Veteran’s Day 2021 marks the 100th Anniversary of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

  • Published
  • By Ms. Shannon Murphy
  • 932nd Airlift Wing History Office

Veteran’s Day 2021 marks the 100th Anniversary of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a synonymous symbol of respect for those who made the ultimate sacrifice in World War I, and to those dead who remain unidentified.

This year, 2021, marks the 100th anniversary, or centennial, of the tomb that signifies America’s commitment of honor to U.S. military service.

Due to the fact almost half of the Civil War dead were never identified, the 1898 Spanish American War saw updates to the U.S. military’s repatriation policy.  Soldiers were buried in clearly marked temporary graves, while the Army’s Quartermaster Corps employed a burial unit, and under this special Quartermaster Corps burial unit, identification rates went up significantly.

During World War I, the Graves Registration Service was activated under the Quartermaster Corps to oversee burials.

In December 1920, New York Congressman and World War I veteran Hamilton Fish Jr. proposed legislation that provided for the interment of one unknown American soldier at a special tomb to be built in Arlington National Cemetery. The purpose of the legislation 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.”

In France, at different American military cemeteries, four bodies of unidentified military personnel were exhumed in October 1921. These casketed remains journeyed from France and arrived at the Washington Naval Yard on Nov. 9, 1921. Afforded honors of the highest respect in America, the Unknown (soldiers) laid in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda during a public visiting period on November 10, 1921. 

On Nov. 11, 1921, 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’s new Memorial Amphitheater, and the Unknown was interred in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Nationwide, Americans observed two minutes of silence at the beginning of the ceremony. 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.

The Tomb sarcophagus is decorated with three wreaths on each side panel (north and south). On the front (east), three figures represent Peace, Victory and Valor. The back (west) features the inscription, “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”

The guarding of the tomb started in 1926 when soldiers from Fort Myer were first assigned.  In 1937, the guarding became a 24/7 event. In 1948, the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, “The Old Guard,” was designated the Army’s official ceremonial unit, in addition to guarding the Unknowns.

“The Old Guard” also participates in military ceremonies around Washington, D.C. Historical in its own right, the “Old Guard’s” present routine at the tomb has meaning in every movement.

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.

In the past 100 years, the Tomb of the Unknowns and the Old Guard have created a long and distinguished history in which all Veterans and Americans can be proud.