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100th Anniversary of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier: November 11, 2021

On November 11, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. The monument honored fallen U.S. servicemen from WWI whose remains were unidentified. The ceremony took place the same day the country was celebrating the newly declared Armistice Day holiday.

During WWI, the chaos of battle resulted in scores of unidentified dead servicemen. The creation of the memorial, also known as the Tomb of the Unknowns, was proposed in 1920 by New York Congressman and WWI veteran Hamilton Fish. Both Great Britain and France had dedicated similar monuments in 1920, and in March 1921, Congress approved the plan to build America’s tribute to unidentified fallen soldiers.

Construction begins on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, 1921

Officials wanted to choose one unknown serviceman and reinter him in a tomb at Arlington. To select that soldier, the bodies of four unidentified U.S. servicemen were exhumed from different American military cemeteries in France in October 1921. They were placed in identical caskets and brought to the city hall in Châlons-sur-Marne, France, where American war hero Sgt. Edward F. Younger selected one casket. With the backdrop of a dignified ceremony, officials placed the casket on board the USS Olympia to begin the journey home, arriving at the Washington Navy Yard on November 9, 1921.

After arrival, the Unknown lay in state in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, where on November 10, some 90,000 visitors waited in line to pay their respects. On the morning of November 11, a large funeral procession proceeded from the Capitol to Arlington. President Harding, former President Woodrow Wilson, and General John J. Pershing were among the dignitaries that participated in the procession.

Remains of the Unknown Soldier are lowered into the ground in 1921

After reaching Arlington, Americans across the country observed two minutes of silence. President Harding gave a speech and bestowed the Medal of Honor and Distinguished Service Cross on the Unknown Soldier; other nations also bestowed their highest awards. The funeral ended with the playing of Taps and a 21-gun salute.

At the time of burial, the tomb had yet to be completed and consisted of a simple marble slab. In 1932, the marble structure that now stands was installed. The tomb bears the inscription, “Here Rests in Honored Glory an American Soldier Known but to God.”

The tradition of guarding the tomb began in 1926, and in 1937, soldiers transitioned to a 24/7 presence at the memorial. The changing of the guard is a moving ceremony and takes place every 30 or 60 minutes, depending on the season.

In 1958, unknown soldiers representing the fallen of WWII and the Korean War were laid to rest at the monument. In 1984, a soldier from the Vietnam War was also interred in the tomb. However, through DNA testing, the body was positively identified in 1998 and returned to his family. The crypt designated for the Vietnam War Unknown remains vacant, and in 1999, it was rededicated to honor all missing U.S. service members from the Vietnam War.

As we mark the 100th anniversary of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, we honor all who have served and sacrificed for their country. Search our archives for records on the military heroes in your life on Fold3® today.

97 Comments

  1. Natasha naquin says:

    Thank you so very much for serving our beautiful country. It’s a sacrifice that nobody should have to do if we did not have enemies in this world. I come from a military family my six of my great uncles and my grandfather served in ww2 and one of my greatuncles was in the Korean War as well. My moms oldest brother was in the Vietnam war. So I have the highest respect for the ones that fought and came home safe and to the ones that never came home thank yall from the bottom of my heart. Love yall

  2. Anna Lee Scruggs says:

    I have been to Arlington Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The crosses are beautiful, disturbing and all consuming of one’s soul. The Tomb took my breathe away at its simplicity and respect for our soldier who made the ultimate sacrifice. My family has been here since the Mayflower-seeking freedom and persecution . They have served their and my country with honor and love for our country. (the revolutionary war, battle of 1812, civil war (both sides), WWI, WWII and Vietnam) It is my honor and privilege to live in the land of the free and the home of the VERY BRAVE.

  3. Bear says:

    What happened to the other unknown caskets not selected by Sgt Younger?

  4. The memorial is a testament not only to the unknown soldiers but to all the faces of every soldier who has ever served in the military the one has never met, who has dedicated their time on this earth to protect and serve, to sacrifice and work to make our country free from threat of violence and war, dictatorship and communism. It is a testament to the military wife or husband who keeps the home while he or she serves. It is a testament to the military children who wait for their parent(s) to return from tour or war, never knowing the trauma they experience or how their lives will change.

    Yes, it must be guarded, and carefully watched, to remind us everyday of the thousands of service men and women who have sacrificed for our freedom.

    • Debra S Rheuark says:

      Deborah,. Thank you for such a beautiful message. I was a military wife for nearly thirty years. My husband served aboard nuclear powered submarines. This meant no communication for weeks or months at a time. Serving aboard a submarine required sacrifices on my husband’s part and mine, but I am proud of my husband’s service to our country.

  5. J.R.Minks says:

    God bless all those who served this wonderful country with freedom and justice for all.
    May God bless this country and all who serve.

  6. william J Fronapfel says:

    AS a navy vet 65 69 and a son of an Army vet who became an American citizen before joining the Army; and having a family history of serving in the military since the Civil War this article has brought tears to my eyes. Some people will NEVER know the sacrifice a military faces.
    GOD BLESS THEM ALL and may they RIP.

  7. James A Cornie says:

    My father, Robert Lee Cornie told me he was with the first unit to guard the tomb. He was stationed at Ft. Meyers. Vandals were chipping stone or chards for small memorials. No ritual he says. They just sat around smoking cigarettes and telling tall tales. The ritual changing of the guard came later. I do not know how much was true and how much was another tall tale.