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100th Anniversary of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Over two years after the end of World War I, Congress approved the burial of an unknown soldier at Arlington Cemetery (March 4, 1921, ch. 175 41 Stat. 1447). The law provided that the Secretary of War

[was] authorized and directed, under regulations to be prescribed by him, to cause to be brought to the United States the body of an American, who was a member of the American Expeditionary Forces who served in Europe, who lost his life during the World War and whose identity has not been established for burial in the Memorial Amphitheater of the National Cemetery at Arlington, Virginia.

Almost three months after the passage of this law, on Memorial Day 1921, the bodies of four unknown soldiers who were buried in France were exhumed. These bodies were housed in identical caskets and moved to the city hall in Chalons-en-Champagne in France where on October 24, 1921, U.S. Army Sgt. Edward Younger selected one of the four caskets to represent all those whose lives had been lost in the war by laying white roses on the chosen casket. The bodies of the other three unknown soldiers were reinterred in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France.

The casket was then loaded onto the U.S.S. Olympia for transportation to the United States where it lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda from November 9-11, 1921. On November 11, 1921, President Harding presided over the entombment of the unknown soldier at which the unknown soldier was accorded various medals, including the Medal of Honor, the Victoria Cross, and the Croix de Guerre.

After the interment ceremonies, the tomb was encased by a simple marble crypt.

[Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia]. Harris & Ewing, photographer. 1923. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.43467

In 1926, Congress authorized funds for the completion of the structure (ch. 805, 44 Stat. 914). This law directed the Secretary of War “to secure competitive designs according to such regulations as he may adopt and to complete the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier … and a sum not to exceed $50,000 is hereby authorized …” Work on the tomb was finally completed in 1932.

In 1946, Congress passed legislation to provide for the burial of an unknown soldier from World War II who had died overseas (ch. 461, 60 Stat. 302). However, this did not take place and in 1956, Congress passed additional legislation (ch. 946, 70 Stat. 1027) to add the remains of an unknown soldier from the Korean conflict. This law also provided again for the burial of an unknown soldier from World War II. Two years later, their bodies lay in state at the Capitol Rotunda from May 28-30, 1958, before they were interred on Memorial Day at Arlington Cemetery. An unknown soldier from the Vietnam War was also interred at Arlington but his remains were later identified and returned to his family for burial.

There have been a number of ceremonies to commemorate the centennial of the establishment of this monument. On October 24, 2021, a reenactment of the selection of the unknown soldier took place in Chalons-en-Champagne. In the United States, from November 9-11, visitors to the tomb at Arlington were allowed to walk on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Plaza and lay flowers if they wished. On November 11, there was a joint honors procession as well as a joint service flyover by all branches of the military.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Memorial Cemetery in January 2013 / photograph by Jenny Gesley

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