The Tombs of the Unknown Soldiers

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Podcast Transcript

After the horrors of the first world war, many of the nations in the conflict sought to build memorials to honor their dead. 

While there were many memorials built, often large and grandiose, the most important memorial in many countries is that of a tomb, oftentimes simple, dedicated to a soldier whose remains could not be identified. 

These tombs are often guarded with great pomp and ceremony and have been for over 100 years.

Learn more about the tombs of the unknown soldiers on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

I’ve discussed many subjects that had their origins in the ancient world. 

The ancient world had memorials, but they were usually memorials dedicated to victories and usually to the general or emperor who was responsible for the victory. 

Today in Rome, you can still see the Arch of Titus, the Arch of Constantine, and Trajan’s Column. These memorials served as propaganda for the leader who erected them. What they were most emphatically not were memorials to the fallen who died during the conflict. 

Individual soldiers may have had tombs, but that was assuming bodies could be found, identified, and transported back, which almost never happened. Bodies would usually be buried in a mass grave, cremated on giant pyres en mass, or sometimes even left to rot in a field. 

The earliest known memorial dedicated to war dead might have been the 4,500 years old White Monument in Syria. It is a large white mound about 70 feet high which has the remains of 20 people who were soldiers. 

These types of memorials were quite uncommon. 

There is a memorial in All Souls College in Oxford, which dates back to 1438, that memorializes former students who died in wars with France

In 1592, Jinju, Korea, created a memorial for all of those who fell in defense of the city. Special permission was received to conduct sacrifices in honor of all those who died, not just those whose remains could be identified. 

Memorials to war dead rose in prominence in the latter half of the 19th century. The conclusions of the American Civil War saw the creation of many war memorials and dedicated war cemeteries. 

After the Franco-Prussian War, there were memorials erected around Europe which had the unique innovation of listing the names of fallen soldiers individually. 

The first world war changed the nature of war memorials. There had never been a war that was so devastating. Almost every city and town in countries which fought established war memorials to honor the local men who were killed. 

The idea of honoring an unknown soldier came from a British military Chaplin, Reverend David Railton. 

He was serving on the western front when in 1916, he came across a makeshift grave marker that had written in pencil, ‘An Unknown British Soldier.’

He came up with the idea of burying an unknown warrior in Westminster Abbey alongside the kings and queens who were also interred there.  In addition, there would be a full state funeral for the soldier, which, again, is something usually only reserved for kings and queens. 

This idea received support from the Prime Minister David Lloyd George. 

While this proposal was being debated in Britain, the same discussion was being held in France. There, the idea was to inter an unknown French soldier in the Pantheon, which was later moved to the Arc de Triomphe.

The British Tomb of the Unknown Warrior is located right at the entrance of Westminster Abbey.  It is covered with a slab of black marble from Belgium, and underneath is soil from France. 

There are flowers that always surround the grave, and it is the one part of Westminster Abbey where no one is allowed to walk. If you watched the recent funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, her pallbearers had to walk around the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. 

The entire point of creating a tomb for an unknown soldier, and giving this tomb the highest of honors, was a way to personalize the war. A large monument dedicated to hundreds of thousands of soldiers is a very different thing than a grave for a single person. 

The Unknown Warrior was awarded the British Victoria Cross, the American Congressional Medal of Honor, the French Legion of Honor, and the highest award for valor from almost every allied country. 

In France, the Tomb of the Unknown is located under the Arc de Triomphe, and it has an eternal flame. 

Shortly after the British and French tombs of the unknowns were established, the United States decided it would honor one of its unknown soldiers in a similar way. 

On Memorial Day 1921, four unknown American servicemen were exhumed from four different war cemeteries. There were placed in four identical caskets, and the task of selecting one of the bodies was given to Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who had been wounded in the war and had won the Distinguished Service Cross. 

On October 24th, he randomly selected one of the coffins by placing a bouquet of white roses upon it. 

The selected remains were then returned to the United States with full military honors. 

The unknown soldier lay in state under the Capital Rotunda until he was interred at the Memorial Ampitheater at Arlington National Cemetery. 

As with the British Unknown Warrior, the American Unknown Soldier has been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the Victoria Cross, and almost every other medal of valor from allied countries. 

Unlike other countries which created a Tomb of the Unknown after the first world war, the United States also created tombs for unknown soldiers from the Second World War as well as the Korean War. 

This decision was made in 1956 by President Eisenhower. 

In 1958, an unknown soldier from the Korean War and one from World War II were selected. The Korean War soldier came from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii

Four unknown soldiers from World War II were selected from cemeteries in Europe, Africa, Hawaii, and the Philippines.  One from the European theater and one from the Pacific theater were brought aboard the USS Canberra

Navy Hospital Corpsman 1st Class William R. Charette, the Navy’s only living Medal of Honor recipient at the time, placed a wreath on one of the caskets, and the other was given a burial at sea. 

Both bodies were taken to Washington, where they were interred on Memorial Day, 1958. 

