Arlington National Cemetery
We recognize two holidays in November. The first is Veterans Day (November 11th), a day to honor those who served in the defense of their country. Then there is Thanksgiving (November 20th), a day to give thanks to all the good things we have, including the freedom that was won by the service of our veterans. So it's only fitting that this month we take a moment to remember and give thanks to those who served this country but are no longer with us.
Across the Potomac, just outside Washington D.C., is the town of Arlington, Virginia. There, on a hill overlooking the nation's capital, is the home that once belonged to General Robert E. Lee. In his time General Lee was so admired and revered by the President, various Union leaders and other generals, that when war broke out between the states, Lee was offered the position of Gereral of the Union Army. It was he that the Union hoped would lead the northern troops into battle. General Lee, however, could not turn his back on his home state of Virginia — a Confederate state. Because he took sides against the Union, his property was seized and in 1864 became the site of a Union cemetery. Today the cemetery , now known as Arlington National Cemetery, is the most famous in the country.
"Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God."
— Inscription on the Tomb of the Unknowns.
If You Go:
Nearly 7,000 burials occur here each year, most for former and current military service personnel, and (as is traditional during a military funeral) the flag is flown at half–mast. At Arlington the flag fly's at half–mast every day beginning half an hour before the first funeral and ending a half hour after the last funeral of the day.
The most visited grave is that of President John F. Kennedy and his family, located near the Robert E. Lee mansion. His wife and children are buried at his side and nearby are the graves of his brothers, Robert and Edward Kennedy.
Currently there are nearly 400 Medal of Honor recipients, including 9 Canadians, interred here. Audie Murphy (one of the most decorated soldiers of World War II) is among the most visited veteran gravesites. Among other notable historical figure are those of World War I General John J. Pershing, Gregory "Pappy" Boyington (World War II leader of the Black Sheep Squadron), General Omar Bradley, Claire Lee Chennault (of Flying Tigers fame), Lee Marvin (marine corps veteran and "tough guy" actor), Major Glenn Miller, General George S. Patton, Astronauts Dick Scobee and Michael J. Smith (of the Space Shuttle Challenger), and Astronauts Laurel Clark, David Brown and Michael Anderson (of the Space Shuttle Columbia).
Originally called "The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier", after World War II (when the remains of an unknown serviceman from that war was included at the Tomb) it became "The Tomb of the Unknowns". Now, there are three unknowns that rest here; one from each World War and one from the Korea Conflict. A fourth casualty from the Vietnam War was interred in 1984, but with DNA testing his identity was determined and confirmed, and his surviving family had the remains reinterred near their home in St. Louis, Missouri. The crypt that contained the Vietnam Unknown remains empty.
Beginning in 1937, the tomb was perpetually guarded by the U.S. Army. Following World War II, the duty of guarding the tomb was taken up by the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, the oldest active duty regiment of the U.S. Army first organized in 1784, thereby rightfully earning the moniker "The Old Guard". The ceremony follows a rigid set of Army regulations, beginning with the oncoming guard being escorted to the tomb by the Relief Commander — a Non-Commissioned Officer. Before the relieving the posted guard, the Relief Commander visually inspects the oncoming guard, carefully going over every detail of his uniform and the rifle. When all is deemed in order, the Relief Commander allows the oncoming guard to take over the post, and escorts the relieved guard from the area.
Arlington National Cemetery is open in the summer (April to September) from 8 A.M. to 7 P.M. and in the winter (October to March) from 8 A.M. to 5 P.M.
The Cemetery is immense. It is recommended that you buy the ticket for the tram rather than walk. The tram allows riders to get on and off at their leisure at about a half–dozen locations over the grounds, including the Kennedy family gravesites and the Tomb of the Unknowns. A tram arrives at the stop about every half hour, so you can spend as much time at the site as you want.
Take a bottle of water with you, since both drinking fountains and toilet facilities are sparse, and wear comfortable walking shoes.
Remember that this is hallowed ground; it is not acceptable behavior to let your kids play hide-and-seek among the headstones. Signage is located throughout the grounds to remind those who need it that "silence and respect" are the proper behavior.
Most visitors come to Arlington Cemetery to experience the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns. There is a spectator area from which visitors can view the event. They must remain behind within the spectator area at all times and are not allowed to walk to the Tomb area or approach the guard.
At the time the guard is changed, the Relief Commander will escort the oncoming guard to the Tomb and will address the viewing audience that the ceremony is about to take place. Those in attendance should remain "standing and silent" during the event. If your tram arrives late and you miss the ceremony, wait about half an hour and it will be repeated. There are toilet facilities and drinking fountains at this site. There is also a small museum that details the history of the Tomb.
Near the Tomb of the Unknowns are several other monuments that you might be of viewing interest, including the mast of the USS Main (sunk in Havana Harbor which started the Spanish American War), the memorial to the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia, and the Lockerbie Cairn — a memorial to Pan Am Flight 103, brought down by terrorist bomb over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988.
The guard will spend the next half hour at his station, marching in a well–timed cadence before the tomb. The guards' routine begins when he smartly steps off 21 paces across the well– worn rubber mat in front of the tomb. Thereafter he makes a quarter turn, which ends with a click of his heels before standing motionless for 21 seconds. This is followed by another quarter turn, another click of the heels, and moving the rifle to the opposite shoulder. The rifle is carried on the shoulder facing the viewing audience and indicates that the Guard stands between the Tomb and any possible threat. There is another 21 second pause before marching 21 paces back to his starting position. The 21 paces and seconds symbolize the 21–gun salute, which is the highest military honor that can be bestowed upon a fallen soldier.
With the exception of the Relief Commander, the guard on duty does not wear his or her rank. Whatever the rank of the Unknowns may have been, the guard on duty is not to outrank them. Relief Commanders have a separate uniform — without rank — that is worn whenever they are called on to guard the Unknowns.
Regardless of the weather, the tomb is guarded 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. During daylight hours in the summer (April through September) the guard is changed every half hour, while in the winter (October through March) a change occurs every hour; at night (when the cemetery is closed to the public), the guard changes every two hours.
The Tomb of the Unknowns (formerly Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) is the most well attended sites of the Cemetery. The Tomb was first opened to the public in 1932; it follows the British and French, who were the first to suggest such a grave for the all too many of their own unknown casualties of World War I. (In Briton it's called The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior and is located at Westminster Abbey, and in France it's La tombe du soldat inconnu and is in the Arc de Triomphe.) Here people stand several rows deep and watch the lone guard slowly and deliberately pace the black mat until he is officially relieved of his post.
President John F. Kennedy
and Jacqueline Kennedy grave.
Tomb of the Unknowns.
Changing of the Guard.