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Tomb of Unknown Soldier

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Tomb of Unknown Soldier: Warren Harding was the 29th American President who served in office from March 4, 1921 to August 2, 1923. One of the important events during his presidency was the approval of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.

Definition and Summary of the Tomb of Unknown Soldier
Summary and definition:
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a monument to those who had fallen during WW1. An unidentified soldier was exhumed from a World War I American cemetery in France and transported to the United States aboard the USS Olympia.

The United States Congress approved the burial of the unidentified World War One soldier in Arlington National Cemetery on March 4, 1921. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia was dedicated on November 11, 1921.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Facts for kids: Fast Fact Sheet
Fast, fun facts and Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ's) about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

What is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier? The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a white marble sarcophagus (coffin) that is the final resting place and memorial for Unknowns from World War I, World War II, and the Korean War and represents the sacrifice and loss of those who fell during the wars.

When was the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier built? The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was built following World War One  and dedicated on November 11, 1921. Additional work was completed on the memorial and it was opened to the public on April 9, 1932.

Who guards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier? The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is guarded by sentinels from the 4th Battalion of the 3rd United States Infantry Regiment known by its nickname, "The Old Guard".

Picture of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier: The picture of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery, Virginia was taken in May 1943

Facts about Tomb of Unknown Soldier
The following fact sheet contains interesting facts and information on Tomb of Unknown Soldier.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery has never officially been named, it is therefore also referred to as the Tomb of the Unknowns.

America honors the soldiers who have fallen during service to their country. The monuments symbolize that no American who dies in battle is forgotten. The first Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was dedicated in 1866 to the unknown soldiers who had died during the Civil War.

Although the Tomb of the Unknowns holds the remains of only a few individuals, the monument honors the many unidentified soldiers who gave their lives in armed conflict.

Location: The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is located on top a hill overlooking Washington, D.C. and the Potomac River at Arlington National Cemetery that covers 624 acres.

On March 4, 1921, Congress approved the burial of an unidentified American soldier from WW1 (28 July, 1914 - 11 November, 1918) in the plaza of the newly built Memorial Amphitheater.

Arlington National Cemetery was established in 1863. The Memorial Amphitheater was dedicated in May 1920. It serves as the site for numerous Veterans Day and Memorial Day services and the funerals for many individuals. In the center of its eastern steps of the Memorial Amphitheater is the Tomb of the Unknowns which was dedicated in 1921.

The unidentified American soldier: The soldier was exhumed from a WW1 American cemetery in France and transported to the United States aboard the USS Olympia.

The Unknown Soldier lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda, the "symbolic and physical heart" of America, from his arrival in the United States until Armistice Day, 1921. (The WW1 Armistice went into effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month on November 11, 1918)

On November 11, 1921, Armistice Day, at 8:30am the flag-draped casket was removed from the rotunda of the Capitol and escorted to the Memorial Amphitheater in Arlington National Cemetery under a military escort

President Warren G. Harding officiated at the interment ceremony at the Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery.

The funeral ceremony included an address by the President Warren G. Harding who conferred upon the Unknown Soldier the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross.

Following the address special representatives of foreign governments associated with the United States in WW1 conferred upon the Unknown the highest military decoration of their Nation.

More than 100,000 people attended the ceremonies, including 1000 "gold star mothers" (women who had lost a son in the war) and every living Medal of Honor winner.

The impressive ceremonies were brought to a close with a gun salute with three salvos of artillery, the sounding of taps and the National Salute and the dignitaries followed the casket to the final resting place.

After a simple, brief committal service the unidentified soldier killed in France during WW1 was then interred below the flat marble monument with the greatest respect at Arlington National Cemetery.

The bottom of the grave vault was lined with two inches of French soil, taken from various battlefields in France.

The initial simple white marble structure was flat, at ground level and without the 70 ton marble sarcophagus. It was always the intention of the government that the simple white marble Tomb, that was placed over the grave of The Unknown Soldier immediately after the interment, should serve as a base for an appropriate superstructure (an upward extension of an existing structure).

Visitors clustered around the initial monument, and there were no guards. A wooden picket fence was added to the monument to prevent visitors using the marble slab as a picnic table as they looked at the magnificent view of Washington DC.. In 1925 a civilian guard was allocated to the site. 

