Final Home of Heroes

In the green, serene and historic graveyard of about 200 acres and 260, 000 graves that is Arlington National Cemetery, perhaps the most impressive site is one of the tens of thousands of common soldiers' markers, well away from the bustle of the Tomb of the Unknowns or the much-visited graves of martyred President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Here lies General of the Armies John J. Pershing, commander of all U.S. forces in France during World War I, one of the nation's greatest military heroes and a man who could have chosen burial under one of Arlington's hundreds of grand tombstones and in one of the prime locations of a site known as “our nation's most sacred shrine.”

Instead, Pershing — who died at age 87 in 1948 — chose a humble burial in a rarely visited corner of Arlington, on a rolling field of the simple white markers of soldiers from his great war and from the nation's subsequent battles. Next to him lies his grandson, Army Second Lieutenant Richard Pershing, killed at age 26 in Vietnam in 1968.

This glimpse into the personality of Pershing, who held a rank so high that he shared it only with General George Washington, is only one of an endless slew of fascinating bits and pieces that a historically minded visitor to Arlington can glean by employing a little planning and lots of shoe leather. Arlington is primarily a military cemetery, open under a long list of rules to active and retired members of the Armed Forces and winners of top military medals, but it's also open to the nation's presidents, who after all are the military's commanders in chief. The widows and non-adult children of all those people can also be buried at Arlington.

The list also includes members of Congress and Supreme Court justices.

The 141-year-old military cemetery, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., is one of the capital area's most visited landmarks, but it's clear from following the crowds that most people barely scratch the surface. Visitors who want to explore the past for free could spend all day at Arlington, whose gates are open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. in summer months, or at least as long as their feet hold out and as long as they can put up with the area's steamy summer heat.

Many visitors choose to cheat by buying tickets on the Washington Tourmobile, a great way to see all the main sites in Washington and at Arlington. The Arlington portion alone costs $6 for adults and $3 for kids 3 to 11. That covers a 40-minute narrated tour with stops at the Kennedy grave, the solemn Tomb of the Unknowns and the Custis-Lee Mansion, which passed from the family of George Washington through marriage to General Robert E. Lee, who left it in 1861 as the Civil War broke out and never returned.

Passengers can get on and off the Tourmobile, cutting down on the walking but still allowing for individual exploration.

The best place to begin for the first-time visitor, or even an Arlington veteran, is at the modern visitors center, home to restrooms, drinking fountains, a video show, a small gift shop, the Tourmobile ticket windows, free brochures that list many of the cemetery's top attractions and an office where clerks will help locate the grave of anyone interred in the cemetery.

Just fill out a form and pass it over to an attendant.

“Dashiell Hammett,” I wrote, seeking the grave of the writer who immortalized the hard-boiled detective and San Francisco in a series of novels. Lesser known is the fact that Hammett, who served in World War I, enlisted in the Army during World War II at age 48 and served two years in the remote Aleutian Islands editing an Army newspaper.

A few minutes later the clerk reported back that she couldn't locate a grave for Dashiell Hammett, but she had found the resting place of Samuel Dashiell Hammett in Section 12, Lot 508. That's him, so I noted down the location.

I followed up with a few other famous Americans who aren't listed in the Arlington brochure — Civil War General Philip Sheridan, Abner Doubleday — who either did or didn't invent baseball — President Abraham Lincoln's son Robert Todd Lincoln and World War II Flying Tigers commander Claire Chennault.

With their locations in hand, I could see I was in for a lot of trekking. While I looked at the cemetery map to devise a route, I wandered across to the gift shop and found the mother lode of Arlington info. “Arlington National Cemetery: Shrine to America's Heroes” by James Edward Peters sells for $15.95 and is worth it as a guide to the hundreds of famous people buried in the grounds, along with their brief biographies.

I demurred, knowing that in search of the handful of graves I had pinpointed I would stumble upon a panoply of unexpected history along the way.

It didn't take long to prove my point.

On the way to the Kennedys' grave site, I wandered across a stretch of lawn and bumped into the grave of Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, of Roe vs. Wade fame. It turns out he is joined in a row of recent liberal justices by Thurgood Marshall, Potter Stewart and William Brennan.

