By Mac Warner
W.Va. Secretary of State
For one hundred years this month, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery has been a symbol of our nation’s appreciation for the service, sacrifice and valor of the men and women of the American military.
In December of 1920, patterned after similar tombs created in France and Great Britain to commemorate their casualties in World War I, the United States Congress adopted legislation for the interment of one unknown American soldier at a special tomb to be built in Arlington National Cemetery. Officially, it 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.”
Dedicated on November 11, 1921, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was originally the final resting place for one unidentified soldier killed in action in World War I. Decades later, the unknown remains from soldiers killed in the line of duty from WWII and Korea were added in 1958 and one from Viet Nam in 1984. The Cemetery is also the final resting place of 2,111 unknown Union and Confederate soldiers killed during the Civil War.
According to the Cemetery’s record of the Tomb dedication, “the Unknown was placed on a horse-drawn caisson and carried in a procession through Washington, D.C. and across the Potomac River. A state funeral ceremony was held at Arlington National Cemetery and the Unknown was interred in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. President Warren G. Harding officiated at the ceremony and placed the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military decoration, on the casket. Numerous foreign dignitaries presented their nations’ highest awards, as well.”
To prevent potential disrespect, civilian sentinels were initially assigned to guard the Tomb. In 1937 “The Old Guard” of the famed Army’s 3rd Infantry Regiment assumed duties of guarding the Tomb, and they have stood watch 24 hours a day, 365 days a year – regardless of weather – since then.
Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier are among our nation’s most visited sites. No doubt, people are drawn to the dedication of the men and women who guard the Tomb. There is a rigorous candidate selection process and Guards undergo intensive and very strict personal training.
With great care and precision, each and every element of the Guard’s routine has meaning. The Old Guard’s training manual directs, “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.”
The sacred ground of Arlington National Cemetery is the final resting place to many people who served our country, including relatives and friends of mine. Former Secretary of the Navy Jim Webb notes in his book “Born Fighting,” that West Virginia had the highest death rate among all states in the Viet Nam conflict.
Military families understand the sacrifice and risks involved in military service. The Centennial Celebration of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is an opportunity for our country to honor that sacrifice and service, and to unite in our resolve to defend the Constitutional Republic that is the United States of America.
To honor our Veterans, I will be speaking in Clarksburg, Parkersburg and Wheeling on November 11th.