Tomb Guards mark 50 years of silent sentry

by Spc. Eric Dyson

FORT MYER, Va., (Army News Service, April 17, 1998) – Fifty years of silent vigil at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery was marked this month with a reunion of more than 150 sentinels.

A salute in the halls of Congress began the commemoration with a ceremony April 2 honoring the 35 current Tomb Guards of the 3rd U.S. Infantry. The Old Guard assumed 24-hour vigil duty at the Tomb in April 1948.

Retired Navy Capt. Bill Perry called the Tomb of the Unknowns, “A piece of the soul of America.” He said, “The heart of every veteran carries a piece of what the Tomb symbolizes. For 50 years, the sentinels have stood watch in silent vigil, in days and nights of snow, rain or wind, all in noble service at a noble site.”

The ceremony in the historic Caucus Room of the Russell Senate Office Building was sponsored by the Congressional Medal of Honor Society and No Greater Love, an organization dedicated to the remembrance of fallen service members and care for their families.

“I had to do something to give back to the sentinels who volunteer to preserve the tradition, dignity and respect of the Tomb,” said Carmella LaSpada, founder of No Greater Love.

More than 150 past and present sentinels of the Tomb of the Unknowns gathered at the Fort Myer's NCO/Enlisted Club's Spates Hall April 4 for a luncheon that kicked off the reunion weekend. Spates Hall is named for Staff Sgt. William Spates, a former Tomb Guard, who was killed in action in Vietnam.

Some former Tomb Guards came from as far away as California and Florida to see old friends and make new ones.

“It is perfect that the Tomb Guards should gather together in a hall named for one of them,” said Richard A. Azzaro, a sentinel from 1963 to 1965. He was a sentinel the same time as Spates and has fond memories of him. “He was a sentinel through and through; but when the opportunity arose to serve his country in Vietnam, he volunteered,” Azzaro said. Azzaro also recalled being on duty at the Tomb when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Sentinels from each decade were present. George J. Koch, the oldest sentinel present at the reunion served in 1941, long before The Old Guard officially took over. Retired Master Sgt. William E. Daniel was on hand to celebrate the reunion as well. Daniel was the first soldier to be awarded the Tomb Guard Identification Badge, in 1948, and the first African-American Tomb Guard, Fred Moore, was also at the reception.

During the weekend, the sentinels visited the Tomb of the Unknowns and toured the sentinels' quarters. They participated in a memorial service for fallen Tomb Guards and for the Unknowns who lie in the crypts. They were also honored at a special dinner in Spates Hall with Maj. Gen. Robert F. Foley, commander of the Military District of Washington, as guest speaker. Spc. Frederick Davis was guest of honor as the newest Tomb Guard. On the previous Thursday, he had taken and passed the test to become a badge holder. He received his badge from the first badge holder, Daniel.

At the Capitol, No Greater Love and the Medal of Honor Society presented the sentinels with tokens of their appreciation. “I thought it fitting that the sentinels should be honored by Medal of Honor recipients, as each of the Unknown Soldiers has been awarded the medal,” LaSpada said.

Mort Walker, creator of the Beetle Bailey comic strip and member of the board of directors of No Greater Love, crafted a special drawing to commemorate the 50th anniversary.

Medal of Honor awardees Foley, retired Marine Col. Barney Barnum and retired Air Force Col. Leo K. Thorsen presented the personalized drawings to each of the sentinels on hand that morning. They also acknowledged the sentinels who could not be present because of their duty of guarding the Tomb.

U.S. Senator J. Robert Kerrey from Nebraska, himself a Medal of Honor recipient, was also on hand to celebrate the accomplishments of the Tomb Guards. “We are indeed grateful to the sentinels for reminding us of the importance of union, on behalf of the heroes: alive, dead, and unknown,” Kerrey said after being greeted with a standing ovation. He expressed his pride and gratitude for the vigilance of the Tomb Guards.

Barnum charged the sentinels with thinking of the impact they have on the lives of children and everyone who visits the tomb and witnesses their silent duty. He said his role models were the sentinels of the Tomb.

(Editor's note: Dyson is a writer with the Old Guard Public Affairs Section, Fort Myer, Va. The World War I Unknown Soldier was buried at the Tomb on Memorial Day 1921. Old Guard soldiers assumed vigil duty April 6, 1948.)

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