A Tribute To Arlington National Cemetery

I received this article from George on  August 1997.

Following a visit to Arlington National Cemetery, George did his “homework” and compiled this wonderful tribute to Arlington National Cemetery.

George, many thanks for sharing it with me and for giving me permission to post your portion of it here.

This lovely tribute to Arlington was compiled from a number of published sources. Should any potential copywrite holders object, their part of these materials will be immediately removed. I am presently attempting to locate anyone who had anything to do with the authoring of these fine words of tribute. The decision to post this material here is my own.

On a cold and windy, but beautiful afternoon, in March, 1997, Gene Salay and George Wilson, both of Bethlehem, PA, visited Arlington Cemetery. Gene is the Director of Veterans Affairs for Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, and George is a member of the Court of Veterans Appeals. Gene is a veteran of the Korean War and George was in WWII. They were both in the infantry, both wounded, and were prisoners of war.

They visited the grave of Jack and Jacqueline KennedyRobert Kennedy, and others, finally ending up at the ormer residence of General Lee. After a tour of the Lee house, they went to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. They would like to tell you some things about Arlington Cemetery which you may not have been aware of. By the way, George Wilson picked out his grave site, but doesn't intend to use it soon! They have four purple hearts, between them, so they both qualify for residency in Arlington. Gene hasn't made up his mind, yet, but odds are that he will wind up next to his buddy. George says the one regret that he has about being interred in Arlington, is that it is a bit of a drive from Pennsylvania, and he will miss seeing his family, especially his three year old granddaughter, Ahnika. George's wife, JoAnn, is keeping her opinions to herself, saying she'll “cross that bridge when she comes to it”, in concert with Gene's wife, Ellie.
They visited the Tomb of the Unknowns and watched in awe as Sgt. Danyell Wilson paces out 21 slow, precise steps, then stops, clicks her heels together with a sharp crack, pivots to her left, clicks her heels again, waits precisely 21 seconds, pivots left, switches her rifle to her left shoulder and begins another 21-step march, while the crowd of tourists watches in hushed reverence.

Inside, in a windowless room beneath the marble amphitheater a few yards away, Wilson's colleagues await their turn to guard the Tomb. A couple of them are sitting around eating microwaved lasagna and watching a TV screen that shows models sashaying down a runway, displaying mini-dresses with holes that reveal their navels. They laugh. Somebody flips the channel and the models disappear, replaced by cartoon spacemen.

Pfc. Jeff Hojnacke glances at the TV, then steps around a corner to get ready to replace Wilson at the Tomb. He checks his shoes; they're impeccably spit-shined. He checks his pants; the crease could slice bread. He pulls on a pair of white gloves and fastens them with a pair of “keeps” that circle his wrists like sweatbands. He turns around and squares his shoulders while his buddy, Pfc. Stefan Still, grabs the top of his dark blue jacket and yanks down hard, tucking all the excess material under the jacket's belt so that it fits like second skin. Hojnacke steps to the water fountain, turns it on and sticks his hands under the running water until both gloves are thoroughly soaked — a process that gives the guards a better grip on their custom-made wood-handled M-14 rifles. Now Hojnacke is ready. He raises one fist. So does Still. They punch each other's fists a few times for good luck, then slap palms. “Have a good one,” Still says. Hojnacke smiles broadly and picks up his rifle. He inspects himself in the mirror and instantly his smile falls away, replaced by a look of utter solemnity, and he marches outside for the Changing of the Guard. Hojnacke is a member of the 3rd U.S. Infantry, which has been guarding the Tomb since 1948 and will no doubt guard it forever, or at least as long as the United States of America exists. Inside the Tomb are four unidentified bodies, Americans who died in the century's four wars. Standing sentinel 24 hours a day, every day of the year, the guards are eternal, like the flame on President Kennedy‘s grave a few hundred yards down the hill.

There's no mistaking the meaning of this place. Just inside the iron gates where 4 million visitors enter every year, a sign spells it right out:
“Welcome to Arlington National Cemetery, Our Nation's Most Sacred Shrine. Please Remember: These Are Hallowed Grounds.”

Tomorrow, President Clinton will come to this place where 240,000 Americans are buried. Like every president since Harding, he will lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns and deliver a Memorial Day oration in an Amphitheater known as “America's Temple of Patriotism.”

Sacred. Hallowed. Temple: The language is self-consciously religious. No wonder Tom Sherlock, the cemetery's official historian, says that Arlington is “akin to Westminster Abbey.”

But Arlington National Cemetery is not just a secular church, a place of hushed reverence. Like the soldiers who guard its most famous tomb, it has another face that is seldom seen, less somber, more human. On its 612 acres of rolling hills, green grass and white stones, American history is visible in all its quirky glory; the tragic, the valiant, the depressing, the uplifting, the spiteful, the foolish, the bizarre, even the comic. And, because Arlington is, after all, a cemetery, there is also a touch of the macabre.

John Metzler, the cemetery's superintendent, eases his big, black Ford slowly up the hill to Arlington House, the mansion that overlooks the graveyard. He leans out the window and points to a row of headstones that ends just a few paces from the house. “Most people who visit this house have no idea what these gravestones represent,” he says. What they represent, Metzler points out, is an obscene gesture aimed at the former tenant Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

Lee was married in that house. His wife, Mary Custis, was the daughter of the man who built it, George Washington Parke Custis, who was Martha Washington's grandson. Lee lived in the beautiful cream-colored, neoclassical mansion until 1861, when he resigned from the U.S. Army to take command of the rebel Army of Northern Virginia. A month later, Union troops seized the house and occupied it for the rest of the Civil War.

In 1864, when the Union Army was looking for a place to bury its dead, Quartermaster Gen. Montgomery Meigs made a suggestion: Why not bury the dead in Lee's back yard? “The grounds about the mansion,” he wrote, “are admirably suited to such a purpose.” Meigs was a Georgian who'd remained loyal to the Union, and he regarded Lee as nothing more than a traitor to his country, pure and simple. When his suggestion was accepted, he decided to send Lee an unmistakable message of his loathing. “Meigs came over and personally oversaw the burial of a row of Union soldiers in Mrs. Lee's rose garden,” Metzler says. He leans out the car window and points to the gravestones, which stand like sentries around a garden where purple and yellow flowers glow in the bright sunlight. “Here's that single row of headstones — right up to the back door,” he says with a sardonic little chuckle. If that gesture weren't enough to ensure that Lee would never again live in Arlington House, Meigs buried 16,000 other soldiers there, more than 7,00 of them in a field just below the mansion, blighting Lee's landscape with rows of crude wooden headstones that stretched to the horizon. Today, the headstones are made of white marble, and this “Field of the Dead” is a breathtakingly stark reminder of the cost of war. In October 1864, while Meigs was filling Lee's land with graves, his son, Lt. John Meigs, was shot by Confederate cavalrymen near Harrisonburg, Va. Meigs buried him on a hillside overlooking the Field of the Dead. Later, he marked the spot with a metal sculpture that shows the young man lying dead in his uniform and cape, his pistol near his boot, hoofprints from the Rebels' horses around his body.

After the war, the Union Army gathered its dead from shallow, makeshift graves all over northern Virginia and sent their skeletons to Arlington. Meigs had his men dig a huge pit in Mrs. Lee's rose garden and into it they tossed the bones — skulls in one section, legs in another, arms in a third. In September 1866, the soldiers sealed the vault and capped it with a granite sarcophagus. “Beneath this stone,” the inscription reads, “repose the bones of two thousand one hundred and eleven unknown soldiers . . . ”

Meigs's spite proved successful. Lee never returned to his old home. His widow came once, took one look at the graves and left without even climbing out of her carriage.

