Tomb of the Unknowns

Burial Location Visited
Arlington, Virginia July 2003


A ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown                                   The central monument has sustained
Soldiers in 2011. Along with the grave of                                    considerable damage over the years, with
John F. Kennedy, it is one of the most visited                              significant cracks appearing from time to
sites at Arlington National Cemetery.                                          time.

                                       *** Interesting Facts ***

* The history of the Tomb of the Unknowns began on March 4, 1921. It was on that day that Congress approved the burial of an unknown veteran of the First World War beside Arlington's newly constructed Memorial Amphitheater. Several months later, the chosen unknown serviceman was transported from France back to America via the USS Olympia. The body lay in state for several days until Armistice Day, November 11th. The remains were then taken to Arlington for burial. President Warren G. Harding presided over the ceremony. In a symbolic move, two inches of soil taken from France were placed below the unknown soldier's coffin. That way, he could "rest forever atop the earth on which he died." The casket was then lowered into the marble tomb so that the unknown soldier could finally rest in peace.

* It was not until several years later, however, that the memorial was completed. The monument above the tomb was not unveiled and dedicated until almost eleven years after the unknown soldier was laid to rest. Six years prior, on July 3, 1926, Congress authorized the completion of the memorial. Seventy-four designs for the monument were submitted by various architects around the nation. After all but five had been eliminated, the Jury of Award was tasked with deciding which would be used. In the end, the winner was a design by sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones and architect Lorimer Rich. Resembling a sarcophagus, the rectangular monument would read "Here Rests in Honored Glory an American Soldier Known but to God" and depict three figures representing Peace, Victory, and Valor. The marble for the structure was taken from Yule, Colorado and took over a year to complete. In April 1932, the completed memorial was unveiled.

* Over two decades later, the tomb underwent some more changes. In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower approved a bill that would allow for unknown veterans from World War II and the Korean War to be interred alongside the unidentified soldier from World War I. A plan to honor an unknown serviceman from the Second World War had been in place since the Truman administration, but it was postponed when conflict arose in Korea. After a long selection process, the number of candidates from World War II was narrowed down to two, one from the European Theater and one from the Pacific Theater. The final decision would be made during a ceremony aboard the USS Canberra on May 26, 1958. The Navy's only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Navy Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, was given the extraordinary privilege of picking which would be honored at Arlington. After Charette made his decision, which he did by placing a wreath at one of the caskets, the chosen soldier from World War II was readied to be taken to Arlington. The remaining candidate was given a solemn burial at sea. The unknown soldier from the Korean War, who had been picked prior, accompanied the other unknown serviceman to Washington, D.C. The two lay in state for several days before they were brought to Arlington. After a large ceremony, during which they were awarded the medal of honor, the two unknowns were laid to rest.

* After the passage of the Vietnam War, it was decided that it would be proper for an unidentified serviceman from that conflict to be buried at the Tomb of the Unknowns as well. As was the case with the unknown soldier from World War II, the honoree from the Vietnam War was chosen by a Medal of Honor recipient. During a ceremony at Pearl Harbor, Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr. of the Marine Corps designated which soldier would be buried at Arlington. Continuing tradition, the remains lay in the U.S. Capitol prior to burial. On Memorial Day 1984, the casket was transported from the Capitol to the Tomb of the Unknowns. President Reagan, who presided over the ceremony, awarded the service member the Medal of Honor. Also, acting as next of kin, Reagan accepted the interment flag near the ceremony's end. The event concluded with the burial of the unknown soldier, who would not rest at Arlington eternally, but for just fourteen years.

* Though the memorial once included the remains of four unknown soldiers, only three bodies rest at the memorial today. In 1994, the publisher of the U.S. Veteran Dispatch concluded that the remains of the unknown serviceman from Vietnam was Lt. Michael J. Blassie, who was shot down over An Lộc in 1972. When partial skeletal remains were found in that area a few months later, they were initially determined to be what was left of Lt. Blassie. However, they were reclassified as unknown when conflicting evidence suggested that it was someone other than the lieutenant. The publisher of the Dispatch, Ted Sampley, conducted research for several years before reaching his conclusion. He then printed his findings in the dispatch and contacted Blassie's family. Pressured to allow DNA testing on the body, the Pentagon resisted for several years. In 1998, the case picked up more steam when CBS reported that a seven-month investigation had revealed that the bones most certainly belonged to Blassie and it appeared as if the Pentagon was trying to hide the revelation. Several months later, permission was given to exhume the remains, and testing verified that they belonged to Lt. Blassie. Afterward, Blassie was flown to his hometown, St. Louis, and buried with full military honors. The crypt at Arlington that held the airman's remains is still vacant today.
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