Tomb of the Unknowns

An honor guard watches over the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery during Winter Storm Jonas on Jan. 23. By noon of that day, the National Guard had more than 2,000 troops helping 12 states cope with the snow emergency. (Army photo)
An honor guard watches over the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery during Winter Storm Jonas on Jan. 23. By noon of that day, the National Guard had more than 2,000 troops helping 12 states cope with the snow emergency. (Army photo)

These words are inscribed on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. The Tomb of the Unknowns symbolizes those of America who gave their lives in World War I, World War II, and the Korean War in defense of the Nation’s integrity, honor, and tranquility.

Numerous ceremonies are performed annually at the Tomb to honor these soldiers and to show the nation’s respect for members of the United States Armed Forces.

The most notable of such ceremonies are wreath-laying ceremonies that take place on National holidays, such as Veteran’s Day or Memorial Day, where the President or his designee lays a wreath to mark the national observance of that day. Also, held in high esteem are wreath laying ceremonies that occur during state visits. At these ceremonies, the visiting head of state will pay formal respects to the sacrifice of America’s veterans in foreign wars by placing a wreath before the Tomb.

All ceremonies performed at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, with the exception of Tomb Guard duty performed by the Army Honor Guard, are Joint Service functions led by the Military District of Washington. Therefore, the members of the Coast Guard Ceremonial Honor Guard serve as active participants in all Joint Service ceremonies performed at the Tomb, including the highly respected wreath laying ceremonies. During these ceremonies, each service of the Armed Forces (Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard) provide Ceremonial Honor Guard personnel to represent their respective service to the public and to the leaders of foreign countries. The Coast Guard Ceremonial Honor Guard strives to prepare its members for these ceremonies through hours of practice in weapons drill, uniform maintenance, and military bearing.

In the following letter, Miriam ("Mimi") Felt describes the gravity of the first ceremony for Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery in November 1921. At that time, Mimi was 23-years-old and worked in the water sanitation division of the U.S. Health Service in Washington, DC.


Sunday (Nov. 13, 1921)

Dear Family,

Well, this last week has been quite an event in history, and I certainly do wish you all could have been in Washington. It certainly is something I shall never forget. Somehow, you can talk about it and think about it, but the realization of the whole thing struck me so much more by seeing it all, and it was so impressive. Of course, Washington is alive with foreigners of all sorts, and I am turning around all the time to see something else for fear I will miss something. The crowds have been simply enormous, and I feel considerably thinner from having wedged my way through. But leave it to Clara, we are always on the front line.

Thursday night after work, Gertie and I went up to the Capitol to see the body in state there. We went up about six o'clock , thinking the crowd would not be so large. But at that time the line (four abreast) extended over two blocks, and by the time we had reached the Capitol steps and could look back at the crowd, it extended up one side of the park, down another side, then the third side of it and on beyond around the Capitol building where we could see no farther, so I don't know how much longer it was. It was perfectly beautifully managed, and there was no crowding, and everyone, strangely enough, acted as though they really were there to pay respect to the memory which that body was to represent to the country, and not there to see out of curiosity.

There were guards, of course, all up the line and then a special guard of honor around the catafalque. The flowers were simply magnificent, each state and then different organizations sent wreaths or flowers made up in some beautiful piece. President Harding's wreath of red roses was on the bier and also a white ribbon was draped over it, which Mrs. Harding had made. It was most impressive, all told.

Friday bright and early, we arose and went down on Pennsylvania Avenue to see the funeral procession. Of course, we had hysterics over Clara trying to wedge us in amidst the crowd. I'll have to leave the details of that to tell. Something on the order of Inauguration, however. It was sort of a fitting setting all around for it, because you remember I told you the day the Olympia arrived with the body, it was very rainy and dark, and in my mind sort of typified the thing itself. Then Friday, when the procession started, it was as though it were in the "gray dawn", for the sun didn't really break through until it was about all passed. And that went with that part of it, too, to me.

There were represented in the procession about every branch of service, and all the organizations, etc. President Harding and the cabinet and the Senate all walked, and we had a chance to see them all very clearly. Only I missed finding Taft until he was passed. I am going to have to see him soon, somehow. It seems that because I am specially anxious to see him, I always miss him!

Did you know that this was the first time in History that three Presidents were seen in the same procession? Wilson had to ride, of course. He looked quite well, and people that have seen him recently seem to think he is much improved. I couldn't quite understand, however, why Mrs. Wilson had to ride by his side, for she was the only lady of that sort in it. The President and cabinet etc. dropped out at the White House and rode up to Arlington. The rest marched on. We didn't attempt to go there because there was no chance of seeing anything and we figured we could read the speech. We had seen the cemetery on Wednesday and knew about what would take place. I'm glad we didn't attempt it for most people were about five hours in all getting up and back.

Then that night was the illumination of the jeweled arch. It was wonderful! When the lights first started to come on, you could see the different lines of the search lights gradually cross each other, and then finally shine out in the most beautiful colors you have ever seen. They fired twenty-one minute guns and the lights were seen through the smoke. I just can't describe to you the effect of it all.

I declare the arch was something that you cannot conceive of man making, somehow. It seemed almost superhuman. The pillars on either side of the street were made into monument effects, the tops from about half way up being covered with sequents of some sort. This all was on a larger base, and around them, on each base, was a large eagle, and incense bowls all around too, burning. In the center of the arch was a large circle composed of smaller circles, and within each of these the picture of the various flags. Then hanging from the pillars was a straight band of vari-colored glass, I guess it must have been, which positively sparkled with more beautiful colors than I have ever seen. They threw different colored search lights on it from all sides. And that wasn't all — the Washington monument was lighted so that it looked as though there were streamers of white light from the top to the bottom, and two search lights from the top crossed and were sent out over the city. Also lights were thrown from the Capitol building so far away which were visible, too.

All along the street in front of the Pan American building where the Conference will be held for the most part, there were erected tall poles with Eagles on the top and colored, lighted box effects built about them of the different shields, that is, "flag productions" of the shields. It made the whole street lighter than day, of course, and with all the various colors it certainly was a vision to behold! Course, you will see it in the movies, and maybe not recognize my description of it all, but it's the best I can do, and I thought perhaps Mother and Dad, at least, would like to hear my own description of it!

Yours, Daughter, Sister and sweetheart. M

(As a postscript, Ms. Felt wrote:)

Give my love to Grandpa. Sorry he isn't feeling up to par. Tell him to be a good boy. Tell him too that some of his old "cronies" marched to Arlington Friday and they looked mighty fine, I'll tell you - and I thought a lot about what he did for his country.

The Veterans Day National Committee thanks Ms. Barbara Felt, the author's niece, for sharing this letter to relatives written by her Aunt Mimi.

This letter originally appeared on

Show Full Article