A sudden muffled crash broke the hush, and it was repeated twice. From the distance came the shots of a burial honor guard from the Third Army Infantry Regiment, known as the Old Guard, performing a rite that's done in the cemetery's newer sections some 20 times a day. Burials include old veterans and young soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Near the justices is their former chief justice, Warren Burger, and the great Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

I learned later that in another section of the cemetery rests probably the most famous Californian in Arlington, former Alameda County district attorney Earl Warren, who rose to become California governor and U.S. chief justice.

Moving on to the Kennedy grave site, which features a panoramic view of Washington to the east, with the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument and Capitol and Library of Congress domes vying to fill cameras' viewfinders, I joined a crowd of young and old, Americans and foreigners, all suddenly hushed.

An eternal flame, lit when JFK was interred on November 25, 1963, still marks the spot. To his left is his glamorous wife, who died in 1994. Completing the sad family tableau are the graves of two of the couple's children who died in infancy: Patrick Kennedy, who lived for just two days in 1963 before his father was shot down in Dallas, and an unnamed girl who was born and died on August 23, 1956.

A little to the west is the grave of JFK's brother, Robert F. Kennedy, assassinated in Los Angeles in June 1968. The grave of RFK, the only one in Arlington marked by a simple white cross, has been adopted by good-luck seekers who leave coins at the site (against cemetery rules).

The climb continued to the Custis-Lee Mansion, also known as Arlington House, which was the center of a plantation and its slaves before the Civil War and the federal government's seizure of the land in 1864.

It's open, with National Park Service Rangers on hand, for self-guided or guided tours of the home decorated roughly the way Lee left it as he departed for war. My favorite room is the first-floor Morning Room, which was originally a painting studio used by the father of Lee's wife, who was a descendant of Martha Washington.

A huge battlefield mural of General George Washington sits on the studio's wooden floors, well-worn like the floors throughout the two-story mansion.

The mansion sits amid the cemetery's oldest sections, and as I continued farther up the hill I came upon a grave that offered a speck of the cross- pollination visitors can enjoy by spending time in the Washington area's multitude of museums and historical sites.

Sheridan's monument, featuring a bas-relief likeness of the Union cavalry commander, reminded me that the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History has a new exhibition on the military that features Sheridan's fabled horse Winchester, also known as Rienzi. Sheridan rode the big, black Morgan gelding during the Civil War from 1862 onward. When the horse died in 1878, he was stuffed and put on display for many years. Now he's back and looking regal as a star of the Smithsonian show.

Continuing to poke around, I climbed farther, to the mast of the USS Maine, the battleship whose mysterious sinking in Havana harbor in 1898 led to the Spanish-American War.

The mast, set in a memorial on one of the cemetery' highest points, was the site of one of Arlington's most unusual burials, marked now by plaques. The great concert pianist and Polish patriot Ignace Jan Paderewski was temporarily placed in the memorial when he died in 1941. He specified that he wanted his body returned to Poland only when his homeland, then under Nazi occupation, was again free.

Paderewski, born in 1860, was one of the original long-hair popular idols. As UC Berkeley students know from their fight song “Golden Bear,” written in 1895, the California bear “wears a Paderewski hair, ‘rewski hair.”

Eventually, Poland gained freedom as the Cold War ended, and in 1992 Paderewski was disinterred and reburied with great ceremony in Warsaw. Part of him remained in America, however. His heart was moved to a memorial in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

From there I meandered to the Tomb of the Unknowns, resting place of unknown soldiers from the two world wars and the Korean War selected to represent all those whose remains couldn't be identified. Guarded around the clock by Old Guard soldiers in their sharpest dress uniforms, it's Arlington's most solemn spot.

The guards' drill: 21 steps in one direction, with a sharp stop, snap of the boots' steel heels, turn, reverse shoulder arms and 21 steps in the other direction.

School groups can sign up to place wreaths at the tomb, and when they do a bugler and an officer take center stage for ceremonies. “Military personnel will remove their hats and all others will kindly place their hand over their hearts at the command, ‘Present arms,' the young officer instructed the throng.

The wreaths were laid and the plaintive notes of Taps filled the silence.

On my way out of Arlington, I went to Section 12 in search of Hammett, who went to jail in the post-World War II witch hunts rather than name any of his fellow leftists. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover didn't think Hammett should be buried at Arlington, but he lost.

Passing long rows of thousands of numbered gravestones, I finally found him. I was glad to see that others had also made the pilgrimage, and had left a few stones atop his marker.

I found my own good-sized stone on the ground and placed it atop Hammett's grave to mark my own pilgrimage in memory of one free-spirited San Franciscan.

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