Arlington National Cemetery:  Part III
"We here highly resolved that these dead shall not have died in vain."
Abraham Lincoln


Memorial Amphitheater, Arlington National Cemetery

By:  Marv Rodney

In the October issue of The ENDEAVOR News Magazine we reviewed some of the major sections and burial criteria at the Arlington National Cemetery.  In this issue, we will discuss the Cemetery’s Memorial Amphitheater and the Tomb of the Unknowns.

The Tomb of the Unknowns is part of the Arlington Memorial Amphitheater which hosts state funerals and ceremonies on Memorial and Veterans Days and Easter with an attendance of about 5,000 people.   This imposing structure is built of Imperial Danby marble from Vermont.  The Memorial Display room, between the amphitheater and the Tomb of the Unknowns, uses Botticino stone, imported from Italy. 

Judge Ivory Kimball, a former Officer of the Grand Army of the Republic petitioned Congress during several sessions to construct a place in which America’s defenders could be honored.  Finally, on March 4, 1913 Congress authorized the structure. A year and a half later, President Woodrow Wilson laid the cornerstone for the building encasing 15 items including a Bible and a copy of the Constitution.  Before its completion in 1921, important ceremonies were held at a smaller structure known now as the Old Amphitheater and located to the rear of the Custis Lee Mansion.  Here too can be found a marble dais, known as the rostrum, which is inscribed with the U.S. national motto found on the Great Seal of the United States, E pluribus unum , “Out of many, one."  

  • The Memorial Amphitheater is not to be confused with the Old Amphitheater, one of the most beautiful buildings on the grounds.
  • Dedicated in 1874, it was home to the annual Memorial Day and other observances for many years.
  • Replaced by the Memorial Amphitheater with a far larger seating capacity, the Old Amphitheater can be seen at the rear of the Custis-Lee Mansion and near the site of the Memorial to the Civil War Unknown.
  • The Old Amphitheater has an encircling colonnade with a latticed roof that once supported a web of vines.
  • The Old Amphitheater seats 1,500 people and has a small chapel beneath the stage.
  • "On November 11, 1921, President Warren G. Harding officiated at the internment ceremony at the Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery During the ceremony, the World War I Unknown was awarded the Victoria Cross by Admiral of the fleet Lord Beatty, on behalf of King George V of the United Kingdoms."
  • "Two Unknowns from World War II, one from the European Theater and one from the Pacific Theater, were placed in identical caskets and taken aboard the USS Canberra, a guided-missile cruiser resting off the Virginia Capes.  Navy Hospital Corpsman 1st Class William R. Charette, then the US Navy's only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, selected the World War II Unknown.  The remaining casket received a solemn burial at sea."


The Tomb of the Unknowns or the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier stands on top of a hill overlooking Washington, D.C.  One of the more popular sites at the Cemetery, the tomb is made from Yule marble quarried in Colorado.  It wasArlington National Cemetery,collonade,arbor,old amphitheater, gardens completed and opened to the public on April 9, 1932, at a cost of $48,000 and initially named the, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The white marble sarcophagus, placed above the grave of an Unknown Soldier of World War I, has a flat-faced form and is relieved at the corners and along the sides by neo-classic pilasters, or columns, set into the surface.  Sculpted into the east panel which faces Washington, D.C., are three Greek figures representing Peace, Victory, and Valor.  The six wreaths, three sculpted on each side, represent the six major campaigns of World War I.  Inscribed on the back of the tomb are the words: 

“Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.” 

West of this sarcophagus are the crypts of unknowns from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.  Those three graves are marked with white marble slabs flush with the plaza. Other unknown servicemen were later entombed here and it became known as the Tomb of the Unknowns, though its name has never been officially changed.  The soldiers entombed are:

Unknown Soldier from the War of 1812, Arlington National Cemetery

  • Unknown Soldier of World War I, interred November 11, 1921 – President Harding presided.
  • Unknown Soldier of World War II, interred May 30, 1958 – President Eisenhower presided.
  • Unknown Soldier of the Korean War, also interred on May 30, 1958 – President Eisenhower presided.
  • Unknown Soldier of the Vietnam War, interred on May 28, 1984 – President Reagan presided.  The remains of the Vietnam Unknown were disinterred, under the authority of President Clinton on May 14, 1998, and were identified as those of Air Force lst Lt. Michael Blassie, whose family had them reinterred near their home in St. Louis, Missouri.  It has been determined that the crypt at the Tomb of the Unknowns that contained the remains of the Vietnam Unknown will remain empty. 

The Tomb of the Unknowns has been perpetually guarded since July 2, 1937, by the U.S. Army.  The 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, also known as The Old Guard, began guarding the Tomb on April 6, 1948. In next quarter’s issue and the last issue in this series, I will provide a high-level overview of the Old Guard’s role in guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns as well as meaningful aspects of this ceremonial display of respect.

Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery As a matter of interest, the U.S. Army now requires a joint or concurrent resolution from Congress before it will place new memorials at Arlington due to the lack of space for burials and the large amount of space that memorials require. 

The above information was extracted in part from The Official Website of Arlington National Cemetery and Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Reproduction of this article in whole or in part requires the written permission of the ENDEAVOR news magazine.


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