Today marks the centennial of the establishment of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, dedicated to unidentified remains of U.S. personnel who served in the military during wartime. For one of the few times in its history, members of the public were afforded the opportunity to place flowers at the memorial in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia this year.
The original Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was first utilized on Veterans Day in 1921, when the remains of a U.S. soldier who perished in France during World War I were interred. That soldier, whose body was previously positioned in the Capitol Rotunda, received posthumous military awards from Britain, France, Italy, Poland, Romania and Czechoslovakia.
Five years later, Congress authorized expansion of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which was completed in 1931. In 1956, Congress passed legislation to honor unknown servicemen from World War II and Korea. Two unknown soldiers from World War II were added in 1958, one from the European theater and one from the Pacific. Likewise that year, the remains from a Korean War soldier were added. A serviceman from the Vietnam War was added to the Tomb in 1984. However, that person’s remains were positively identified in 1998, and he was reinterred. The Vietnam War crypt remains empty.
Today, the Tomb of the Unknowns is guarded on a constant basis by volunteers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, the oldest active unit in the Army. Tomb guards are specially trained for the grueling task. To prevent attacks against these personnel such as occurred in Canada, they carry fully functional weapons. However, the guards do not wear rank insignia, since the ranks of the unknown servicemen are unknown.
In addition to some ongoing government funding, support for the Tomb comes from the Society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (SHGTUS). This group provides assistance and scholarships, furnishes services and holds events to commemorate the Tomb’s legacy.
While wreath-laying ceremonies at the Tomb of the Unknowns are relatively frequent, they are routinely done by organizations, with reservations far in advance. Although registration and proper ID were still required, the recent chance to individually honor the unidentified fallen was indeed special, reminding Americans of service and sacrifice or war and national honor.
Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is a George Washington Distinguished Professor Emeritus of history and political science at Delaware State University. He served as DSU’s ROTC director from 1993-99 and a member of the Military Academy Selection Committee for Sen. Ted Kaufman, D-Del, in 2009.