WASHINGTON (Army News Service) — For some soldiers life's a circle. They do their duty and in time they move on to greener pastures. But someday, somehow, they always seem to go back to the beginning.
Retired Master Sgt. William Daniel returned to the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery Nov. 1, partly out of sense of duty, partly as a way to close a chapter in his life. He was giving something back to the Army that meant so much to him for so long.
He was returning his tomb badge.
The 71-year-old Daniel has the distinct honor of being the first soldier awarded the prestigious tomb badge. He received the award in February of 1958. After almost 40 years, he felt it was time to return it to the soldiers who guard the tomb today.
“It was an honor that I never thought I'd be lucky enough to receive,” the Lawrenceville, Va., native said. “I love the badge and I love the military,” Daniel said with a slight southern drawl. “It's just as much of a pleasure to turn in the badge as it was to receive it.”
According to Daniel, the idea of returning the badge came about on his last visit to Arlington in 1980. He came to lay a wreath at the tomb. “I heard one or two fellas talking about the badge, and I felt it would be better off here,” Daniel said. A few years had passed and Daniel made a call to the 3rd U.S. Infantry (The Old Guard) Public Affairs Office.
Pfc. Jon Christ fielded the call and passed Daniel's request to The Old Guard commander, Col. David H. Huntoon. Getting the go-ahead from Huntoon, Christ arranged for Daniel to lay a wreath at the tomb and to return his badge to the silent sentries at the Tomb Quarters. “It was a very symbolic event,” Christ said.
“The two of them [Christ and Daniel] thought it would be very beneficial to have it here as an inspiration to others,” said Carolyn Daniel, the veteran's wife.
Daniel was assigned to the Old Guard in 1956. In 1957, he became the sergeant of the guard. The sergeant of the guard is responsible for the selection, training, performance and supervision of all tomb guards, Daniel said. The tradition of guarding the tomb by the military has been around since July 2, 1937.
Some of the things Daniel said he looked for in potential sentries were commitment, firmness and attitude. “You gotta want to be here,” he said. “You can't be wishy-washy.” he said. “Attitude man, that's what it takes; the right attitude.”
Not much if anything has changed since Daniel's time at the Tomb. “It's the same sequence, no change,” he said emphatically. However, Daniel did recall that tomb guards used to guard the Army chief of staff's house. “We used it as a stepping stone to move onto the Unknowns,” he added.
During his three-year duty at the cemetery, Daniel said no one day was more important than May 30, 1958. On that Memorial Day the two unknowns from World War II and the Korean War were interred. “I'm going to say that was the biggest event in the history of this cemetery,” Daniel said.
“Now, I know you've got secretaries of state, President John F. Kennedy and [other] high-ranking people buried here, but two unknown men that fought for this country? We knew who Kennedy was. We knew who the other people were, but we didn't know these guys, and they died for this country,” he said. “That's what makes the difference,” Daniel said, his weathered face fighting back tears.
Daniel said he is fiercely proud to have served in the United States Army. It has provided him with many memories. After retiring in 1965 with 22 years of active-duty service, Daniel put in 10 more years as a Reserve Officer Training Corps instructor in Birmingham, Ala.
Daniel was lucky he even made it that far, because on July 4, 1944, he was captured in St. Lo, France, during the breakout offensive following D-Day. “The Fourth of July is not a lucky day for me,” Daniel said. After a momentary pause, Daniel talked of how a vast amount of men in his unit were lost that day. It was 11 months before Daniel was free. He said he and a few foreign allied soldiers escaped, but wouldn't elaborate on how.
Now residing on a three and a half-acre farm in Glade Valley, N.C., Daniel basks in the glory of retirement. He enjoys playing his bluegrass music on his guitar and singing with his wife. His gift back to the tomb guards will rest in a display case in the Tomb Quarters. He has come full circle in life, and so has the badge that he first wore.
Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard