What is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 07 October 2019
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The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a monument in Arlington National Cemetery which honors the memory of unknown American soldiers who have died in combat. While the use of dog tags and other identification tools has significantly reduced the number of unidentified American remains, unknown remains do still exist, and people are still working to identify these soldiers. Many nations have some version of a Tomb of Unknown Soldier or Tomb of Unknowns, reflecting a widespread desire to recognize and honor deceased soldiers who have remained unidentified.

Officially, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has no formal name, although the staff at Arlington refer to it as the “Tomb of Unknowns,” as do the members of the Third United States Infantry, who are tasked with guarding the tomb 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Men selected for duty as guards are of high moral and military caliber, and they follow a very set schedule, down to the number of steps it takes to walk in front of the tomb (21), and the number of seconds used to pause at either end of the tomb (also 21).


The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was dedicated in 1921 as a way of honoring the unidentified dead of the First World War. Unidentified remains buried in France were exhumed and repatriated to the United States, where they were buried inside a white marble sarcophagus. The sarcophagus is decorated with carvings of Peace, Victory, and Valor, along with wreaths representing the major battles of the First World War, and it carries the inscription “here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”

In 1956, President Eisenhower decided to honor the unknown dead of the Second World War and the Korean War as well, entombing two additional unknown soldiers under marble plaques in front of the monument. In 1984, an unknown soldier from the Vietnam War was also buried at the site, although he was later exhumed and identified. The vault designated for an unknown Vietnam soldier remains empty. All of the soldiers in this tomb have been awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously, and some have additional decorations as well.

Many visitors to Arlington like to stop by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to pay their respects, with Presidents traditionally laying a wreath at the Tomb of Unknowns on Memorial Day. Thanks to improvements in DNA testing and other identification techniques, unknown American dead from conflicts as far back as the Civil War are constantly being identified by forensic anthropologists and other specialists, but it remains likely that some soldiers will never be identified, and the Tomb of Unknowns serves as a monument to their sacrifices.


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Post 5

I went to Snopes, to see what they had to say about "rumors" surrounding those who guard the Tomb of the Unknown. I also suggest seeking out the truth of these tomb guards at Arlington National Cemetery, and at Tomb Guards (for United States soldiers). There may be sites set up for guards of tombs in other countries, as well. I believe each country has some unknown soldiers buried somewhere.

Post 4

@dill1971: There is much more to guarding this sacred tomb than most people realize. The guards must commit 2 years of their life to guard the tomb. They also live in barracks under the tomb. They are not allowed to drink alcohol on duty or off duty for the rest of their lives. They are not allowed to use curse words in public for the rest of their lives. It is considered a disgrace to the uniform.

After 2 years, the guards are given a wreath pin that is to be worn on their lapel to signify they served as a guard for the Tomb of the Unknown. As of now, there are only around 400 pins worn. If the

guard doesn’t obey all of the rules as described above, he will be asked to surrender his pin.

For the first 6 months of duty, the guard is not allowed to talk to anyone or watch TV. All of their “off-duty” time must be spent studying the 175 slain soldiers laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery.

Post 3

What are some more requirements for the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown?

Post 2

@gardenturtle: Here are some more interesting facts about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The guard carries his rifle on his shoulder coming away from the tomb. After he marches across the path, he does an about face and moves the rifle to the outside shoulder.

Guards are changed out every 30 minutes, 24 hours a day, and 365 days a year. To be considered for guard duty, the guard must be between 5’10” and 6”2” tall and he can have no greater than a 30 inch waist.

Post 1

Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a high honor. It is taken very seriously. Certain and specific techniques are used by these soldiers.

As the article stated, there are 21 steps taken during the guard’s walk across the tomb. It alludes to the 21 gun salute which is known as the highest honor given to any military or foreign dignitary. The soldier (guard) also hesitates for 21 seconds after he does his “about face” to begin his return walk.

The soldier’s gloves are also moistened to prevent him from losing grip on his rifle.

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