This day in history: Tomb of the Unknowns

  • Published
  • By Shawn Riem, Historian
  • Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center
One hundred years ago, on Nov. 11, 1921, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was established at the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

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

In September 1921, the bodies of four Americans were exhumed from unmarked battlefield graves in cemeteries in France: Aisne-Maine, Meuse-Argonne, Somme and St. Mihiel. Sgt. Edward F. Younger, a soldier who had received the Distinguished Service Medal in the war, was chosen to select the Unknown Soldier from the four identical caskets at the city hall in Chalons-sur-Marne. The selected remains were then transported to Washington, D.C., aboard a Navy cruiser, the USS Olympia, and the remaining caskets were reinterred in the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery. 

The Unknown Solider arrived in Washington, D.C, on Nov. 9, 1921, and lay in state at the Capitol rotunda for two days, where over 90,000 visitors paid their respects. 

On Armistice Day (now called Veterans Day), Nov. 11, 1921, casket bearers from the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps transported the casket to Arlington National Cemetery.  President Warren G. Harding officiated at a ceremony held at the Memorial Amphitheater, where a Marine band played the national anthem and the Army Chief of Chaplains led two minutes of silence for a crowd of over 5,000 people. 

President Harding placed the Medal of Honor and Distinguished Service Cross on the casket, followed by foreign dignitaries who added their own medals. Finally, with a battery cannon firing three salvos, the casket was lowered in the crypt.  The ceremony closed with a bugler playing taps, followed by a 21-gun salute. 

Congress established a military guard in 1926 to secure the tomb during daylight hours, and since midnight on July 2, 1937, the 3rd U.S. Infantry, traditionally known as "The Old Guard," has maintained 24-hour guard over it. 

Today, the Tomb of the Unknowns contains the remains of service members from World War I, World War II and the Korean War, with the latter two interred in 1958 and 1984. (It’s become increasingly difficult to find a true unknown fallen service member thanks to DNA testing.)

On Nov. 9 and 10, 2021, for the first time in 100 years, the public was able to walk in a procession next to the tomb and lay flowers in front of it. This access, traditionally reserved for the Old Guard, was part of the tomb's centennial commemoration. 

For more information on the commemoration, see article.