My husband and I had been talking about taking a trip to Washington D.C. for some time. I suggested that we include touring our country’s capital city as part of our annual trip to visit family. Recently we did just that. Whenever one has such an adventure, people will ask what your favorite part was. I’d have to say my favorite part of our time in Washington D.C. was the afternoon we spent at Arlington National Cemetery.
It’s been several weeks since we visited the cemetery and since then I’ve been scrabbling to find the right words to describe it. The first view is acre upon acre of white headstones placed in perfectly aligned rows. Awesome! My husband thought we should pay for a tour of the cemetery, but I wanted to find our way on foot with a map. Luckily, my husband got his way. I say luckily because the cemetery is vast. With 600 acres and over 400,000 gravesites, it would have taken forever to find our way around.
We boarded a vehicle that was like a small open-air train, without tracks. We could get off at any site, spend as much time as we wanted at that site, and then board another vehicle to the next site. Our guide, who was very knowledgeable, informed us that 21 funerals were being held that day, which is fairly typical.
Our first stop was at the burial site for President John F. Kennedy. I’m old enough to remember where I was and what I was doing on Nov. 22, 1963, when news of our beloved president’s assassination was released. I recall crying and feeling shaken, horrified, scared. I knew seeing this gravesite was going to be special for me.
Leading to the gravesite is a large circular space surrounded by stone walls with inscriptions of Kennedy quotations including his famous “And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
We stepped down to the gravesite which is a roped off area made up of multi-sized rectangular tiles on the ground. Kennedy’s grave is marked with a flat stone (the kind we typically call a footstone) that holds only his name and dates of birth and death. Alongside the president are buried Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, their infant son, and their stillborn daughter. The Eternal Flame, a symbol of the nation’s eternal gratitude and remembrance, burns near Kennedy’s head.
The area is surrounded by a hedge and just beyond I spied a few pink magnolias still clinging to a tree. The day was quiet and the crowd was quiet. JFK’s brothers Robert and Edward are buried nearby, each grave marked with a simple white wooden cross (the only wooden crosses in the cemetery.) Also nearby, another Kennedy brother—Joseph—whose body was not recovered from a WWII airplane crash, is honored by a simple marker.
As we approached the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, we paused to read signs that stated “Silence and Respect” and “No Smoking and No Gum Chewing.”
In the Memorial Display Room I learned that England was the first country to honor an unidentified World War I soldier. Other countries, including the U.S., soon followed. The process of choosing one body to represent all the thousands of unknown soldiers seems a bit complicated, but I suppose it was done in a way to make it as random as possible.
One U.S. soldier was exhumed from each of the four American cemeteries in France. They were placed in identical caskets and then an American war hero placed a flower on the casket of his choice. The other three bodies were reburied in France. The chosen one was shipped to America where he would lie in state at the Capitol Rotunda for two days before he was interred in Arlington on Nov. 11, 1921. The tomb sarcophagus was placed over his grave with the following words carved onto it: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”
The process was similar for the selection of the World War II Unknown, but this time only two soldiers were disinterred, one from the European Theater and one from the Pacific Theater. One was chosen for Arlington and the other buried at sea.
To select an Unknown from the Korean War, the remains of four soldiers were taken from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii, with one selected to be honored at Arlington. The unknown WWII soldier and the Unknown Korean War soldier were buried perpendicular to the sarcophagus holding the WWI Unknown.
In 1984, an Unknown U.S. soldier who died in the Vietnam War was also buried alongside the others. It’s very confusing, but if I understand it correctly, there seemed to be evidence that the Unknown was Air Force First Lieutenant Michael Joseph Blassie. The body was exhumed in 1998 and DNA testing proved the remains to be Blassie. The family chose to have his body buried in his home state of Missouri. It was decided that the crypt that contained the remains of the Vietnam Unknown should remain empty.
In addition to the three soldiers in the Tomb of the Unknown, the remains of 4,000 unidentified service members rest in Arlington National Cemetery.
As hundreds of us, including many school children and Honor Flight veterans, gathered to witness the changing of the guard, there was total silence. What was going through my mind? Honor, respect and appreciation for these three soldiers without names. Honor, respect and appreciation for ALL people who have served our country in military service. Sorrow for all those whose lives were cut short or drastically changed due to that service. Sympathy and concern for those mothers and fathers who waited for their child to come home; waited to hear something, anything, about him and finally mourning his death. Sadness that we have been at war since the beginning of time and we continue to fight and kill each other.
