Although it is one of the most universally recognized of the numerous monuments and memorials located within the hallowed grounds of Arlington National Cemetery (MAP), the memorial I rode there to see on this lunchtime bike ride does not have an official name. It is most commonly referred to as either the Tomb of the Unknowns, or the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, but it has never been officially named.
In March of 1921 the United States Congress approved the burial of the unidentified American soldier in the plaza of the new Memorial Amphitheater in Arlington National Cemetery. So an unknown soldier was exhumed from an American military cemetery in France, and transported back to the United States, where he laid in state in the Capitol Rotunda until Armistice Day of that year. Then, in a ceremony presided over by President Warren G. Harding on November 11, 1921, the unknown soldier was laid to rest and the Tomb of the Unknowns was dedicated as a monument to all those who had fallen during World War I.
Over the years the monument has changed a number of times in regard to both its appearance and purpose. In July of 1926, five years after its dedication, Congress authorized and appropriated money for the completion of a superstructure on top of the Tomb. A design competition was held and won by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones. The Tomb was completed without formal ceremony in April of 1932. But the biggest change to the Tomb took place in August of 1956, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill to select and pay tribute to the unknown soldiers of World War II and the Korean War. Finally, on Memorial Day in 1984, President Ronald Reagan presided over the internment of an unknown soldier from the Vietnam War.
Interestingly, with subsequent improvements in DNA testing, the remains of the unknown from the Vietnam War were identified as those of Air Force Lieutenant Michael Joseph Blassie, who was shot down near An Lộc, Vietnam, in 1972. The identification was announced in June of 1998. The following month, Blassie’s remains were sent home to his family in St. Louis, Missouri, where he was reinterred at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. Today, the slab over 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 the fullest possible accounting of missing service members.
One of the most distinctive and unique features of the Tomb of the Unknowns is that it is guarded 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in any and all kinds of weather. In fact, there has been a Sentinel, as the guards are known, on duty in front of the Tomb every minute of every day since 1937. Sentinels, all of whom are volunteers, are considered to be the best of the elite 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, the oldest active-duty infantry unit in the U.S. Army. Also known as The Old Guard, the Sentinels are headquartered at nearby Fort Myer, which is adjacent to the cemetery. It is considered one of the highest honors to serve as a Sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknowns.