Quietly and peacefully, Arlington remembers


One by one, tour buses pull up in front of the amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery on a sunny, warm day. Hundreds of people crowd toward the Tomb of the Unknowns to marvel at the stiff precision of the military honor guard as it changes every half-hour.

The tomb, which contains unknown servicemen from World War IWorld War II and the Korean War, is one of the two most popular stops for visitors to Arlington National Cemetery, along with the grave of President John F. Kennedy. Soldiers from the Army’s elite 3rd Infantry Regiment guard it 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, in any weather.

But all over Arlington are memorials that are themselves unknown, or overlooked as time draws us further away from the events they commemorate.

Uphill to the west of the Tomb of the Unknowns, for instance, are the graves of more than 150 other unknowns, marked by the mast of the ship in which they died, the USS Maine. Few of the thousands who witness the changing of the tomb guard will make the short walk to pay respects to the men of the Maine. Time has faded the memory of the February 15, 1898, explosion that destroyed the ship and propelled the United States into war with Spain.

    To the north of the amphitheater is a sarcophagus containing the remains of 2,111 unknown soldiers collected from the Civil War battlefields of Virginia and interred in September 1866 in what had been the rose garden of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s home.

Monday is Memorial Day, when the nation honors its war dead. And Arlington National Cemetery, where the holiday was born in 1868, is the principal keeper of their memories.

Today, in a ceremony known as “Flags In,” soldiers will decorate each of the more than 220,000 graves at Arlington with a small U.S. flag, ensuring none of the 260,000 fallen, some of them in mass graves, is forgotten on thisday. But as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the passing of aging World War II veterans add new names to the cemetery’s honor roll at the rate of 20 funerals a day, public attention turns away from past sacrifices.

“Time passes; it’s off the headlines; the veterans are no longer with us,” says Tom Sherlock, Arlington National Cemetery historian.

The explosion that destroyed the USS Maine in Havana harbor was the Pearl Harbor or September 11 of its era, Mr. Sherlock says. The destruction of the battleship and the loss of 266 lives spurred public anger against Spain to the point where the two nations went to war.

President William McKinley was one of 25,000 people who attended the December 28, 1899, funeral of the first 165 Maine casualties returned from Cuba to be buried at Arlington. They were the first U.S. servicemen brought home for burial from overseas.

The ship’s mainmast was dedicated in 1913 as a permanent memorial to the 266 who died, and now towers over the graves of 229 of them, only 62 of whom have been identified.

But the last Spanish-American War veteran died in 1992, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, and now “the general visiting public kind of looks on it as a curiosity,” Mr. Sherlock says.

At a 100th anniversary commemoration in 1998, speakers decried the lack of attention paid to the Maine.
“We are gathered at a location which few Americans even know exists,” retired Rear Admiral Morton E. Toole said. “But in its day, this was as sacred as the Vietnam Memorial wall is today.”

The unknowns of the Maine are among the 5,000 unknowns buried at Arlington. Most of them are from the Civil War, still the costliest conflict in U.S. history and the one that spawned Arlington National Cemetery.
After Lee refused President Abraham Lincoln’s offer to command the Union armies and instead joined the Confederacy, the U.S. government confiscated the estate of Lee’s wife, Mary Anna Custis Lee, where they had lived before the war.

Union Brigadier General Montgomery C. Meigs, a Southerner who hated the Confederate cause, on June 15, 1864, ordered the property be used as a military cemetery and sent for bodies to be buried near the Lees’ home so they could never return.

It was at Arlington that the first Memorial Day ceremony was held on May 30, 1868, in an amphitheater built for the purpose near the tomb of the Civil War unknowns. Then, the holiday was known as Decoration Day, and thousands would turn out to honor the dead and the surviving Civil War veterans.

But it has been very long since they received that much attention. On a recent weekend, only a few visitors struggled to read the faded inscription on the stone sarcophagus holding the Civil War unknowns. No honor guard kept vigil. There was only a note on a wind-whipped sheet of paper, pinned to the ground with a small U.S. flag, that said: “Thank you.”

Mr. Sherlock noted the Maine and Civil War monuments “don’t have the pomp” that you see at the Tomb of the Unknowns but they too honor those who lost their lives in service to their country.

West of the Lee mansion, the 32-foot-tall Confederate Monument towers over the graves of Civil War soldiers from the South, including that of its sculptor, Moses Ezekiel.

The monument sits unattended, except for an occasional robin perched on a gravestone. It’s so quiet, a visitor can hear the wind rattle the new leaves on nearby trees, and it’s hard to imagine the crowd of thousands who stood to hear President Woodrow Wilson declare “closed and ended” the divisions over the Civil War at its dedication in 1914.

Mr. Sherlock says the Confederate Monument, the Maine’s mast, and other older memorials at Arlington, share a similar fate: As time passes and those who remember age and die, the commemorations become fewer and farther apart. Many are now only remembered by groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which places a wreath at the Confederate Monument each year in June, he says.

The power of memory, he says, is evident near the amphitheater, where three similar-sized stone tablets stand side by side. The one in the middle commemorates the failed mission to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran on April 25, 1980, in which eight servicemen died. On each side are memorials to the lost crews of two U.S. space shuttles, the Challenger on the left and the Columbia on the right.

“Those are visited quite heavily” because people still remember those events and participants are still alive to pay respects to fallen comrades, Mr. Sherlock says.

“That’s a life-altering event. That’s something you never forget,” he says of the Iran rescue mission.

Near the old cemetery administration building, a Scottish cairn of 270 stones, one for each victim, honors those killed in the December 21, 1988, bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 by Libyan intelligence agents over Lockerbie, Scotland. Each year, families of those killed gather for a memorial, and the controversy over Libya’s responsibility for the attack has kept the name of Flight 103 in the headlines.

In contrast, the Coast Guard cutter Tampa is just a footnote in history. And the pyramid that sits atop a hill near the southern edge of the cemetery does not contain the remains of the 115 killed when the cutter was torpedoed by a German submarine in World War I, Mr. Sherlock says.

“Actually they’re probably still with the ship,” he says. “Time has erased all this, but imagine if this were to happen today,” he said.

Nearby is the 5-foot-tall octagon on which is inscribed the names of the 250 men who died January 29, 1945, in the explosion of the ammunition ship USS Serpens off the Pacific island of Guadalcanal. The remains are underneath, but they are buried together in 52 caskets, because it was impossible to identify each individual in an era before DNA was discovered, Mr. Sherlock says.

With the nation’s 4 million living World War II veterans dying at the rate of more than 1,000 a day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, eventually there will be no one left to remember what happened during the years between the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941 and the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay in 1945.
But those memories, too, will find a home at Arlington, just as those of the past have done, Mr. Sherlock says.

“These are all huge events that now are quietly and peacefully remembered,” he says.

Ceremonies honor those who served

This Memorial Day weekend will be a full one at Arlington National Cemetery, beginning today and running through the holiday on Monday. For details call 703/607-8000 or see www.arlingtoncemetery.org. Here’s a guide to events:


Flags In: 5 p.m. This Memorial Day remembrance, in which troops place American flags on the more than 220,000 graves in the cemetery, has been an annual tradition since the Third U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) was named the Army’s official ceremonial unit in 1948. This year will be the second year that members of each branch of the armed forces place the flags.


14th Air Force Association “Flying Tigers”: 9:15 a.m., Old Amphitheater. Members of this World War II veterans’ organization will conduct a memorial service and wreath-laying ceremony to commemorate their fallen comrades.

Rolling Thunder’s “Run for the Wall”: 11:35 a.m., Tomb of the Unknowns. Members of this veterans’ organization will ride 200,000 motorcycles across the country to honor their comrades from the Vietnam War. The 10-day trip ends at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and includes a wreath-laying ceremony at the cemetery.


John F. Kennedy birthday commemoration: 8:30 a.m., John F. Kennedy grave site. An Armed Forces Full Honors Wreath Ceremony will mark the 35th president’s 88th birthday.

101st Airborne Division Association: 11 a.m., 101st Airborne Division Memorial. Members of the “Screaming Eagles” will pay tribute to their fallen comrades with a wreath-laying and remembrance ceremony on Memorial Drive.

Memorial Day, Monday

Ceremony in honor of America’s fallen heroes: 11 a.m., Tomb of the Unknowns and Memorial Amphitheater. This marks the 137th observance of Memorial Day at the cemetery. Host is Major General Galen B. Jackman, Commanding General of the U.S. Army Military District of Washington and Joint Force Headquarters, National Capital Region.

A wreath will be laid at the Tomb of the Unknowns. A remembrance ceremony will follow in the Memorial Amphitheater. Opening the event will be a prelude concert by the U.S. Air Force Band at 10:20 a.m. inside the amphitheater.

Both ceremonies are free and open to the military community and general public. No tickets are required.

Heightened security measures will require attendees to pass through a checkpoint to gain access to the ceremony site.

Attendees are encouraged to arrive early. Cemetery gates open at 8 a.m., when a free shuttle service will begin transporting people from the visitors’ center to the amphitheater. Attendees will be admitted into the ceremony site at about 8:30 a.m.

Drivers may park free in the visitors’ center parking garage until 1 p.m. Metrorail will operate all day.


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