Over 260,000 men and women are buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Many of those interred died defending the United States and the cause of freedom. Numerous historical figures and casualties from every major American conflict dating back from the revolutionary war have found their final resting place inside Arlington's walls.
Arlington National Cemetery historian Tom Sherlock was online to answer questions about the history of the cemetery, the historical figures buried there and the day to day operations of the cemetery itself.
The transcript follows.
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Wesley Hights: Mr. Sherlock, What are some of the disrespectful BUT hopefully unintended actions that tourists/visitors seem to repeatedly do within the cemetary that you would like to find a way to prevent?
Often I know that protocol, etiquette or simply the desire to not make a situation worse do not allow some actions to be corrected on the spot. Thanks for keeping our men and women remembered and cared for!
Tom Sherlock: The most often repeated situation is simply people being too loud during honors. They dont intend any disrespect, but their actions somewhat interfere with what is happening. But all in all, most people are very respectful, they act as if they are in a place of worship
Washington, D.C.: Hi
What famous movies were filmed at Arlington?
Was Gardens of Stone filmed there? How about Courage Under Fire? Do you often receive requests from Hollywood for permission to film? Thanks
Tom Sherlock: There have been a number of films shot here. The most extensive was Gardens of Stone, but we have also helped with the “First Monday in October”, some Billy Jack movies, and “Clear and Present Danger”. The scene in Courage under fire was filmed at a national cemetery in California. We generally recieve two to three requests a year for movie production in Arlington. After approval by the Department of Defense, we will help
Delray, Va.: Do either you or Arlington National Cemetery conduct tours? I know there are private tour groups that will do this (as well as Tourmobile, which I am not terribly fond of), but are there “official” tours of the cemetery?
Tom Sherlock: Unfortunately, we do not have the staff here to acomodate requests for tours. However, the Military District of Washington Public Affairs will arrange special visits for Educational groups and school students. You can contact them at (202) 685-4645
Arlington, Va.: I was intrigued when I came across the grave of William Jennings Bryan, the man who resigned as Secretary of State because he believed that Wilson was leading America into war. He is also listed as a Colonel in the Nebraska National Guard. Are there any other significant anomalous burials in the Cemetery?
Tom Sherlock: There are many individuals interred in Arlington that are famous for events other than service in the military. These include Joe Louis, the Heavyweight boxing Champion, George Westinghouse, the inventor, and Walter Reed, who found th ecure to yellow fever
Laurie: After hearing the tail end of a radio interview you did last year, I visited The Cemetery on the Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend and was in awe. How many volunteers are involved in the placing of the flags and when did this start?
Tom Sherlock: We use the 3d US Infantry Regiment to decorate the gravesites here in Arlington. It requires approximately 1,200 soldiers to place over 240,000 American flags on the graves. They accomplish this task in approximately 3 to 4 hours
Arlington, Va.: I have heard that the Old Guard patrols the Tomb of the Unknowns 24 hours a day. Is this true? Do they perform the same ceremony during the guard change? What happens in inclimate weather?
Tom Sherlock: The guard at the Tomb was established as a 24 hour watch on July 1, 1937. Since that time there has not been one second the Tomb has not been guarded. It is done in all kinds of weather. During the night hours, the Guard Change is somewhat diferent, but in no means relaxed
Annapolis, Md.: Thanks for taking my question.
I understand that there are graves dating back to the Revolutionatry War. How can this be, since the land did not become a graveyard until the 1860's?
Tom Sherlock: The soldiers from the Revolution and the War of 1812 were reinterred in Arlington after we became a cemetery. Arlington is the only national cemetery to have soldiers and sailors from every war the US has fought, from the Revolution to Desert Storm
Sacramento, Calif.: Did the federal government ever pay the Lee family for turning his estate into a national cemetery?