In 1877, Robert E. Lee's eldest son, George Washington Custis Lee, sued the U.S. government, seeking to recover his family estate. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld Lee's claim to the land. It was an amazing ruling in a world where winners seize the spoils of war: The court said, in essence, that the government can't confiscate a man's land simply because he'd led an army of rebellion against it. For George Lee, though, the victory was hollow. Not eager to live in a graveyard, he agreed to sell the land to the government for $150,000. By then, the old Lee plantation was home to hundreds of former slaves, many of whom had fled their masters in the chaos of war and headed for freedom in Washington. The government permitted them to live on cemetery property, and they built a village complete with a school, a church and a hospital. At its peak, this freedmen's village stretched from what is now the Tomb of the Unknowns to what is now the Pentagon. But the cemetery kept expanding, and by the turn of the century the village was history.

Today, the only sign of its existence is a small cluster of graves at the far northern end of the cemetery, in the Jim Crow section, where the United States Colored Troops — the black men who died fighting for the Union, and their families — are buried. Hard by the cemetery's brick wall, there are rows and rows of headstones, each identifying the occupant only as a “citizen”: Betty Jones, Citizen; Mary Brown, Citizen; J. Alfred, Citizen.

To cemetery historian Sherlock, that simple word represents the beginning of a revolution in the American mind. “When you see the word `citizen,' it's hard to realize everything that implies,” he says. “What a tribute to the disenfranchised to be called `citizen'! What a real sign of what the Civil War was fought for — to go from being called `slave' to being called `citizen.' This bitter war was fought to abolish slavery, and the blacks buried here had that wonderful word `citizen' on their headstones.”

Up in the sky, an angel watches over the affluent souls of the officer corps. It's a stone angel, clutching an anchor, perched atop a huge shaft that towers above the grave of Robert B. Watkins. There's another angel nearby, a human-size seraphim standing on the top step of the stone staircase leading to the huge cross that stands over the grave of Thomas Hudson McKee. These wildly opulent graves are clustered in Section 1 of the cemetery — the Officers Section — where veterans who died in the Gilded Age flaunted their wealth in one final gesture of conspicuous consumption. “They could afford to put up monuments to themselves,” Metzler says dryly, “and they did.”

These days, officers and enlisted men are buried together, and oversize gravestones aren't permitted in Arlington, but a century ago officers could put anything they wanted atop their graves, and some of them got carried away. These were the men who'd whipped the Rebels and conquered the Indians and then made a pile of money in the era of the robber barons and they damn well weren't going to spend eternity lying beneath a plain white, government-issued gravestone. Instead, they erected angels, obelisks, gargantuan crosses, replicas of the Washington Monument. Joseph Cates Ramsey was a colonel in the 7th Artillery, and before he died in 1890 he arranged to top his grave with a huge cannonball made of polished black marble. Wallace Fitz Randolph went Ramsey one better: He arranged to have an actual Civil War-era cannon mounted atop his eternal resting place. He told his wife that he'd slept under a cannon all his life and he wanted to be buried under one. She didn't spend her life sleeping under a cannon, but she's spending eternity under one anyway. So are their daughters.
A general with the wonderful name of Green Clay Smith is buried beneath a big, round, three-dimensional metal portrait of himself surrounded by metal laurel leaves. The caption, engraved in marble, reads: “Wise in Statecraft; Brave in War; Zealous in Church.” Looking into his stern, skeptical, squinting eyes, you believe it.

Nearby is the grave of an Indian fighter named Robert Goldthwaite Carter, topped by a five-foot-high monument that spells out his exploits in a long narrative etched in metal. It quotes liberally from the commendations he received: “Joint Resolution by legislature of State of Texas — expressing the `Grateful Thanks' of its people for `prompt action and gallant conduct in inflicting well-merited punishment upon these scourges (Indians) of our frontier,' etc.” It's probably the only epitaph in Arlington cemetery, maybe in any cemetery, that ends with “etc.”

