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Tomb of the Unknowns

On March 4, 1921, Congress approved the burial of an unidentified American soldier from World War I in the plaza of the new Arlington Memorial Amphitheatre.

On Memorial Day 1921, four unknowns were exhumed from four World War I American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat during that war and had been highly decorated for valor, selected the Unknown Soldier of World War I from four identical caskets at the city hall in Chalons-sur-Marne, France, on October 24. The chosen unknown soldier was transported to the United States aboard the USS Olympia, while those remaining were interred in the Meuse Argonne Cemetery, France. The Unknown Soldier lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda from his arrival in the United States until Armistice Day, November 11, when President Warren G. Harding officiated at the interment ceremonies.

The Unknown Soldier of World War I arriving at Washington Navy Yard (colorized).
Unknown Soldier of World War I arriving at the Washington Navy Yard (colorized)

On August 3, 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill to select and pay tribute to the unknowns of World War II and Korea. The selection ceremonies and the interment of these unknowns took place in 1958. Two unknowns from World War II, one from the European Theater and one from the Pacific Theater, were placed in identical caskets and taken aboard the USS Canberra. 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 remaining casket received a solemn burial at sea. Four unknown Americans who died in the Korean War were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle made the final selection. Both caskets arrived in Washington May 28, where they lay in the Capitol Rotunda until May 30. That morning, they were carried on caissons to Arlington National Cemetery. President Eisenhower awarded each the Medal of Honor, and the Unknowns were interred in the plaza beside their World War I comrade.

Left: The coffin of one of the Unknowns of World War II being transferred at sea from the USS Boston to the USS Canberra.
Middle: The casket of the Unknown Soldier from Korea joins the two World War II "candidates" aboard the USS Canberra.
Right: The Unknowns of World War II and Korea lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda.

Unknown from WWII being transferred to the Canberra Unknowns from World War II and Korea aboard the Canberra Unknowns lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda

The Unknown service member from the Vietnam War was designated by Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg Jr. during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, May 17, 1984. The Vietnam Unknown was transported aboard the USS Brewton to Alameda Naval Base, California. The remains were carried to Travis Air Force Base, California, and arrived at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, on May 25. President Ronald Reagan presided over the funeral, and presented the Medal of Honor to the Vietnam Unknown, on May 28.

Interment of the Unknown of the Vietnam War.
The Unknown of the Vietnam War being interred

The Tomb sarcophagus is above the grave of the Unknown Soldier of World War I. Sculpted into the east panel, which faces Washington, D.C., are three Greek figures representing Peace, Victory, and Valor. The six wreaths, three sculpted on each side, represent the six major campaigns of World War I. Inscribed on the back of the Tomb are the words Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God. West of the World War I Unknown are the crypts of the unknowns from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.

The Tomb of the Unknowns as seen from the Memorial Amphitheater.
The Tomb of the Unknowns

OFFICIAL WEBSITE
Arlington National Cemetery
www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/Explore/Tomb-of-the-Unknown-Soldier

SEE ALSO
World War I
Arlington Memorial Amphitheatre
President Warren G. Harding
President Dwight D. Eisenhower
World War II
President Ronald Reagan

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The Robinson Library >> American History >> United States: Local History and Description >> South Atlantic States >> Virginia >> Arlington County

This page was last updated on July 19, 2017.