History of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers

As a resident of the DC Metropolitan area, I am proud to provide some commentary on the following topic.  With war, Americans have sought to remember those who gave all and commemorate those who demonstrated valor in combat and service to their country. These acts give the living a way to process the extraordinary amount of lives lost. By having a sacred place to visit, it makes that place a shrine for pilgrims to pay tribute to the sacrifices made.  For those Soldiers who have not returned home to be buried alongside their fallen brothers and sisters, there exists The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier located at Arlington National Cemetery.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was established in 1921. The Unknown Soldiers laid to rest at the Tomb represent all missing and unknown service members who made the ultimate sacrifice – they not only gave their lives, but also their identities to protect these freedoms.

tomb badge
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Badge

The Tomb is the final resting place for “unknowns” from World War I, World War II, and the Korean War, and is guarded at all times.

Tomb Guards are part of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment “The Old Guard”. The Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military, in service to the U.S. since 1784. After a valorous performance in the Mexican War, the Old Guard received its unique name from General Winfield Scott during a victory parade in Mexico City in 1847. The Old Guard has a long history of service to the U.S., from the Revolutionary War to the Iraq War.

Since World War II, the Old Guard has served as the official “U.S. Honor Guard” unit and “Escort to the President”, as well as maintaining its certification as an infantry unit for combat roles. In that capacity, Old Guard soldiers are responsible for conducting military ceremonies at the White House, Arlington National Cemetery (ANC), Pentagon, national memorials and elsewhere in the nation’s capitol. In addition, these soldiers defend civil authorities in Washington D.C. and support overseas contingency missions.

The Old Guard recruits soldiers based on certain intangible traits, and with requirements for height and weight, physical fitness, aptitude scores, and conduct. These soldiers are considered to be the most suitable to represent the U.S. at home and abroad, and the Tomb Guards are considered the best of this elite unit.

Visiting The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a truly humbling experience and is highly recommended for every Soldier who migrates to our Nation’s Capital, for whatever reason.  In addition to the history provided above, here are a few facts about the Tomb and the “Old Guard”:

  • The Tomb Monument has 21 steps. It alludes to the twenty-one gun salute, which is the highest honor given any military or foreign dignitary.
  • The Tomb Guard pauses 21 seconds at the conclusion of his about face, for the same reason as listed above.
  • Guards are changed every thirty minutes, twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year.
  • For a person to apply for guard duty at the tomb, he must be between 5′ 10″ and 6′ 2″ tall and his waist size cannot exceed 30″
  • Tomb Guards must commit 2 years of life to guard the tomb, live in a barracks under the tomb, and cannot drink any alcohol on or off duty FOR THE REST OF THEIR LIVES. They cannot swear in public FOR THE REST OF THEIR LIVES and cannot disgrace the uniform or the tomb in any way.
  • The first SIX MONTHS of duty a guard cannot talk to anyone, nor watch TV. All off duty time is spent studying the 175 notable people laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. A guard must memorize who they are and where they are interred. Among the notables are: President Taft, Joe E. Lewis and Medal of Honor winner Audie Murphy, (the most decorated soldier of WWII) of Hollywood fame. Every guard spends FIVE HOURS A DAY getting his uniforms ready for guard duty.
  • On the ABC evening news, it was reported recently that, because of the dangers from Hurricane Isabel approaching Washington, DC, the military members assigned the duty of guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier were given permission to suspend the assignment. They refused. “No way, Sir!” Soaked to the skin, marching in the pelting rain of a tropical storm, they said that guarding the Tomb was not just an assignment; it was the highest honor that can be afforded to a service person. The tomb has been patrolled continuously, 24/7, since 1930.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers has an important role in honoring the “unknown” Soldiers who gave their lives defending our nation’s freedom.  If you’ve ever been there before, I would love to hear from you.  Just leave a comment to this post to share your experience.

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7 thoughts on “History of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers

  1. I have never had the opportunity to visit this wonderful memorial to soldiers. I must admit that I just learned quite a lot from your post. The goosebumps came when I read the last part about the Guard not allowing their duty to be suspended. I just wanted to clap and yell that their position means so much to them. I also never realized that they couldn’t drink or cuss forever. This is a position that very few could ever undertake. My hat is off to those who can become U.S. Honor Guard.

    • It is such a high honor, I agree that most people wouldn’t be able to abide by these stringent standards. I know it would be hard for me not to swear or drink!

  2. I felt really emotional when I got to see the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Being at Arlington, in general, was a very emotional and humbling experience. It is something that is burned into my memory and I don’t need pictures to remember that experience vividly. Thank you for sharing this article, Justin!

  3. This is probably my favorite part about Washington D.C. and has forever left a mark on my heart. I find it to be truly remarkable that the men who serve to protect and guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers would lay down their lives and endure the most awful weather conditions to serve.

    At the time, I was in the 5th grade and did not fully understand what was going on, nor did I appreciate it like I do today. But at any rate, this is a really neat post about the history of how the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers came about. The fact that this monument honors those who fought for our country but went missing is so humbling even to think about.

    • The Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers is a great site that every American should visit at least once in their life, especially when they are an adult and can really appreciate what it stands for.

  4. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a captivating part of American history. All US Presidents are qualified to be buried there, yet only two are: William H. Taft and John F. Kennedy. Joe Louis actually did not meet the technical requirements to be laid to rest at Arlington, but former President Ronald Reagan waived the requirements in 1980, when Louis died. A fitting exception to the rule, no doubt. I find the requirements of no drinking and no swearing for life that all Tomb guards must adhere to fascinating. Such service is only reserved for the most honorable and the most self-disciplined.

    • Amy,

      The Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers is definitely a special place. And the Tomb Guards are exceptional. I’ve met a few personally and I was always in awe.


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