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.
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.
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.