Audie Murphy didn't want a huge monument on his grave, although he certainly deserved one. Murphy, a Texas boy who lied about his age to get into the Army, was the most decorated U.S. soldier in World War II. He won 20 combat medals, including the Congressional Medal of Honor, which he earned by climbing into a burning tank destroyer and single-handedly fighting off six German tanks with a machine gun, despite a wounded leg. He went on to star in a movie based on his life and then appeared in 40 other films. When he died in a plane crash in 1971, a lot of people wanted to erect an elaborate memorial on his grave at Arlington. His widow refused to permit it. She wouldn't even allow the gold leaf that traditionally gilds the graves of the men who won the Medal of Honor. Audie didn't want anything ostentatious, she explained, so he's buried under a simple white headstone, the one the government provides free to anybody buried at Arlington. That kind of humility is far more common than the Gilded Age braggadocio found in the Officers Section. Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, the only man since George Washington to hold the title General of the Armies, is also buried under a plain white stone. So is Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, the Medal of Honor winner who led the famous 1942 air raid on Tokyo. And Adm. Richard Byrd, the antarctic explorer. And Lee Marvin, the actor. There's a democracy of the dead at Arlington. Tom Sherlock remembers escorting a European defense minister around the cemetery. The man wanted to see the grave of Henry “Hap” Arnold, the five-star general known as the father of the U.S. Air Force. When Sherlock showed him Arnold's grave, topped with the standard government-issued stone, the visitor was shocked.

“This gentleman was so impressed that there wasn't an enormous tomb, just a small white headstone,” Sherlock recalls. “Two graves over is the grave of a private, and he couldn't believe that. He was very impressed. He said, `Rank has nothing to do with it here.' I said, `No, it doesn't.' ”

In Arlington National Cemetery, only one tomb is guarded with pomp and ritual, and that's the Tomb of the Unknowns. “We don't march in front of five-star generals' tombs,” Sherlock says. “We march in front of the tomb of four common soldiers.”

John Metzler stops his car at a field where grounds keepers are attacking the grass around the gravestones with roaring weed whackers. “This is an area I used to play in as a youngster,” he says. “This was all woods in here.”

That was back in the '50s and '60s, when his father, Jack Metzler, was the cemetery superintendent, and John and his three brothers grew up roaming the graveyard, playing tag among the tombstones, collecting the shells left after salutes were fired at funerals.

“The cemetery wasn't as developed as it is today,” Metzler says. “We played in the woods. Back then, the headstones used to come in wooden crates, so we'd pick up scrap pieces of wood, straighten out the nails and we'd have our building supplies and we'd build forts and treehouses in the woods.” Most of those woods are gone now, replaced by forests of marble. That was inevitable, given the reality of human mortality, but the process was hastened immeasurably by a bullet fired in Dallas in 1963.

“The event that thrust us into the national spotlight was the burial of President Kennedy in 1963,” Metzler says. “That took this cemetery out of its prior existence as just one of the national cemeteries.” The president's funeral was televised live and nearly everyone in America saw Jacqueline Kennedy, her face obscured with a black veil, clutching the flag from her husband's coffin, lighting the eternal flame over his grave. The television coverage served as an inadvertent advertisement for Arlington National Cemetery, instantly transforming it into Washington's busiest tourist attraction. In the year before the assassination, a million people came to Arlington; in the next six months, 9 million came. Five years later, the Kennedy grave site was still attracting 7 million people a year.

Many of those people were not satisfied with a brief visit. They wanted to remain in Arlington National Cemetery. Forever. The Kennedy charisma turned Arlington into America's favorite place to spend eternity. Requests for burials rose by 400 percent. It was too much to handle. In 1967, faced with filling all its empty space within a year, the cemetery had to tighten its entrance requirements: Instead of accepting any veteran with an honorable discharge, like every other national cemetery, Arlington was forced to limit burials to those who died in active duty, those who won high military honors or veterans with 20 years of active service. In 1980, the cemetery added a columbarium, where the cremated remains of any veteran with an honorable discharge can be interred. Those changes have enabled Arlington to remain a working cemetery. At the current rate — about 20 burials a day — the space is expected to last until 2020.