Tom Sherlock: Eventually, the son of Robert E. Lee, George Washington Parke Custis Lee, brought suit against the US Government. In 1882 the Supreme Court ruled in the Lee's favor, and one year later they settled for the market value of the Estate, $150,000
Washington, D.C.: Hello. There was a controversy about the former ambassador who was buried although he never served in the Merchant Marines. Does your office check with the St. Louis Personnel Records Center to see if someone actually served in the military?
Tom Sherlock: The service of all veterans interred in Arlington is verified through military records by the staff here at Arlington. In the case you refere to a Presidential Authorization was granted to the Ambassador, so a check of his service record was not required
Silver Spring, Md.: My grandfather, Jack Urquhart, served in an Army cavalry unit in the Phillipines during the Spanish-American War. He and my grandmother are buried at Arlington, and I would like to obtain a pass so that I can drive my mother to her parents’ gravesite. Where would I write to get one and what documentation do I need to provide that I am indeed a family member of someone buried there? Thanks.
Tom Sherlock: Simply come to our Visitors Center, they will provide you with a temporary pass to visit the grave and give you a form to fill out and return to us. We will mail you a permanent pass at that time
Herndon, Va.: Mr. Sherlock: What are the long-term plans for the cemetery? When will burials have to be restricted to the most “deserving,” such as presidents, national heroes, etc.?
Tom Sherlock: At the present rate of burial, 27 a day, we have land for approximately 25 more years. There are no plans to further restrict the eligibility criteria, in fact, the changes in recent years have been to make more veterans eligible
Washington, D.C.: Who decided to allow Tourmobile trams into the cemetery. I have found the tour guides to be varied in their knowledge and depth of the cemetery and find them horribly distracting. Do the guides have to be certified? Does the army have anything to do with their involvement?
Tom Sherlock: The Tourmobile is a concessionaire with the US Park Service. We have oversight over the script which is used at Arlington. I review it to make sure it is historically accurate, but do not have direct involvement with their guides
Cathedral Ave: Are the rifles loaded that the soldiers carry while guarding the Tomb? And has there ever been any threats or demonstrations or vandalism in the cemetary? Perhaps during the 60s and 70s or recently?
Tom Sherlock: The rifles carried at the Tomb are not loaded. Individuals who visit the Tomb act very respectfully. Vandalism, I am happy to say, is non-existant in this national shrine
Somewhere, USA: What are some of the biggest myths about the cemetery? (I am thinking of the one about the confederate headstones being pointed so union soldiers can't sit on them)
Tom Sherlock: The biggest myth is that we no longer bury servicemembers here, we are very much an active cemetery and average 27 burials a day
Rockville, Md.: I know this may seem like a silly question, but is the eternal flame at JFK's grave lit 24hrs a day and even during inclement weather?
Tom Sherlock: The flame does burn 24 hours a day, but obviously it is only as “eternal” as anything man made can be. There are times we need to shut it off for maintenance, but inclement weather will not extinguish the flame
Alexandria, Va.: Who designed the Confederate War Memorial? I find that section of the cemetery to be some of the most interesting.
Tom Sherlock: The memorial was designed by Sir Moses Ezekial, who served in Company K of the Corps of Cadets, VMI, at the battle of New Market. He is interred at the base of the memorial
Hamburg, N.Y.: I have visited Arlington National Cemetery for several years now on and around July 4th. In the Visitors' Center, there is a large photograph of Jackie Kennedy and family at the gravesite on the day that John F. Kennedy was laid to rest. Jackie O. is clearly, visibly grieving. I have noticed that this photo always seems to be taken down from the wall on July 4th. Is it put out-of-view for some reason on this day? Has there been an interesting coincidence re: this photo for these past several years on July 4th? What's the story?
— Just curious (and, I love Arlington Cemetery)
Tom Sherlock: The photograph of Mrs Kennedy at the funeral of President Kennedy is continuously on display. It has only been removed when we paint the walls of the Visitors Center
Virginia: Although I have lived in Virginia for over 15 years, I have never visited the cemetery. Shame on me.
