A Place Of Honor

At Arlington National Cemetery and other nearby memorials, the nation pays tribute to those who answered the call to serve.

May 26, 2002|By Jerry V. Haines | By Jerry V. Haines,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

If ever there were a year that needed a Memorial Day, this is the year. If ever there were a place to symbolize best our national need to remember and to honor, this is the place: the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va.

A lone sentry marches on the long black mat in front of a monument made of 50 tons of white Colorado marble. The route is always the same, every day of the year, in every kind of weather: 21 deliberate paces, stop, turn 90 degrees and face the tomb for 21 seconds, turn another 90 degrees and pause again, retrace the route to the other end of the mat.

The sentry wears a wool uniform, what-ever the temperature. If he is uncomfortable, he doesn't reveal it, nor does he ever relax his determined expression. There is nothing casual about this job.

Beneath the monument are tombs for the unknown soldiers of World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. The tombs symbolize something we recognize all too clearly this year -- that grief, however unbearable, is made even worse by not knowing.

For many, the "Unknowns" is part of a solemn stop in a Washington visit that otherwise might consist largely of museum hopping, T-shirt buying and political celebrity watching.

And while there are monuments and military memorials all around the Washington metropolitan area, the revered sites on either end of the Memorial Bridge -- Arlington National Cemetery, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Korean War Veterans Memorial -- constitute a sort of city of honor.

Arlington Cemetery

The history of Arlington National Cemetery includes some controversy. Before the Civil War, it was the home of Robert E. Lee, his wife having received the estate from her father. But at the outbreak of war, Lee chose to fight for his beloved Virginia rather than the federal government. With the general in Richmond and Union troops threatening, Mrs. Lee fled the property.

Union forces appropriated it as a headquarters, and the government subsequently declared that Mrs. Lee had forfeited the grounds by failing to appear in person to pay the taxes on them.

Then the government underscored its action by using portions of the land -- including her rose garden -- to bury Union war dead. Although the Supreme Court ruled in 1882 that the federal government had misappropriated the land, thousands of soldiers had been buried by then.

The Lee family accepted a monetary settlement rather than reclaim the property. In later years, the cemetery expanded to its present 624 acres, which holds the remains of more than 270,000 people -- soldiers and their families, along with those who have held high federal office.

Visitors may be surprised to learn that there is more than one tomb of unknowns at Arlington. Before the advent of "dog tags" for identification and modern forensic methods, war dead were buried in common graves. Thus more than 2,000 Civil War unknowns rest in a quiet corner of the cemetery near its west gate.

In contrast, one of those four tombs at the more recent "Unknowns" is now empty, because of technological advances. In 1998 the unknown soldier of the Vietnam War was identified through DNA testing and returned to his family for re-interment. His place at the monument remains unoccupied, a tribute to those lost and missing from all wars.

Tourmobile routes through the cemetery make it easy to drive by the major points of the cemetery and to view the famous grave sites. But if your health permits, avoid the temptation. This is a place to be on your feet, even though it means walking up hills.

On foot, you can appreciate poignant details that you might otherwise miss. The commingled, unidentifiable remains of victims of the USS Maine's historic 1898 destruction lie under the mast of that ship, transported to the cemetery from Havana harbor.

The listed ranks and specialties of some of the victims recall a Navy of an earlier age: oiler, coal passer, water tender, sail maker. Some memorials are living ones. The 416th Bombardment Group planted a crab apple tree, for example, and the 82nd Airborne a pine.

You find names that you know, but never thought of as military: Abner Doubleday, reputed inventor of baseball, also was the Union officer to order the first return of fire after the Confederate shelling of Fort Sumter in 1861; boxer Joe Louis was a World War II veteran; Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. had served in the Civil War. There are a number of small memorials to particular professions: nurses, chaplains, war correspondents.

Back at the main gate, there is a new indoor memorial honoring women in the military service.

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