In 1991, after serving a tour of duty in Vietnam and an apprenticeship running national cemeteries in New Jersey, Arkansas and South Dakota, John Metzler took over his father's job as Arlington's superintendent. He soon learned that the toughest task is fending off folks who want him to bend the rules to admit their loved ones. It's the kind of problem familiar to Ivy League admissions officers and country club presidents, but not one he frequently faced back in Arkansas and South Dakota. “Everybody sees Arlington National Cemetery as the place where they'd like to see their loved ones interred,” he says. “And of course they use their congressman or senator or any influence they have at the Pentagon.” He smiles slightly, then returns to the careful understatement favored by the funeral trade. “From time to time,” he says, “it gets extremely difficult.”

The same mystique that draws tourists and mourners to Arlington occasionally attracts less desirable visitors, including the intoxicated and the insane. In 1972, a 23-year-old Army veteran from Michigan knelt down on Kennedy's grave and plunged a kitchen knife into his chest while tourists watched in horror. He died seven hours later.In 1981, someone sneaked into the cemetery at night and stole the plain white cross and the tombstone that marked the grave of Robert F. Kennedy. They were never recovered and the thief was never caught. One cold, rainy, winter morning in 1982, Sherlock found the burned corpse of a man lying in the eternal flame on Kennedy's grave. He was a Salvador an immigrant. He had been carrying a cigarette and a rolled-up newspaper. He was grotesquely burned. An autopsy determined that he'd died of a heart attack, that he'd been extremely intoxicated, that he'd been dead since the middle of the night. As near as Sherlock can figure, the man had had his heart attack while trying to ignite the newspaper so he could light his cigarette in the drenching rain.

Perhaps the strangest incident of all occurred in the spring of 1983, when a man with a gun took a guard hostage at the Tomb of the Unknowns. The cemetery had just closed when the man walked up to the guard. He was wearing a business suit and he was staggeringly drunk. He pulled out a pistol and held the guard prisoner for 10 minutes while he mumbled something about a military ceremony. Finally, another guard dropped a ceremonial sword, startling the intruder, and then wrestled him to the ground. The gunman turned out to be a car salesman from Virginia Beach, an Air Force veteran who'd served in Vietnam, a man who had been watching a video of “Apocalypse Now” over and over again. He told his wife that during his days in ‘Nam he'd been captured by the Viet Cong and held for days in a tiny box before he'd managed to escape. He wanted a medal for his exploits but the Air Force said it had no record of them. So he went to Arlington National Cemetery. “I was going to kill myself and I was going to do it there,” he told a reporter, from the hospital where he was placed under psychiatric observation. “Nobody would believe me about Vietnam. I thought maybe if I killed myself, why I was there would be recognized.”

The sun is beating down hard and hot, but under the big old oaks, the grass is dappled and damp and the air is cool. By the side of the road in Section 3 is a headstone, a little bigger than those around it. Into its marble face is etched one word: HERO. On the other side, there is a little more information:

Andrew Hero, III
Lieutenant Colonel
United States Army
Jan 16, 1910-Nov. 16 – 1943.

Overhead, a jet glides silently toward National Airport. A bird chirps in a tree. In the distance is the muffled sound of taps. Away from the Tourmobiles and the tourists, Arlington National Cemetery is as deserted and quiet as a church in the afternoon. “You can walk off the road a little bit,” says Sherlock, “and it's like you're in a forest. You'll come across a man or a woman standing alone at a grave and the birds are chirping and it's beautiful. To me, that's Arlington.” Sherlock has been working there for 22 years, half his life, but he still loves to explore the place. “I like to get off the beaten path and walk and read the headstones,” he says. “You see some incredible things. You'll see the name of a 20-year-old and you can tell by the dates that he died during the Normandy invasion. Or you'll see a date and you know he died during the Tet Offensive. For every general whose name you'd recognize, we have thousands of people who are heroes only to their families. That's what I like to look for when I walk around here. “Strolling around the cemetery one day, Sherlock saw a beer can on the grave of a man who died in the Persian Gulf War. He reached down and picked it up. It was full. There was a note attached to it, saying “I told you we would have a beer when you got home”. Sherlock put the beer back on the grave, with a mixed feeling of gratitude and pride.

The sun sets, taps sound, and another day is gone forever. The quiet is deafening.

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