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Tomb of the Unknowns history tied to Veterans Day

Known but to God

The nation will observe Veterans Day on Monday with speeches and laying of wreaths in cemeteries across the country.

Perhaps the most poignant ceremony, though, will take place at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, D.C.

According to the cemetery’s website, the iconic memorial overlooks the nation’s capital.

The first unknown – and the genesis of the Veterans Day observance – was from the “war to end all wars” as World War I was called.

The tomb itself is a white marble sarcophagus on which

are carved three Greek

figures representing Peace, Victory and Valor.

There are also six carved wreaths for the war’s six major campaigns.

And there are these words:

“Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God”

According to the website, the journey of the World War I Unknown to Arlington began in France in September 1921.

Four American bodies were exhumed from unmarked battlefield graves. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger (a World War I veteran who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal) selected the Unknown Soldier from among four identical caskets at Chalons-sur-Marne, France.

The remaining three caskets were re-buried in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery.

With much pomp,  the chosen casket was shipped to Washington, D.C.

aboard the USS Olympia, a Navy cruiser.

The body arrived in Washington on November 9, 1921 and 90,000 paid their respects as it lay in

state at the Capitol Rotunda for two


On Armistice Day (November 11), pallbearers from the Army, Navy and Marine Corps transported the casket to a caisson for its procession to Arlington National Cemetery.

More than 5,000 were waiting at the cemetery’s Memorial Amphitheater.

The ceremony included the National Anthem played by the Marine Corps band and an invocation by the Army Chief of Chaplains.

After two minutes of silence,  President Warren G. Harding spoke and then placed the Medal of Honor and Distinguished Service Cross on the casket. More medals were added by foreign dignitaries.

A cannon battery fired three salvos and the casket was lowered into the waiting crypt.

A bugler played the haunting Taps and the battery fired a 21-gun salute.

The first Unknown Soldier was home.

A 24-hour military guard was added at the tomb in 1937.

The Unknowns of World War II and Korea weren’t interred until 1958.

Because Americans fought on three continents during World War II, the Army exhumed a total of 18 bodies from North Africa, Europe, the Philippines and Hawaii.

Two World War II unknowns were chosen – one each from the European and Pacific theaters.

They were placed in identical caskets aboard the USS Canberra, a guided-missile cruiser off the Virginia capes.

Navy Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, then the Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, selected the Unknown Soldier of World War II.

The second body was given a solemn burial at sea.

During the Korean War, North Korean forces killed and captured a number of American soldiers during their initial offensive in June 1950.

When the Chinese entered the war that fall, they overran a number of temporary cemeteries.

Army officials chose one unknown casket among four exhumed from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii.

Caskets holding the remains of the Unknowns from the two wars reached Washington, D.C., on May 28, 1958. They lay in state at the Capitol Rotunda until May 30 when they were placed on caissons and transported to Arlington.

President Dwight Eisenhower awarded each the Medal of Honor.

The fourth – and final – Unknown was from the Vietnam War.

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter dedicated a plaque at Memorial Amphitheater which commemorated those missing in action from the Vietnam War.

Due to scientific advances in  identifying remains, there were few unknown burials in Vietnam.

Still, President Ronald Reagan and many Americans wanted to honor Vietnam veterans by interring an unknown soldier at Arlington and pushed for a selection to be made.

On May 17, 1984, U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., a Medal of Honor recipient, chose an Unknown from the Vietnam War during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

As with the previous Unknowns, the casket first lay in state at the Capitol Rotunda and was transported via caisson to Arlington.

President Reagan presided over the interment on Memorial Day in 1984. He presented the Vietnam Unknown with the Medal of Honor.

Those remains didn’t stay unknown, however.

They were exhumed just shy of 14 years later for mitochondrial DNA testing that showed the remains belonged to Michael Joseph Blassie, an Air Force lieutenant shot down and killed near An Loc on May 11, 1972.

At the family’s request,  Blassie was reinterred at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri.

The crypt designated for the Vietnam Unknown remained vacant until Sept. 17, 1999 — National POW/MIA Recognition Day — when it was rededicated to honor all missing U.S. service members from the Vietnam War.

An inscription on the empty crypt reads “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

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