In 1926, the first US Army soldier was posted during cemetery hours. (It wasn't until July 1, 1937 guard duty was extended to the 24 hour watch). (See below for facts and info about the guard)

On July 3, 1926, Congress finally authorized the completion of the Tomb and the expenditure of $50,000. (The superstructure became the magnificent white marble sarcophagus which is displayed above the ground.)

A nationwide competition was launched to create a design for the sarcophagus. There were 74 US sculptors and architects who competed for the honor. Five competitors were short listed and required to prepare models of their designs in plaster of Paris.

The winning entry was by American architect Lorimer Rich (December 24, 1891 – June 2, 1978).

Lorimer Rich  collaborated with sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones (July 24, 1892 – November 4, 1969) on the winning entry.

Congress approved the design in 1929 and the fine, white gold-veined marble for the Tomb of the Unknowns was quarried by the Vermont Marble Company from the Yule Marble Quarry in Colorado.

Yule Marble is found only in the Yule Creek Valley, in the West Elk Mountains of Colorado. The marble block was cut from the mountain weighing 124 tons and cut down to 56 tons, the largest piece of marble ever quarried in the United States at that time.

Quartermaster General Brig. Gen. Louis H. Bash oversaw the construction, which was undertaken by the construction company Hegman and Harris.

Lorimer Rich and Thomas Hudson Jones completed the construction in 1931.

Finishing work, consisting of the carvings on the die block (the main monument), were undertaken by the six Piccirilli  Brothers, renowned marble carvers and sculptors, under the direction of the sculptor Thomas Jones. Piccirilli Brothers had previously carved the statue of Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial

The Yule marble was cut into seven pieces for four layers; capstone,  the die block (the main monument), the base and sub-base (plinth)

  • 4 pieces in the sub base (plinth) weighing 15 tons

  • 1 piece in the base weighing 16 tons

  • 1 piece in the die block weighing 36 tons

  • 1 piece in the capstone weighing 12 tons

Dimensions: The total height of the monument is 11 feet, the width is 8 feet at the base and 6 feet 8 inches at the top. The length is 13 feet 11 inches at the base and 12 feet 7 inches at the top.

The front of the Tomb (the East side) which faces Washington, D.C. and the Potomac is a composite of three highly symbolic ancient Greek / Roman figures, Victory, Valor and Peace, commemorating of the spirit of the Allies of WW1 -

The symbolism of the Greek / Roman figures

  • The female figure of Peace is holding a dove that symbolizes peace and friendship

  • The central figure of Victory extending an olive branch towards Valor. The palm branch is a symbol of victory, triumph, peace and eternal life

  • The male figure Valor is holding a broken sword, another symbol of peace and symbolizing the capture of the enemy and his inability to fight

The die block (main monument) featured Doric pilasters (fake columns) in low relief at each of the corners.

The north and south sides were divided into 3 sections by fluted Doric pilasters (fake columns), with an inverted wreath on the upper portion of each section. The 6 inverted wreaths symbolize mourning and also represent the six major battle campaigns of WW1 that were fought by American soldiers. (Refer to US Battles in WW1)

  • The Battle of Ardennes

  • The Battle of Belleau Wood

  • The Battle of Chateau-Thierry

  • The Meusse-Argonne

  • Aisne-Marne

  • The Battle of the Somme

The back of the Tomb (the West side) bears the only inscription on the Tomb 'HERE RESTS IN HONORED GLORY AN AMERICAN SOLDIER KNOWN BUT TO GOD".

On November 11, 1932 the completed sarcophagus was installed over the unknown soldier's monument and the area was re-opened to the public on April 9, 1932.

In June 1946, Congress approved the burial of an unknown American soldier from World War II at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

In August 1956, Congress approved the burial of a Korean War unknown soldier at the Tomb.

The unknown soldier from the Vietnam War was interred in a new vault in front of the Tomb on May 28, 1984. The unknown was later identified as  Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie, and it was decided that the crypt that contained the remains of the Vietnam Unknown should remain vacant. The crypt cover has been replaced with one that has the inscription "Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975."

The the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery, Virginia is a sobering testimony to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.

US American History
1913-1928: WW1 & Prohibition

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