Memorial Day: The Unknown Soldier
The inscription chiseled into the the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a testament to our nation’s honor and respect for the men and women who fall unnamed during combat. As Memorial Day approaches, we take this time to remember those who have served the ultimate sacrifice to our country by exploring the history of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The U.S. was so inspired by this show of honor to their unknown, that in March 1921, Congress approved the interment of an unknown WWI serviceman at the new Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery. That same year, four unknown American soldiers were exhumed from a cemetery in France. Sergeant Edward F. Younger, himself a wounded in combat and decorated many times for valor, was chosen to select one unknown to return home. The four identical caskets were laid out, and after walking around the caskets, he placed white roses atop the third casket from the left, thus choosing the soldier that would return to American soil. The three remaining caskets were buried at the Meuse-Argonne cemetery in France.
On what was then known as Armistice Day (now Veteran’s Day) in 1921, the unknown soldier was buried with the highest honors. President Warren G. Harding and other dignitaries attended the burial near the Memorial Amphitheater. A 2-inch thick bed of soil brought from France lay beneath the soldier’s casket, symbolizing his eternal rest upon the earth in which he passed.
However, after the onset of the Korean War in 1950, President Truman followed an advisory to postpone the interment until the timing seemed more appropriate. This did not occur until the Korean War ended in 1953. It was then decided that there should be an unknown from both WWII and the Korean War, and the bill was amended to include the latter.
Because WWII was fought in two theaters, it was decided the final candidates should represent those who fought in the Pacific Theater, as well as those who fought in the European Theater. One candidate out of six was selected on May 16, 1958 at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawai‵i, and one out of thirteen was chosen at the Epinal American Cemetery and Memorial in France a few days earlier on May 12, 1958. Four Korean War candidates were selected and presented at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawai‵i, and one final candidate was chosen on May 15, 1958.
Selection for the final WWII candidate occurred on May 26, 1958. Both WWII candidates were transported to the USS Canberra off the east coast. The chosen Korean Unknown also joined the two candidates onboard. The two WWII candidates were placed on either side of the Korean Unknown, and the selection was made for the final WWII Unknown. The WWII candidate not selected was given an honorable burial at sea, thirty-three miles east of Cape Henry Lighthouse near Chesapeake Bay.
From May 28th - May 30th, 1958, the WWII and Korean War Unknowns lay in state at the U.S. Capitol. On May 30th, they were ceremoniously transported to Arlington National Cemetery for their final resting place. The interment service was conducted in the early afternoon, with President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Vice President Richard Nixon in attendance.
On June 2nd, 1958, the crypts were filled with a concrete slab, topped off with marble. On each marble slab, the names and the dates of the wars for each unknown was inscribed on top of their tomb. The dates for the WWI Unknown were also carved at that time, on the pavement in front of the tomb.
In the early 1990s, as advancements in DNA technology became more accessible, the question of identifying unknown soldiers became a possibility. One such case actually involved the Vietnam Unknown. In fact, when the remains of the Vietnam Unknown were initially sent to the U.S. Central Identification Laboratory, they had been classified as belonging to Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie. However, the analysis at the time was not compelling enough to positively identify the remains as Lt. Blassie’s, so they were designated as “Unknown” and assigned the number “X-26”.
However, POW/MIA activist, Ted Sampley compiled some overwhelmingly convincing evidence that the remains likely belonged to Lt. Blassie. In 1994, he made contact with the Blassie family and presented them with the information. In 1997, national attention was brought to the case when a CBS reporter interviewed the family, after Sampley had published an article online detailing the evidence. The Blassie family’s pursuit through official channels had yielded no results, as they were often turned away in disbelief. Eventually, with continued pressure to disinter and identify the remains, the exhumation took place on May 14, 1998. Through mitochondrial DNA testing using samples from the remains compared to samples from Lt. Blassie’s mother and sister, a positive match was made. On June 30th, 1998, the Unknown Vietnam Soldier was officially identified as Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie. The family’s wishes for him to return to their St. Louis, MO hometown were granted. An MC-180 aircraft from the 8th Special Operations Squadron (to which Lt. Blassie had belonged) flew him to the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. Air Force jets flew over the gravesite in the Missing Man formation, and he was laid to rest with full military honors.
The former Vietnam Tomb of the Unknown remains vacant. Previously, the slab named Vietnam and the dates of the war, but has since been changed to read, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Serviceman.”
With the ongoing advancements in DNA technology, coupled with the fact that every service men or women are required to submit DNA samples, it is assumed that there will no more will be laid to rest at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
It is considered a high honor to serve as a sentinel for the Tomb. Tomb Guards undergo rigorous training and selection; many are unable to complete the process. Most times of the year, the guard changes every half hour during the day, but in winter, the change is every hour. At night for all seasons, the change is also every hour. The 21-pace walk back and forth across the black mat is highly structured and ritualized. The Tomb Guards never abandon their post, even through inclement weather, terror attacks, etc.
Other heads of state or dignitaries will often include a visit during their tour to the Tomb of the Unknown to lay a wreath and pay their respects.
For any kind of ceremony or celebration, Independence Bunting is proud to serve you with our finest quality products, all made in the U.S.A. For a patriotic observance, we offer a great selection of flags, buntings, pleated fans and pull-downs to highlight your national pride and honor the soldiers who so gallantly fought for our country. We also carry mourning or memorial buntings, fans, and pull-downs honoring a more personal celebration for the life of a loved one. Whatever your need, you can be sure our carefully crafted product will uphold the esteem and dignity of your event. Check out our website for a full selection of products, www.independence-bunting.com, or give us a call at 1-800-995-9129 for more information.