The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

America’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery was first authorized in 1921, three years after World War I ended, and joined U.S. allies in remembering the unknowns who fought in that war.  The first tombs dedicated to unknown soldiers took place in London and Paris in 1920: England established its Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey while France buried their honored unknowns underneath the famous Arc de’Triomphe de l’Etoile in Paris, marking the tomb with an eternal flame. The end of the first World War came on November 11, 1918, when the Armistice with Germany was signed. To this day, November 11th is an important day of commemoration not only in the U.S., but in England, France, Canada, Australia, and other countries, as well: in the U.S. it is Veterans Day while elsewhere is it known as Remembrance Day.

A joint resolution of Congress on March 4, 1921, authorized bringing home an unknown fallen American Expeditionary Forces (A.E.F.) soldier for burial in the Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery. In October 1921, General Pershing journeyed to France to select the unknown soldier from one of four American cemeteries in Europe.

America’s Unknown Soldier, “whose very namelessness symbolized 50,000 others who had given their lives for America on the field of battle in the World War,” was brought home on the historic cruiser Olympia to the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., on November 8, 1921. Thousands of people lined the waterfront as the ship passed up the Potomac, escorted by the battleship North Dakota and destroyer Bernardou. A 21-gun gun salute was fired as the gangway was lowered and the Olympia’s mission was completed. The Unknown Soldier was taken to the U.S. Capitol where his flag-draped coffin was placed in the rotunda, guarded by four armed sentries, for public viewing until Armistice Day.

On November 11, 1921, third anniversary of the Armistice, General Pershing became the nation’s official mourner as he escorted the Unknown Soldiers’ horse-drawn caisson by foot for the entire route from the U.S. Capitol to Arlington National Cemetery. Pershing hand-picked Sgt. Samuel Woodfill, who served with the 60th Infantry during the war, to serve as the Unknowns’ body bearer. President Harding, along with ex-Presidents Taft and Wilson, Marshal Foch of France, Admiral Lord Beatty of Great Britain, the Prince of Japan, and six American Indian Chiefs, including Chief Plenty Coups, were among many international dignitaries present for the funeral ceremony.


The familiar marble tomb of America’s Unknown Soldier was not built until 1932.  In 1928, the Army announced a juried competition for someone to design a suitable permanent tomb for the Unknown Soldier.  Out of 73 submissions, the design by sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones and architect Lorimer Rich was selected.  Both Jones and Rich were World War I veterans who served stateside in the U.S. Army and were honorably discharged in 1919.  Their completed tomb for the Unknown Soldier was dedicated on Armistice Day, November 11, 1932.

Architect Lorimer Rich enjoyed a long career in private practice and designed many post offices, courthouses, and other public buildings. He died in 1978 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones went to work for the Army’s Institute of Heraldry during World War II, where he designed the Medal of Humane Action, World War II Victory Medal,  Air Force Academy seal, and over 40 other medals or seals, until his retirement in 1962. He died in 1969.

The U.S. Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has been a national shrine for nearly 100 years and attracts visitors from around the globe.

Photo credits:  Secretary of War Dwight F. Davis (left) and Army Quartermaster General Maj. Gen. B.F. Cheatham inspecting the accepted design and model for Tomb of the Unknown Soldier submitted by Thomas Hudson Jones and Lorimer Rich. Library of Congress. Jones: 1969 obituary photo, New York Times


Unknown soldier buried at Arc de Triomphe de l’Etoile in Paris, France:

Unknown warrior buried in Westminister Abby in London, England:

Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier:

Remembrance Day:

Thomas Hudson Jones:

Lorimer Rich:

Chief Plenty Coups:

VA Historian









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