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'On Behalf of a Grateful Country...'

At Arlington National Cemetery, those words echo every day, as soldiers from wars past, and present, are laid to rest in a graveyard steeped in history.

September 14, 2003|By JOHN WOESTENDIEK | JOHN WOESTENDIEK,SUN STAFF

After the Civil War, Arlington became home to freed slaves, many of whom flocked to Washington. A Freedmen's Village was established adjacent to the cemetery and remained until the 1890s, when it was abolished to make room for new graves. Although blacks were buried there, the cemetery would remain segregated until 1948.

By the 1890s, through annexing more land, Arlington had become the largest national cemetery, and had begun its transition from potter's field to a place of honor. Well-known officers were asking to be buried there. Ceremonies were being held, and memorials being built.

Originally founded to bury soldiers killed "in defense of the union," it was turned into a cemetery for soldiers of all American wars. In 1892, four Revolutionary soldiers buried in Georgetown were reinterred at Arlington. In 1905, 14 unknowns from the War of 1812 were reinterred there.

And in 1906, in what was seen as an act of forgiveness and healing, Congress authorized a memorial to Confederate dead. All 409 Confederate soldiers buried at Arlington were reinterred around the memorial, but with different gravestones - with pointed tops instead of the standard flat ones. Legend has it they were designed to discourage Yankees from sitting on them.

By mid-April, the burial of Iraqi Freedom casualties was becoming an almost daily occurrence at Arlington:

On April 18, Army Sgt. Wilbert Davis, 40, of Georgia, killed when the Humvee he and journalist Michael Kelly were riding in went into a canal en route to Baghdad; on April 21, Army Pfc. Jason M. Meyer, 23, of Howell, Mich., killed by a mortar round; on April 22, Army Capt. Tristan N. Aitken, 31, from State College, Pa., killed by a round fired by a rocket launcher; and Air Force Staff Sgt. Jason C. Hicks, 25, a South Carolina newlywed who died in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan; on April 23, Army 1st Lt. Jeffrey J. Kaylor, 24, of Clifton, Va., killed in a grenade attack outside Baghdad.

Tragedy has a way of uniting a country, especially when it's not self-inflicted.

In 1898, the bombing of the battleship USS Maine did just that, and Arlington was the setting for the country to come together in a way it hadn't since the Civil War.

The bombing of the ship, docked in Havana, killed 260 crew members, and led to a declaration of war against Spain.

Lasting only a year, the war saw 385 U.S. combat fatalities and resulted in new acquisitions for the United States - "a splendid little war," Ambassador John Hay called it in a letter to President Theodore Roosevelt.

After the war, 150 bodies were exhumed from a Cuban cemetery and reinterred at Arlington in a public ceremony. During salvage efforts, 66 more bodies were recovered, 65 of which were buried at Arlington. In 1915, the mast of the Maine was installed at Arlington as a memorial.

The wars that followed were neither splendid nor little. After World War I, a stream of bodies - most originally buried in France - poured into Arlington, and before the onset of World War II, Arlington's interred population stood at about 50,000.

World War II sent interment levels to new highs, and the cemetery, in response, cut the size of grave plots from 6-feet-6 by 12 feet to 5 by 10. It began burying people closer to the roadways, and tree plantings were curtailed.

In 1951, during the Korean War, John "Jack" Metzler became superintendent of Arlington, ushering Arlington into the modern era.

In 1955, he automated the grave-digging process, and what used to take an employee an entire day became a 12-minute job.

"It costs around $29 to have a complete grave done by hand," Metzler noted in an interview with the Washington Daily News. "With the Trenchmaster, we've now got the cost down to $9 plus change."

The senior Metzler, known for making two-hour inspections of the grounds, saw interments pass the 100,000 mark in 1959. He initiated the tiered burial system in 1961 (later adopted by all national cemeteries). In 1966, he procured 190 more acres for Arlington, from Fort Myer, ensuring enough space for burials into the 21st century.

His most challenging days, though, would come after the death of President Kennedy, whose nationally televised funeral brought more prestige to Arlington - and more tourists, too. In the year after his death, up to 50,000 a day visited his gravesite and the eternal flame that burns there, on the hill in front of Arlington House.

At Kennedy's funeral, when television news crews hoping to film the casket going into the ground declined to disperse, Metzler ordered all electricity shut down, making operation of their cameras impossible.

In the late 1960s, war once again upped the pace of burials at Arlington. With 500 fatalities a week in Vietnam, Arlington's interment jumped to 37 services a day, some reflecting the war's divisiveness.

In a few cases, families asked that the military's participation in services be limited; in others, families refused to accept the ceremonial flags.

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