Nameless But Never Forgotten: The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Tomb Guards assigned to the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment walk the plaza at sunrise at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Arlington National Cemetery, on Jan. 31, 2019. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Jacob Plank

The 3rd U.S. Infantry Division is the oldest active-duty infantry regiment in the nation. It is the Army's official ceremonial unit and the escort to the president. Known as The Old Guard, select 3rd Infantry soldiers also are assigned to a platoon with perhaps the most solemn duty in the armed forces: guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.

Each year, more than 3 million tourists stream into Arlington National, which sits just west of Washington D.C., to visit the Tomb of the Unknowns. There, Sentinels of the 3rd U.S. Infantry have stood guard every minute of every day since July 2, 1937. They've stood through snowfalls and hurricanes. They were witness as terrorists flew a plane into the nearby Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

"The vigil remains unbroken to honor the sacrifice of the unknowns," Maj. Stephen C. Von Jett, the director of public affairs for the regiment, says in a email, "because they gave their very identities for our nation."

The Story Behind the Tomb

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, as it is today, contains the remains of more than one soldier. Once, it honored a soldier who later was identified.

The idea of a tomb for unknowns began in March of 1921, after Congress OK'd the building of a tomb on the plaza of the newly built Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington. The original idea was to honor an unidentified soldier killed in World War I. The Army exhumed four soldiers from American cemeteries in France on Memorial Day of that year, and chose one for the spot in Arlington in an elaborate ceremony in the city hall of Châlons-sur-Marne, France, on Oct. 24, 1921. After the casket was transported to the U.S. via the Navy cruiser USS Olympia, President Warren G. Harding presided over the internment ceremonies on Nov. 21, 1921.

A white marble sarcophagus was placed over the grave, with this inscription on the west side:

Here Rests in Honored Glory
An American Soldier
Known But To God

Over the years, to the west of the original tomb, three other graves were erected, marked with white marble slabs that are flush to the ground. These honor the unknown dead of World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

The soldiers in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier are among more than 5,000 unidentified soldiers buried throughout the 624 acres of Arlington National Cemetery.

"Generally, their gravestones read 'Unknown' and then what service the unknown served with, if known. If known, there will be a date of demise," Von Jett says of the other unknowns at Arlington. "We recently placed a flag on every gravesite for Memorial Day during 'Flags-In.' I've seen hundreds of unknown markers myself. Some are just right next to the tomb plaza."

The ceremonial unknowns of WWII and Korea were interred at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in 1958, and the Vietnam War unknown was ceremoniously interred on Memorial Day in 1984.

In 1998, after investigations pointed to the identity of the Vietnam unknown, the remains were exhumed and later positively identified, through DNA testing, as those of 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie of St. Louis, Missouri, a pilot shot down over Vietnam in 1972. Blassie's remains were returned to his family. He was reinterred at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery on the banks of the Mississippi in St. Louis County, Missouri.

The Army made the decision to leave the Vietnam crypt empty. The cover has been replaced with one with this inscription:

Honoring and Keeping Faith with America's Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975

According to Von Jett, no plans exist for any further disinternments of unknowns from any previous wars.

These days, a DNA sample is now taken from every service member upon joining the armed forces, which helps identify fallen soldiers. "It may be that forensics science has reached the point where there will be no other unknowns in any war," former Secretary of Defense William Cohen told reporters after Blassie was returned home in 1998.

"The U.S. Army has made great strides when it comes to Service member identification," Von Jett says. "While some incidents might make initial identification of remains challenging, there are no unknowns from current or recent conflict."

Tomb Sentinels continue guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the wind, rain, snow and extreme cold.
U.S. Army photo by Spc. Gabriel Silva

Those Who Guard the Tomb

Standing vigil over the unknowns are the Tomb Guard Sentinels of The Old Guard, a hand-picked group of Army soldiers who are arduously trained and fiercely dedicated to honoring the memory of those who gave their lives for their country.

Watching the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is both awe inspiring and sobering. Whether it's in the dead of summer in front of thousands of sweaty tourists or at midnight in the dark of winter, the Sentinels carry out their duty with remarkable precision.

On every hour in the winter while Arlington is open, and on every half-hour in the summer (April 1 through Sept. 30), the soldiers move through an intricately choreographed ceremony that includes a rifle inspection and the literal changing of the guard. Once the ceremony is complete, the Sentinel who has come on in relief begins the slow and steady walk down a mat beside the tomb, rifle on shoulder, until the next change. (After-hours at Arlington, a Sentinel sometimes walks a longer shift, but a soldier is always on guard at the tomb.)

The guard's walk consists of 21 slow steps (these refer to the 21-gun salute, the highest honor given any military or foreign dignitary), a sharp military turn, a heel click, a 21-second pause while facing the tomb, another turn and another 21-second stop before beginning the 21 steps to the other end of the mat. The soldier's rifle is switched to the shoulder farthest from the tomb, between the tomb and any threat.

The Honor Guard has three groups, or "reliefs," which each include a relief commander (who addresses onlookers and announces the Changing of the Guard) and about six Sentinels. They currently do a 26 hours on, 22 hours off schedule for six days before they take a 96-hour "administrative" block before starting again. They train every day, even when they're off. When they're on, but not on the plaza, they're performing many daily rituals in preparation of their walk, including pressing and steaming their uniforms, buffing their medals and decorations, and practicing their rifle movements.

That's every day, 24 hours a day, since 1937, whether anyone's watching or not.

"I've been on the plaza when no one was there but me and the guard. I've been there with thousands packed shoulder to shoulder," Von Jett says. "Both are special, and I recommend both experiences."