Civilians began guarding the tomb in 1925 mostly to prevent people from picnicking there. The military took over the duties in 1926. The tomb is guarded as a matter of respect and ceremony, but the sentinels will stop people who attempt to cross the barriers or correct anyone who is disrespectful or loud. Every day, all day long, one soldier walks the mat in front of the tomb. He takes 21 steps, pauses for 21 seconds, turns and faces east for 21 seconds, turns and faces north for 21 seconds and then takes 21 steps again. The number 21 symbolizes the 21 gun salute which is the highest military honor bestowed. The guard does not wear his rank insignia so as not to outrank the Unknown.
At this time of year the guard is changed every hour on the hour. To have a changing of the guard there has to be the guard on duty, the new guard and the relief commander. The ceremony is very, very formal with a lot of saluting, heel clicking and meticulous examination of the rifle.
(I wondered how they could click their heels so hard without damaging their feet. After the ceremony, I was near the relief commander and got a good look at his shoes and saw that each shoe had a piece of metal about an inch wide and two inches long on the inside of the foot so that a mere touching of the metals made a loud clicking sound.) Following the guard change, four children took part in laying of the floral wreath—another very formal ceremony. The little girls were dressed in blue plaid school uniforms and the boy wore a dress shirt and tie. I was near them when they formed at the top of the steps and I heard the relief commander tell them not to be nervous, but it was obvious they took their task very seriously. They marched down the steps, turned and placed the new wreath in front of the tomb and marched back up the steps as the bugler played taps. I felt very privileged to have witnessed these two ceremonies.
We paid our respects at the Civil War Monument, the first memorial at Arlington to be dedicated to unidentified soldiers who died in battle. The monument was placed over a vault containing the remains of 2,111 soldiers lost during the Civil War.
The U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial is a huge 32-foot tall bronze statue. It shows the six soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima signifying the conclusion of the American campaign in the Pacific during World War II. Although we have all seen photos and replicas of this statue, it is amazing to see the real thing. Before we had left home, I did some research and found that my uncle and aunt were buried in Section 12, Grave 8871-4. I didn’t know how it would be possible to find the grave, so I asked our tour guide and was told there was free shuttle service to gravesites beginning at the visitor center. When we got on the shuttle the driver told me it might be difficult to find this grave because in her words “Section 12 is a substantial area and not all the graves are in numerical order.” She dropped us off at Section 12 and told us to give her a call when we were ready to be picked up.
Sure enough, Section 12 seemed to go on forever, but my husband and I started reading grave numbers and saw a pattern emerging. When we found my uncle’s stone we were elated. The front of the marker reads: “Dominick Paul Squillace; Col US Air Force; Jun 13 1919; Jun 29 2012.” On the backside of the marker are the words: “Kathleen Mary; His Wife; Aug 22 1923; Mar 28 1972. (The words “His Wife” seem to be common on stones in this cemetery.) Finding these family graves was a great ending to our visit to this special place of honor, appreciation, and respect.
What else did we do in Washington D.C.? We learned how to use the Metro system!
The Smithsonian museums that we toured were the Holocaust Museum, American History Museum, and the Air and Space Museum. (Each Smithsonian museum is enormous with extraordinary exhibits and that take hours to see.) We also toured the Capitol Building, the Smithsonian Castle, and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception—the largest Catholic Church in the country.
We saw the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall where my husband found the name of his high school shop partner Dennis Pederson, the fabulous World War II Memorial, and the White House. We viewed the city from the top of the Old Post Office Clock Tower at the Trump International Hotel and attended a concert at Kennedy Center.
You may ask what else we did on this road trip. Well the main reason for our trip was to visit my daughter and her family in Michigan, as well as my son in North Carolina. It’s always great fun to be with family and to be assured they are all thriving. We spent an afternoon at Belle Isle in Detroit where we enjoyed the aquarium, the arboretum and the Great Lakes Museum.
We spent a couple days in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park where we enjoyed the scenery and saw many elk and a bear. We joined thousands of tourists in Nashville where we toured the Ryman Auditorium, Country Music Hall of Fame, and the wonderful Johnny Cash Museum. We attended a spectacular concert at the Grand Ole Opry featuring Trace Adkins, Charlie Pride, Old Crow Medicine Show and others. We shared conversation, laughter, and food with friends in Kentucky.
And after driving 3,390 miles and piling up tons of good memories, we were happy to be back home in Mt. Iron.
Betty Pond and her husband Randy Pond live in Mt. Iron, MN.