A fourth unknown soldier from the Vietnam War was also selected and interred alongside the three unknown soldiers in 1984. 

However, in 1994, Ted Sampley, an advocate for POW/MIA’s, came to the conclusion that the unknown soldier from Vietnam was most probably 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie. An Air Force pilot who was shot down over South Vietnam in 1972. 

In 1998, after pressure from the family, the body was exhumed, and DNA testing was performed, which confirmed the identity as Michael Blassie. 

His remains were returned to his family, and he was reburied at a national cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri. 

The stone over the tomb of the unknown from Vietnam was later changed to read, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen 1958–1975”.

Given the prevalence of DNA testing, it is highly unlikely that there will be unknown soldiers in any future wars. In fact, if there was a real desire to do so, it might be entirely possible to identify the current unknown soldiers by comparing their DNA with their living relatives. However, there is no desire to do that. 

The Tomb of the American Unknown Soldiers is unique from the tombs found in most other countries. What sets it apart is a permanent military honor guard. 

By permanent, I do mean permanent. 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, rain or shine, hot or cold, there are guards at the tomb of the unknown. During the entire duration of the pandemic, even though Arlington National Cemetary was closed to the public, there were still guards on duty. 

The unit assigned to guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is the Army’s 3rd Infantry Regiment, known as “The Old Guard.” The Old Guard is the oldest active military unit in the American Military. 

The Old Guard has been guarding the Tomb of the Unknown every minute of every day since April 6, 1948, continuing a permanent presence that started in 1937.

Being selected as a sentinel for the Tomb of the Unknown is one of the rarest distinctions in the US military. Only a tiny percentage of those who apply are selected, and, despite being a ceremonial unit, in terms of selectiveness, it is more elite than any of the special forces. 

The badge awarded to the guards of the Tomb of the Unknown is the second-rarest badge issued by the US military, second only to the astronaut badge.

Sentinal duty usually consists of what is known as walking the mat. Ceremonially walking in front of the tomb on a rubber mat. During the summer, guards are changed every half hour and every hour the rest of the year, with a two-hour change in guards after the cemetery is closed. 

The act of walking the mat is very precise and rigorous. It consists of exactly the following:

  1. March 21 steps down the 63-foot-long or 19-meter black mat
  2. Turns and face the Tomb for exactly 21 seconds.
  3. Turn and faces north, change your weapon to the outside shoulder, and wait 21 seconds.
  4. Marches 21 steps down back the mat.

Rinse and repeat. 

The sentinels can and do enforce the behavior of visitors to the tomb. Anyone stepping over the chains keeping the public away, or talking too loud, face reprimand from the sentinels. 

The sentinels do not wear a uniform showing rank while on guard duty, as they don’t know the rank of the soldiers who are interred, and they don’t wish to outrank them. 

When I say they are on guard duty 24/7, I literally mean 24/7. 

In 2012, when Hurricane Sandy hit Washington, there were sentinels on duty throughout the entire storm. When severe weather hits, they will stand guard in a small tent off to the side rather than walk the mat. 

In the event that wind speeds should reach 100 miles per hour, the sentinels have permission to retreat to a nearby building in the amphitheater that overlooks the tomb. However, this has never happened yet. 

I should note that Arlington National Cemetery is not the only location of a Tomb of the Unknown. The Tomb of the Unknown from the Revolutionary War is located in Washington Square in central Philadelphia.  

It was finished in 1957, and the body was taken from a grave located at the site. However, there is no way to know if the soldier who is interred is American or British. 

The idea of selecting an unidentified soldier to represent all soldiers spread to dozens of countries after the tradition was started by Britain and France. 

Each country has its own traditions regarding its tomb of the unknown. Some countries like Italy and Russia have permanent guards on duty, like the Old Guard. Others, like Spain and India, have eternal flames at the tomb. 

Some are huge monuments like you can find in Iraq, and some are just simple graves like they have in Canada’s Confederation Square. 

Selecting an anonymous, unidentified soldier to represent all soldiers is a way to take something vague and perhaps abstract, and personalize it. 

As British Prime Minister David Lloyd George noted in 1920 when the British Unknown Warrior was laid to rest, “The Cenotaph is the token of our mourning as a nation; the Grave of the Unknown Warrior is the token of our mourning as individuals.”

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener Atticus1987 from Apple Podcasts in the UK. They write

Great gem of the podcast world

One of my favourite parts of my daily commute. This show has kept me informed and entertained for hours on end with fun facts and interesting stories about things and places I thought I knew or have never heard of before. Keep up the good work, can’t imagine a commute without you

Thanks, Atticus! I’m glad I can make your commute less boring and more educational. 

Based on my knowledge of British work environments, which comes totally from television, I assume you are the assistant to the regional manager for some sort of office supply company located in Slough. If so, I’m glad to be of some help to get you through your day. 

Remember, if you leave a review, you, too, can have it read on the show.