WASHINGTON - The Tomb of the Unknowns, the memorial that honors unidentified American servicemen and servicewomen killed in battle and attracts millions of visitors annually, is being replaced after 72 years.
The white marble monument atop a hill in Arlington National Cemetery is cracked on all four sides. The fault runs diagonally 1 1/2 times around the rectangular tomb, cutting through its classic facade, slicing the three laurel wreaths etched on two sides and marring the Greek relief figures of Peace, Victory and Valor carved into one end.
The crack doesn't obscure the solemn inscription: "Here Rests In Honored Glory An American Soldier Known But To God."
Many tourists hardly notice the crack, which has been growing about an inch a year. Others say the crack detracts from a symbol of national pride.
"It makes a difference; they need to repair it," said Dale Cottrell, a retired Air Force captain from Alamagordo, N.M., who was visiting the tomb last week. "It's important as far as honoring guys who I served with who aren't here anymore."
Arlington Cemetery officials seem to agree. The crack, possibly caused by impurities in the marble, first appeared in the 1940s. At one time, officials tried to repair the crack by filling it with marble dust, but the fault continued to grow.
A 1990 study recommended either enclosing the tomb or replacing it completely, said Kerry Sullivan, a cemetery representative.
With 3,000 outdoor ceremonies conducted every year at the tomb and 4 million annual visitors, an enclosure would "just destroy the entire setting of the tomb as we know it," said John Metzler Jr., the cemetery's superintendent.
So in 2001, cemetery officials approved a project to replace the original tomb with an identical new one to be carved from stone from the same quarry.
Officials hope to "replace it before we do have something significant happen, such as a piece of the marble come off, or worse, some structural damage." Metzler said.
Replacing the structure is a painstaking process that has begun in Marble, Colo., about 70 miles east of Aspen. The mountain town, with a population of just more than 100, is known for the purity of the stone for which it is named.
"It's one of the whitest marbles in the world," said Rex Loesby, the president of the Sierra Mining Corp. The company owns Yule Quarry near Marble, which produced the stone for the original tomb in 1931 and provided marble for the Lincoln Memorial.
Although the cemetery will work with the Department of Veterans Affairs to select a sculptor to complete the tomb, Loesby has a preferred candidate: Janusz Obst, a Polish emigre. Obst's past projects include having led more than 60 sculptors in rebuilding the Warsaw Royal Castle, which was destroyed in World War II.
Obst estimated that it will take teams of three or four sculptors six to nine months to complete the stone.
In the meantime, crowds still stand silently in the sweltering Washington heat to watch the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry Regiment - the "Old Guard" - march in measured step, guarding the memory of fallen comrades. With scientific advancements in DNA testing, officials say, it is likely there will never be another unidentified casualty of war. But sentiment and pride remain strong for those who died and whose identities remain unknown.
"These men not only gave their lives," Metzler said, "but they gave their identities for our freedom and values."
Susannah Rosenblatt writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.