5 Little-Known Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Images of the Tomb(Photo Credit: CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images, Bettmann / Contributor, Bettmann / Contributor)
Images of the Tomb(Photo Credit: CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images, Bettmann / Contributor, Bettmann / Contributor)

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is located in Arlington National Cemetery, in Virginia, United States and is one of the most symbolic and hollowed sites in the country. The tomb represents and is dedicated to the U.S. service members lost but never identified in the nation’s wars.

The tomb was originally constructed just after WWI to bury a single unknown American soldier killed during the Great War. The idea was “to bring home the body of an unknown American warrior who in himself represents no section, creed, or race in the late war and who typifies, moreover, the soul of America and the supreme sacrifice of her heroic dead.”

Although it’s an iconic place in America, there are many traditions and stories relating to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, some of which you may not know.

The Unknown Soldier received the Medal of Honor and Victoria Cross

The Unknown Soldier was buried in a state funeral on November 11, 1921. The ceremony was attended by President Warren G. Harding and other foreign dignitaries. Harding placed the United States’ highest award – the Medal of Honor – on top of the casket. A Victoria Cross was also placed on the casket, along with other nations’ highest awards.

President Warren Harding
View of President Warren Harding placing a wreath of flowers on the casket of the Unknown Soldier in the rotunda of the Capitol, Washington, DC, November, 1921. US Army photo. (Photo Credit: Interim Archives/Getty Images)

Four soldiers were removed from graves in France

To select the soldier to be buried within the tomb, four unknown soldiers killed during WWI were exhumed from their graves in France. Before being sent to the US, the remains of the four men were placed in caskets and arranged in random order in the city hall of Châlons-sur-Marne. Sgt. Edward F. Younger of Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 50th Infantry was selected to choose one of the caskets.

Sgt. Younger then placed a spray of white roses on one of the caskets. The Unknown was then sent to the US to be interred in the tomb.

WWII and Korean War unknows were interred in the tomb

After WWII, many Americans supported the idea of placing an Unknown Soldier from WWII into the tomb but plans to do this were halted by the start of the Korean War in June 1950. Finally, in August 1956, three years after the Korean War ended, President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved the internment of an Unknown from WWII and Korea.

After being selected, the Unknowns from Korea and WWII arrived in Washington D.C. on May 28, 1958. For two days they remained in the Capitol Rotunda. After this, they were placed into crypts to the west of the WWI Unknown in the Arlington National Cemetery.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
The scene at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is seen here, as the casket of General of the Armies, John J. Pershing lays before the tomb for ceremonies as a salute to the “Unknown Soldier.” On steps, in the left foreground are honorary pallbearers, and in the left background are members of the family and government officials. In the group are Mrs. Warren Pershing; in the back of her are Generals Eisenhower and Bradley; also, in the front line are Secretary of State George C. Marshall, former Vice President Dawes, and Secretary of Army, Kenneth C. Royall. In the back of the casket is the black draped horse, symbolic of fallen General officers and cavalry men; lastly shown are Color Guard and Army band. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Contributor)

Selecting a soldier from WWII was complicated

Choosing an Unknown from WWII was difficult, considering American troops fought in a number of different theaters. Choosing a soldier from one theater would not represent all those lost in the war, and as a result, 13 Unknowns were selected from North Africa and Europe. Major General Edward J. O’Neill selected one of the caskets to represent those lost in the European and North African theaters.

For the Pacific, five Unknowns were exhumed and taken to Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii. Air Force Colonel Glenn T. Eagleston selected one out of the five to represent those lost in the Pacific.

On May 26, 1958, the two remaining Unknowns – one from the Pacific and the other from Europe/Africa – were placed side by side on the deck of the USS Canberra off the coast of Virginia.

Navy Hospital Corpsman 1st Class William R. Charette chose one of the two, which was then taken to Arlington National Cemetery. The WWII Unknown who was not chosen was given a burial at sea.

The Old Guard

The Old Guard is perhaps the most well-known part of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Since April 6, 1948, members of The Old Guard have stood by the tomb 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. The members are from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment and are also used in other military-related events.

More from us: French City Commemorates 100 Years of Honoring American Unknown Soldier

A cavalry Soldier stands guard
A cavalry Soldier stands guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, Va., on March 25, 1926, the first day a permanent military guard was posted. The Old Guard has stood watch since 1948. (Photo Credit: Library of Congress)

Trained and disciplined to an extremely high level, every movement and action by Sentinels from The Old Guard has meaning. According to the Arlington National Cemetery Website:

“The Guard marches 21 steps down the black mat behind the Tomb, turns and faces east for 21 seconds, turns and faces north for 21 seconds, and then takes 21 steps down the mat. Next, the Guard executes a sharp ‘shoulder-arms’ movement to place his/her weapon on the shoulder closest to the visitors, signifying that he or she stands between the Tomb and any possible threat. The number 21 symbolizes the highest symbolic military honor that can be bestowed: the 21-gun salute.”

Jesse Beckett

Jesse Beckett is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE