Memorial Day: The Unknown Soldier

“Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”

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.

Everyone experienced the destruction and devastation from WWI. A tradition began in Europe to celebrate its unknown soldiers. In 1920, Great Britain held an unprecedented ceremony honoring their “Unknown Warrior,” and France held a similar ceremony around the same time. Britain’s Unknown Warrior was laid to rest at Westminster Abbey and remains the only tombstone not to be walked upon.

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.

The Unknowns of WWII and the Korean War
After WWII, many were interested in interring another soldier at the Tomb of the Unknown. In September 1945, a bill was proposed for the interment, and passed in June 1946. The interment was scheduled for Memorial Day, May 30, 1951.

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.

The Unknown of Vietnam
Nearly ten years after the Vietnam War’s end, there was pressure to pay tribute to another unknown. In 1984, the remains of an unidentified soldier found near An Loc in 1972 were selected as the Vietnam War Unknown. After the ceremonial transfers of the casket, the Vietnam Unknown arrived at the U.S. Capitol to lay in state for three days. On Memorial Day, May 28, 1984, the casket was transferred to the Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Ceremony, where President Reagan presided over the ceremonies.

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.

Tomb Guards
The Tomb of the Unknowns has been guarded faithfully since 1925. Initially, a civilian guard stood watch, just to prevent casual onlookers or picnickers from coming too close to the Tomb. In 1926, a military guard stood post, and since 1937, the Tomb has been guarded every hour of every day. In 1948, the 3rd U.S. Infantry Unit began maintaining guard at the tomb. They are also known as “The Old Guard,” for being the oldest active infantry unit in the U.S. since 1784. The Old Guard also serves as a presidential escort, as U.S. representatives in domestic ceremonies and abroad, and also deployed to train military personnel as well.

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.

Ceremonies at the Tomb of the Unknown
On Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day, there is traditionally a wreath-laying ceremony to honor those who have served in our armed forces. The president or his designee is the one appointed to present the ceremonial wreath.

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.

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