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Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery / Library of Congress

Tomb of the Unknown Solider

What is the Tomb of the Unknown Solider?

During World War I, U.S. service members received aluminum ID discs, the precursors to "dog tags," to aid the process of identifying remains. During and after World War I, however, Americans debated whether bodies should be returned back to the U.S. With more than 100,000 U.S. casualties (compared to fewer than 3,000 in the Spanish- American War), getting the bodies back to home soil was more challenging.

France and Great Britain, which suffered significantly more casualties and more unknown dead than the United States, barred repatriation of their citizens' remains. To help with the grieving process of their nations, both France and Great Britain repatriated and buried one unknown soldier on Armistice Day, November 11, 1920. These unknowns would represent the other British and French service members whose remains could not be identified.

By contrast, The American policy gave options to families of lost loved ones. If requested by the next kin, the remains of service members who died in Europe would be transported to anywhere in the United States free of cost to the family. Or, families could choose to bury their lost loved one at permanent U.S. military cemeteries to be established in Europe.

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 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 October 1921, four bodies of unidentified U.S. military personnel were exhumed from different American military cemeteries in France and were transported back to the United States.

A state funeral ceremony was held at Arlington National Cemetery in which President Warren G. Harding placed the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military decoration, on the casket. Several foreign dignitaries presented their nations' highest awards, as well.

The structure

Originally, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier consisted of a simple marble slab. 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."

Guarding the Tomb

In March 1926, soldiers from nearby Fort Myer were first assigned to guard the Tomb of the Unknown Solider. The guards were only present during daylight hours, discouraging visitors from climbing or stepping on the Tomb. In 1937, the guards became a 24/7 presence, standing watch over the Unknown Solider at all times.

The 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as "The Old Guard," was designated as the Army's official ceremonial unit on April 6, 1948. At that time, The Old Guard also served as escorts to the president and conduct military ceremonies in and around D.C., including military funeral escorts at Arlington National Cemetery.

Soldiers who volunteer to become Tomb Guards must undergo a strict selection process and intensive training. Each facet of the Tomb Guard's routine has meaning. 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.

Changing of the Guard

The military guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider is changed in an elaborate ceremony which happens every hour on the hour from October 1 through March 31, and every half hour from April 1 through September 30.

The ceremony itself starts off when a relief commander dressed in a pristine uniform appears on the plaza to announce the changing of the guard. Soon, the new guard leaves the Tomb Guard quarters and unlocks the bolt of his or her M-14 rifle, signaling to the relief commander to begin the ceremony. The relief commander walks out to the Tomb and salutes, then faces the spectators and asks them to stand and remain silent during the ceremony.  

The ceremony itself attracts thousands of tourists every year.

When not "walking" around the Tomb, the Tomb Guards spent their duty time in quarters below the Memorial Display Room of the Memorial Amphitheater, where they study cemetery history, clean their weapons and help the rest of their relief prepare for the changing of the guard.

What it takes to be a Tomb Guard

Potential Tomb Guards must first undergo an interview and a two-week trial. During the trial phase, they memorize seven pages of National Cemetery history. This information must be recited verbatim in order to earn a "walk."

If a soldier passes the first training phase, "new soldier" training begins. The soldier learns the history of Arlington National Cemetery and the grave locations of nearly 300 veterans. In addition, they learn the guard-change ceremony, the manual of arms, and methods for keeping their uniforms and weapons in tip-top shape.

They must also pass a slew of tests to earn the privilege of wearing the silver Tomb Guard Identification Badge. First, they are tested on their manual of arms knowledge, uniform preparation, and walks. Then, they take the badge test, consisting of 100 randomly chosen questions from the 300 items memorized during training. The would-be badge holder must get more than 95 percent correct.

The Tomb Guard Identification Badge is a temporary award until the soldier has honorably served at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider for nine months. At that time the award can become a permanent badge, which may be worn for the rest of a military career. Since its creation during the 1950s, over 600 soldiers have been Tomb Guards.


With millions of visitors each year, The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a special place for many Americans.

"it is the nation's most sacred military monument"

historian Philip Bigier once said.

I never have visited the tomb however, if you can I encourage you to make the trip. Visiting monuments like this can alter one's perspective:

"I wasn't expecting to be so moved," said Alicia Davis, a visitor from Memphis, Tennessee. "And watching the guards protect the tomb made me realize just how many people have died for this country."


Arlington National Cemetery

Block, Deborah. “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Centennial Honors All American War Casualties.” VOA, 11 Nov. 2021,


Written By: Nathan Payonk

Author of Newsletter: Nathan Payonk

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