AMAC Exclusive – By Eleanor Vaughn
100 years ago today, a man laid white roses on a plain casket. He didn’t know who was inside—nobody did. The casket was one of four, all unidentified bodies of American soldiers who died in France in World War One. The man with the roses was Sgt. Edward F. Younger, and when he laid the roses down on the casket, he chose the body that now rests in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Two weeks after the selection, that body was carried through Washington DC and interred at Arlington National Cemetery. So many people were eager to pay their respects that, at every stage of the journey, not everybody who came could see the casket. After two minutes of silence, observed around the country, President Harding addressed a crowd of thousands. Many laid flowers and wreaths, until the casket was almost invisible. Shortly afterward, a monument was built: a simple white marble sarcophagus adorned with carved laurels and reading, “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”
Changes came with the years. In 1925, a guard was stationed to maintain a constant watch over the Tomb. In 1948, the 3rd U.S. Infantry Unit, also known as the Old Guard, took on these duties and has carried them out, 24/7, ever since. Three more unknowns, from WWII, Korea, and Vietnam were buried, although the body from Vietnam was later identified and taken home. Advances in technology have helped identify thousands of previously unknown remains.
Today, the Tomb looks much as it did 100 years ago. The Old Guard keeps watch rain or shine, even through hurricanes. A lone guard patrols back and forth on a well-worn mat, heels clicking in a sharp staccato at every turn. On the edges of the mat, you can still see where the stone is discolored from a century’s worth of perfectly-polished footsteps. The area in front of the Tomb is fenced off with railings, but people, young and old, dressed up and dressed down, sit in respectful silence, watching the endless patrol. Every hour, the crowd on the marble steps of the Memorial Amphitheater swells to watch the changing of the guard. Half the people are on their feet as soon as the new guard makes his appearance; the rest soon follow as the relief commander requests that they stand, so the ceremony commands the dignity it deserves.
The new guard and his or her weapon are inspected and expected to be perfect before they can even approach the Tomb. All three, the outgoing guard, the new guard, and the relief commander, move in perfect unison, their strides measured and practiced, heels clicking together in a three-part harmony of percussion. The crowd on the marble steps may be permitted to witness it, but this performance is really in honor of the three Unknowns resting in the plaza.
Though the onlookers are asked not to speak, it’s not a silent ceremony. The guard clicks his heels on his patrol. The staff sergeant barks orders for the changing of the guard. In the distance, a lawnmower rumbles or a bugle plays “Taps” at another ceremony for a departed soldier. All across Arlington Cemetery, people labor to give the fallen a beautiful and peaceful place to rest. And at the Tomb, the work of the guard continues into the night, long after the crowd has drifted away.
On November 9th and 10th, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Unknown Soldier being laid to rest, visitors will be allowed to approach, for the first time in almost a hundred years, to lay flowers at the Tomb. On the 11th, the original procession through the cemetery will be recreated, as well as including nods to World War II and the Korean War, in honor of the Unknowns from those wars.
The occasion is bittersweet. There’s a kind of poetry to the fact that the Unknown Soldier will be covered with flowers once more, a beautiful and ethereal tribute in addition to the years of steady devotion already given. It’s a reminder that those who are gone are not forgotten. Yet, they are still gone. 100 years ago, the nation was grieving after the first “modern” war, where men were killed on an industrial scale. President Harding expressed a strong desire that such a conflict might never be seen again. We know that didn’t happen. More mothers would lose their sons. More bodies would never be identified. More wars would be fought. The peace didn’t last.
But as solemn an occasion as it should be, this occasion does not have to be only a sorrowful one. The Tomb has long been a place of healing—for a divided nation, for grieving parents—and it can be one of hope. As President Harding said all those years ago, “our part is to atone for the losses of heroic dead by making a better Republic for the living.” Because those men—the unknowns in the Tomb and the many buried in the rolling hills of Arlington—died for something. For us. We already thank them with flowers and vigilance and a quiet resting place, but we can thank them outside of the cemetery as well. We, as individuals and as a country, can and should strive to be worthy of their sacrifice. To carry the torch they have passed on to us and uphold the ideals worth dying for: liberty and faith and justice and the pursuit of happiness. To live, and live well, in anticipation of the future and to honor of the past.
The flower ceremony will be held on November 9th and 10th, from 9-4. Registration is required, and the free tickets are available online. The procession will be held on November 11, at 9 am, no tickets required.
Eleanor Vaughn is a writer living in Virginia.