The story of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

| November 11, 2021

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on 11 Nov 1921

The American Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery was dedicated exactly 100 years ago today. I’d like to take a moment to explore the history of that hallowed location.

The first tomb or monument to an unknown soldier was in Denmark in 1849, Landsoldaten (“The Valiant Private Soldier”) in Fredericia, Denmark. After the horrible death and devastation wrought across Europe during the First World War, an English chaplain happened across a grave marked with a cross and a pencil scribed “”An Unknown British Soldier.” As the war closed, this chaplain suggested that Great Britain and France should create monuments to all the unknown men to have died in the trenches. Gaining the support at the highest levels of both governments, the plan was quickly put into motion.

Both the UK and France dedicated monuments to their Unknowns on Armistice Day 1920. Armistice Day itself was a new holiday. This was only the second observance of the end of the war, which ended with the signing of the Armistice on 11 November, 1918 (coming in to effect famously at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month).

The US was inspired to create their own. Congress authorized it in May 1921 and it was dedicated the next Armistice Day. The pressing question was who should be entombed there.

It was decided that four American servicemen would be exhumed from four American cemeteries in France. The cemeteries were at Aisne-Maine, Meuse-Argonne, Somme, and St. Mihiel, which corresponds with the four largest campaigns the American Expeditionary Force participated in. One unidentified man from each cemetery would be exhumed.

On 22 October 1921, the remains were exhumed. They were examined to ensure they were American Expeditionary Force personnel, they were beyond hope of identifying, and that they had died of wounds sustained in battle. Placed in four identical caskets they were transported to the city hall at Chalons-sur-Marne, France on 23 October.

Six American servicemen were chosen to act as pall bearers. All of these men were part of the Army of Occupation in Germany and all had been decorated for combat during the World War. One of the pall bearers, Sergeant Edward Younger, was selected by the American officer-in-charge of the ceremonies to make the final selection.

Sergeant Younger would gain some celebrity from his role that day. When he left the Army in 1922, he would retell the story of the day he picked the Unknown an average of once a week to veterans groups and civic organizations. Here’s how he’d recount the day’s events;

At first it was an idea that we (the six soldiers) were to be just pallbearers, but when we lined up in the little makeshift chapel, Major Harbold, the officer in charge of grave registrations, told us, ‘One of you men is to be given the honor of selecting the body of the Unknown Soldier.’ He had a large bouquet of pink and white roses in his arms. He finally handed the roses to me. I was left alone in the chapel. There were four coffins, all unnamed and unmarked. The one that I placed the roses on what the one brought home and placed in the national shrine. I walked around the coffins three times, then suddenly I stopped. What caused me to stop, I don’t know. It was as though something had pulled me. I placed the roses on the coffin in front of me. I can still remember the awed feeling that I had, standing there alone.

Younger’s war service started in 1917 when he enlisted. Joining the AEF as an infantryman, he saw combat action at Chatteau-Thierry, St. Mihiel, the Somme Offensive and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. He was twice wounded in battle. Some accounts of his service list him as a recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross. His gravestone at Arlington shows his highest award as the Purple Heart and a photo of him in uniform in his later years show him wearing the Purple Heart (which dates the photo to somewhere between 1932 and 1942) and the World War I Victory Medal. Re-enlisting in 1919, Younger served with the Army of Occupation until he mustered out of the Army in 1922. Tragically, Sergeant Younger died of a heart attack in 1942, he was 43 years old. He is buried at Arlington, near the Unknown he helped bring home.

After the Unknown Soldier was selected, he was brought to the coast and loaded aboard a ship for the voyage home. USS Olympia (C-6), Admiral of the Navy (a rank more senior than Fleet Admiral) George Dewey’s former flagship during his famous victory at Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War, was chosen as the vessel that would carry the Unknown. Among the American and French escort fleet was USS Reuben James (DD-245), which would later go down in infamy as the first American warship to be lost to enemy action in World War II (she was torpedoed by U-552 near Iceland on 31 October 1941, before the US officially entered the war).

Departing France on 25 October, Olympia encountered rough weather on her voyage home. First, they ran into the fifth tropical cyclone of the 1921 season. Having used extra coal during their voyage, the ship’s natural tendency to roll was exacerbated by the lightened load. Before they could steam up the Potomac, Olympia would hit another storm. This time they ran into the remnants of the 1921 Tampa Bay Hurricane, which had originated in the Gulf of Mexico, made landfall near Tampa Bay and crossed the Florida Peninsula before headed back out to sea. It had caused $10 million in damage in Florida.

Arriving on 9 November in Washington, D.C. the Unknown Soldier laid in state. The Unknown Soldier was only the 11th person to lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda, where he did so until 11 November. Over those two days, more than 100,000 people came to pay their respects.

President Warren G Harding officiated the events on 11 November 1921 at Arlington’s newest memorial. Allied nations were represented as well. The Unknown Soldier was awarded the Medal of Honor, the US’s highest award for bravery, on behalf of all those who died on the battlefield in acts of heroism that went unwitnessed. Harding also awarded the second highest combat bravery decoration, the Distinguished Service Cross to the Unknown. He was similarly honored with the highest honors from many allied nations such as the Victoria Cross from Great Britain, the Legion of Honour, Médaille Militaire, and Croix de Guerre from France, the War Cross from Czechoslovakia, the Gold Medal for Bravery from Italy, the Virtuti Militari from Poland, and the Virtutea Militara from Romania.

The Tomb looked in 1921 different than it does today. Pictured at the top of the article is the original setup. In 1931 the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was capped with the marble sarcophagus that is more familiar. The marble was quarried in Colorado and made in Vermont. Among the other symbols on the tomb is the famous epithet;


The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier early in the morning at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, August 7, 2018. (U.S. Army photo by Elizabeth Fraser / Arlington National Cemetery / released)

After the world again erupted into war, many men again fell on the field of battle and their names were not known. In 1956, President Eisenhower signed legislation to add Unknowns from World War II and Korea.

From World War II two Unknowns were selected, one from the European Theater and one from the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty enlisted Medal of Honor recipient Hospital Corpsman 1st Class William R. Charette would make the selection as to which would be interred at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Charette earned the Medal of Honor while serving in Korea with 2/7 Marines. On 27 March 1953 his company engaged in brutal hand-to-hand fighting for Vegas Hill. Wounded and knocked unconscious by a grenade blast when he used his body to shield a wounded Marine. His medical bag destroyed, once Charette came to he tore bits of his own uniform to continue treating casualties. At one point he gave up his own flak vest, giving it to a wounded Marine, and then, despite being badly wounded himself, Charette exposed himself to enemy fire to carry a critically wounded Marine to safety.

The Korean War Unknown was selected by Master Sergeant (later First Sergeant) Ned Lyle. Lyle had earned the Distinguished Service Cross during the Korean War, he’d previously served during World War II and been a German prisoner of war. In Korea, Lyle’s company lost two platoon leaders, and he took charge of both platoons. At risk of being overrun by a numerically superior enemy, Lyle ordered their retreat and remained behind himself to cover their withdrawal, exposing himself to the Communist forces to draw their fire. During this he also personally carried several injured men to safety. Finally, with an enemy machine gun position threatening his men, he fixed bayonet and single-handedly charged the enemy, forcing them to scatter. Lyle would later return from retirement to serve in the Vietnam War.

As before, the President of the United States awarded each of the Unknowns the Medal of Honor. They lay in state at the Capitol Rotunda before being interred at the Tomb in May 1958.

In 1984, the Unknown of the Vietnam War would join his brothers. Selected by Marine Corps Sergeant Major Allan Kellogg, he would also be awarded the Medal of Honor by President Reagan at his interment. Kellogg had earned the MoH on his second Vietnam tour. As a platoon sergeant, then-Gunnery Sergeant Kellogg’s platoon-sized formation was on patrol and ambushed by a well concealed, numerically superior force. During the fierce fighting, while Kellogg was evacuating a wounded man, the enemy was able to lob a grenade into the Marines. Kellogg pushed it into the mud with his foot and then jumped on top of the live bomb. Absorbing the blast with his body, he sustained injuries to his torso and arm, but remained in the fight, continuing to direct his men until they reached the relative safety of their company’s perimeter.

In 1994, an independent POW/MIA activist conducted research and believed he had discovered the identity of the Vietnam Unknown. He concluded that the remains belonged to 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (USAF). Lieutenant Blassie’s family petitioned for exhumation and testing, but it wasn’t until the media caught hold of the story in 1998 that political pressure was enough to carry through. After DNA testing on the Vietnam Unknown’s remains confirmed it was Lieutenant Blassie, he was reinterred near his family in St Louis at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.

Since then, there thankfully have not been any unidentified American servicemembers in any subsequent conflicts. With continued improvements in DNA testing (as well as all servicemembers having DNA on file) and lower proportional casualties in our wars following Vietnam, it would indicate we may never have another Unknown Soldier.

Category: Arlington National Cemetary, Historical, We Remember

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The old days.


Read “The Unknowns” by Patrick K. O’Donnell to learn more about the Body Bearers, the process of choosing the first Unknown, and what happened during that time. Excellent book.

Old tanker

I have no words. May they rest in peace in the arms of God.


Thank you for sharing this!


Great write up Mason…not that we expected any different…that’s one of your Super Powers. “…with 26 leaden soldiers…” (the writers/printers mantra) Thanks!

Many of us saw the article in this month’s American Legion Magazine on the voyage of USS Olympia to bring this Warrior Home. For those that didn’t see it, I’ll add a Readers Digest version of “the rest of the story”. The Ship, crew, and the Marine Detachment escorting the casket caught hell. USS Olympia nearly rolled over several times and was swamped by the storm. The casket was lashed to the highest flat spot, the signal bridge, and the Marines lashed themselves down to keep from being washed overboard. The Marines stood their post thru-out the entire trip, standing Guard with the casket, in the open, during the storm. They did their Duty in all things. Upon docking, the Marines dried themselves off, spit shined their shoes, pressed their dress uniforms, and turned the Remains over to an Army Escort. SALUTE!


Thank you for this and your LTG Milton Foreman post. “Upon docking, the Marines dried themselves off, spit shined their shoes, pressed their dress uniforms, and turned the Remains over to an Army Escort”. Absolutely invaluable details of true historical information that should NOT be lost to the sands of time!! A Crown Royal salute to you.


Interesting article here on a True War Hero, LTG Milton Foreman, a co-founder of the American Legion and one that was very instrumental in getting the Tomb of the Unknowns done. These Historical Documents, pictures, and the story was almost lost to History, but were saved by the Lady that bought the home from an Estate Sale.


God rest them well in Your peace.


Thanks for sharing this, Mason.


Thank you for this post, Mason. This post and the Ewe-tube video I watched while in hospital will be with me for the rest of my days. ‘Thank God such Men lived’.


Thank you for posting this, Mason. Little known facts that enhance the story.


The first tomb of the unknown soldier is in Philly, right behind Independence Hall. Mass burial of about a thousand Revolutionary War soldiers.

Even older on is in Washington Crossing, PA.