An Army caisson carried the Vietnam Unknown from the Capitol to the Memorial Amphitheater on Memorial Day, May 28, 1984.
The Tomb
On March 4, 1921, the U.S. Congress approved the burial of an unknown soldier from World War I near the Memorial Amphitheater. Five years later, in 1926, Congress authorized a memorial to be placed over the tomb. Architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones wont the competition to design the memorial. The actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers, who also carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C.
The Yule marble was quarried in Colorado in January 1931 and was shipped to Vermont where it was cut to size and finished. It was then shipped to Arlington National Cemetery where it was installed without any formal ceremony on April 9, 1932. At its base it is almost 14 feet long, 8 feet wide, and 8 and a half feet tall and weighs about 80 tons.
The Sentinels
The tomb has been guarded 24 hours a day, every day of every year, since 1937 by a soldier from the Army’s 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, “The Old Guard”. The Sentinel, as he or she is known, walks the mat in front of the Tomb for 30 minutes at a time during the summer, one hour during the winter, and two hours at night when the cemetery is closed. The Sentinels march 21 steps and then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the the Guard Change ceremony begins.
Qualifying as a Sentinel is very competitive and requires candidates to pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Each soldier must be in superb physical condition, possess an unblemished military record and be at least 5 feet, 10 inches (5 feet, 8 inches for women) with a proportionate weight and build. After passing a series of tests and serving nine months as a Sentinel at the Tomb, the soldier is awarded the Tomb Guard Identification Badge. Only an average of ten are awarded each year. It is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military, after the astronaut badge.
Changing of the Guard
The Sentinels walk the mat for between 30 minutes and two hours before being relieved. They work 24 hour shifts that typically include four Sentinels, a Relief Commander, an Assistant Relief Commander, and a number of Sentinels in training. They live in a barracks underneath the steps of the amphitheater during this shift. They typically work 24 hours on, 24 hours off, 24 hours on, 24 hours off, 24 hours on, and 96 hours off. One of he Sentinel’s tasks during their off time is to prepare their uniform for the next shift - a process that typically takes about eight hours.
The Changing of the Guard ceremony begins when the Relief Commander appears on the plaza to announce the Changing of the Guard. Soon afterwards, the new Sentinel leaves the Quarters and unlocks the bolt of his or her M-14 rifle to signal to the Relief Commander to start the ceremony. The Relief Commander walks out to the Tomb and salutes, then faces the spectators and asks them to stand and stay silent during the ceremony. The Relief Commander conducts a detailed white-glove inspection of the weapon, checking each part of the rifle once.
Then, the Relief Commander and the relieving Sentinel meet the retiring Sentinel at the center of the matted path in front of the Tomb. All three salute the Unknowns, who have been symbolically given the Medal of Honor. Then the Relief Commander orders the Relieved sentinel to “Pass on your orders.” The current Sentinel commands, “Post and orders, remain as directed.” The newly posted Sentinel replies, “Orders acknowledged,“ and steps into position on the black mat.
With that, the retiring Sentinel marches off while the current Sentinel begins his or her solitary vigil in the driving rain, scorching sun, bitter wind, or blowing snow.
I would recommend a visit to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to any visitor (or resident) of Washington. The Cemetery is included on most tours and is easily reached on the Metro blue line.
For more information on the Tomb or the Sentinels, I recommend:
and, of course, Wikipedia.
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