11 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Being selected to guard the tomb requires a highly rigorous process. 
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. / Tom Brakefield/Stockbyte/Getty Images

On Veterans Day 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. There were four unknown soldier candidates for the World War I crypt.

Harding Places Wreath on the Casket of the Unknown Soldier
President Harding placing a wreath of flowers on the casket of the Unknown Soldier in the rotunda of the Capitol, November 9, 1921. / Historical/GettyImages

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. Similarly, two unknown soldiers were selected as potential representatives of World War II.

Arlington TombThe Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, 1964.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, 1964. / Avalon/GettyImages

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. There were four potential representatives of the Korean War for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. The Vietnam War’s unknown soldier was selected on May 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. The Vietnam veteran wasn’t an unknown soldier for long.

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie. He had been shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958–1975.”

6. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier’s marble sculptors are responsible for many other U.S. monuments.

The Lincoln Memorial
The Lincoln Memorial. / Win McNamee/GettyImages

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside the New York Public Library, the USS Maine National Monument in Central Park, the Dupont Circle Fountain in Washington, D.C., and much more.

7. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has been guarded 24/7 since 1937.

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, “The Old Guard.” Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. Becoming a tomb guard is incredibly difficult.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the tomb.

Once they’re selected, guards “walk the mat” in front of the tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours. Tomb Guards serve for an average of 18 months.

9. The honor of guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is also incredibly rare.

Sgt. Heather Lynn Johnson became the first woman  to stand as sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in 1996.
Sgt. Heather Lynn Johnson became the first woman to stand as sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in 1996. / Luc Novovitch/GettyImages

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second-least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after their guarding duty is over. To date, most of the people who guard the tomb have been men.

10. The steps performed in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier have specific meaning.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

“The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.”

11. Guards do not wear their rank while on duty at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

President Bill Clinton laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, 1993.
President Bill Clinton laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, 1993. / Ron Sachs/GettyImages

Every other service member wears insignia on their uniforms that denote their rank—but not the Tomb Guards. Because the identities and ranks of the soldiers within in the tomb are not known, the guards don’t wear their insignia to avoid potentially outranking the soldiers they’re watching over.

A version of this story originally ran in 2018; it has been updated for 2023.