“It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.” — George S. Patton
The Tomb of the Unknowns is a monument dedicated to American service members who have died without their remains being identified. It is also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; it has never been officially named. It is located in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, United States of America. The World War I “Unknown” is a recipient of the Medal of Honor, the Victoria Cross, and several other foreign nations’ highest service awards. The U.S. Unknowns who were interred are also recipients of the Medal of Honor, presented by the U.S. presidents who presided over their funerals.
On March 4, 1921, the United States Congress approved the burial of an unidentified American serviceman from World War I in the plaza of the new Memorial Amphitheater. On November 11, 1921, the unknown soldier brought back from France was interred inside a three-level marble tomb. The marble came from a Yule Marble Quarry located near Marble, Colorado. The marble for the Lincoln Memorial and other famous monuments was quarried there.The bottom two levels are six marble sections each and the top at least nine blocks with a rectangular opening in the center of each level through which the unknown remains were placed through the tomb and into the ground below. A stone other than marble covers the rectangular opening.
Since 1921 the intent was to place a superstructure on top of the Tomb, but it was not until July 3, 1926, that Congress authorized the completion of the Tomb and the expenditure of $50,000 (with a completed cost of $48,000). A design competition was held and won by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones. An appropriation from Congress for the work was secured and on December 21, 1929, a contract for completion of the Tomb itself was entered into. The Tomb would consist of seven pieces of marble in four levels (cap, die, base and sub-base) of which the die is the largest block with the sculpting on all four sides.
In late January 1931, the 56 ton die of Yule marble (quarried 3.9 miles south of Marble, Colorado by the Vermont Marble Company) was lifted out of the quarry. (Only the die block is addressed for no data is available as to the other three levels). The quarrying involved 75 men working one year. When the block was separated from the mountain inside the quarry it weighed 124 tons. A wire saw was then brought into the quarry to cut the block down to 56 tons. On February 3, the block reached the marble mill site (in the town of Marble) where it was crated, then shipped to Vermont on February 8. The block was sawn to final size in West Rutland, Vermont and fabricated by craftsmen in Proctor, Vermont before it was shipped by train to Arlington National Cemetery, Virginiawhere it was carved by the Piccirilli Brothers under the direction of the sculptor Thomas Jones. (The brothers also carved the Lincoln statue for the Lincoln Memorial). The Tomb was dedicated in April 1932.
The Tomb was placed at the head of the grave of the World War I Unknown. West of this grave are the crypts of Unknowns from World War II (south) and Korea (north). Between the two lies a crypt that once contained an Unknown from Vietnam (middle). His remains were positively identified in 1998 through DNA testing as First Lieutenant Michael Blassie, United States Air Force and were removed. Those three graves are marked with white marble slabs flush with the plaza.
The Tomb has a flat-faced form and is relieved at the corners and along the sides by neo-classical pilasters set into the surface with objects and inscription carved into the sides. The 1931 symbolism of the objects on the north, south and east sides changed over time.
- North and South panel with 3 wreaths on each side represent (in 1931) “a world of memories” but later the six major battles engaged in by American forces in France; Ardennes, Belleau Wood, Chateau-Thierry, Meusse-Argonne, Oisiu-Eiseu, and Somme. Each wreath has 38 leaves and 12 berries.
- East panel that faces Washington, D.C., are three Greek figures representing Peace, Victory, and “American Manhood” but later “Valor” instead of “American Manhood”
- Western panel is inscribed the words (centered on the panel):
- HERE RESTS IN
- HONORED GLORY
- AN AMERICAN
- KNOWN BUT TO GOD
In 1994, Ted Sampley, a POW/MIA activist, determined that the remains of the Vietnam Unknown were likely those of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie, who was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. Sampley published an article in his newsletter and contacted Blassie’s family, who attempted to pursue the case with the Air Force’s casualty office without result. In January 1998 CBS News broadcast a report based on Sampley’s investigation which brought political pressure to support the identification of the remains. The body was exhumed on May 14, 1998. Based on mitochondrial DNA testing, Department of Defense scientists confirmed the remains were those of Blassie. The identification was announced on June 30, 1998, and on July 10, Blassie’s remains arrived home to his family in St. Louis, Missouri; he was reinterred at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery on July 11.
The crypt that 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 are soldiers of the United States Army’s 3rd Infantry Regiment. It is considered one of the highest honors to serve as a Sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Fewer than 20 percent of all volunteers are accepted for training and of those only a fraction pass training to become full-fledged Tomb Guards. This attrition rate has made the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Guard Identification Badge the second least-awarded decoration of the United States military (the first being the Astronaut Badge).
The soldier “walking the mat” does not wear rank insignia, so as not to outrank the Unknowns, whatever their ranks may have been. Non-commissioned officers (usually the Relief Commander and Assistant Relief Commanders), do wear insignia of their rank when changing the guard only. They have a separate uniform (without rank) that is worn when they actually guard the Unknowns or are “Posted”. The duties of the sentinels are not purely ceremonial. The sentinels will confront people who cross the barriers at the tomb or who are disrespectful or loud.