Tom Sherlock: Shame on You, please come and visit the cemetery, there is much to learn from its history and beauty
Annapolis, Md.: I have a great-great uncle buried in Arlington. I know his full name, that he was buried sometime in the mid-50s, and that he was a career Marine officer. Is there anyplace online that I can find the location of his burial site?
Tom Sherlock: Unfortunately, all the records are not yet automated. We are working towards that and last year launched our website. www.Arlingtoncemetery.org. You can obtain your great uncle's burrial site by visiting our visitors center
Harrisonburg, Va.: What are the current requirements to be buried in Arlington Cemetery? Did this change as the cemetery became popular?
Tom Sherlock: The eligibility criteria is quite unique at Arlington. To view the criteria on-line, visit www.arlingtoncemetery.org
Fairfax, Va.: How often are the exhibits in the Visitor's Center updated? I know the Kennedy Funeral is on permanent exhibition, but are there any displays that we should direct our attention to?
Tom Sherlock: Most of the exhibits are permanent, however, we dedicated a “TAPS” exhibit last year and will have exhibits commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Korean Conflict on display the next two years
Austin, Tex.: How is the Women's Military Memorial coming along?
Tom Sherlock: The WIMSA memorial is now complete, and has become a popular site for visitors to the cemetery
Somewhere, USA: What is your favorite section of the cemetery?
Tom Sherlock: Section 1, it is approximately 6 acres and has servicemembers buried there from every war the US have fought, from the Revolution thru Desert Storm
Tom Sherlock: This weekend is the Memorial Day weekend, events honoring our war dead will be conducted all weekend. To attend the Memorial Day event on Monday, simply come to our Visitors Center, take advantage of our free shuttle to the Memoiral Amphitheater, and we will return you to the visitors center. Plan on being here by 9:30, the events begin at 11:00 am
Arlington, Va.: Are there any good stories associated with the Lee House?
Tom Sherlock: It was in that house that Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee made his decision to resign his commission from the US Army, and ultimately fight for the Confederacy
Somewhere, USA: Are all of those buried in Arlington U.S. citizens?
Tom Sherlock: No, the are nearly 60 foriegn nationals interred in Arlington, most are allies who died in air disasters with American Servicemen, three are POW's, one German and two Italians
Ballston: Has there ever been any discussion to move the tomb of the unknown soldier from the American Revolutionary War from Alexandria to Arlington National Cemetery? How is it that there is no representative of unknowns at Arlington from that war?
Tom Sherlock: It requires Congressional Authorization to inter a soldier at the Tomb of the Unknowns, and no legislation has been enacted to inter an unknown from the wars prior to World War I
New York, N.Y.: How many visitors visit the cemetery? When is a good time to go?
Tom Sherlock: We recieve approximately 4 1/2 million visitors a year. An especially nice time to visit is October, the cemetery is beautiful, the weather is cool, and the number of visitors is less
Unknown Soldiers — symbolism: I've visited the cemetary and watched the continuous march of the honor guard in front of the tomb of the unknowns… What is the symbolic meaning behind thier movements — which are very unique. Thanks!
Tom Sherlock: The soldiers will take twenty one paces down the mat, and then pause for twenty-one seconds, this is all symbolic of the 21 gun salute. Also, the rifle is always carried on the shoulder farthest from the Tomb, signifying he is guarding against an incursion upon the Tomb
Washington State: Is there still a Vietnam veteran in the Tomb of the Unkowns?
Tom Sherlock: The Unkown from Vietnam was exhumed from the Tomb in May of 1998. He was identified as Captain Michael Blassie, and in accordance with his families wishes, was buried in the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery near St Louis, MO. Th eextensive use of DNA evidence by the Armed Forces may preclude another unknown from being interred at the Tomb
USA: Are the guards from the Tomb of the Unknowns really selected by height?
Tom Sherlock: There is a height requirement of 5'10”, the squads are determined by the height of the soldier
Wesley Hghts: How come enemy POWs were permitted to be buried in Arlington?
Tom Sherlock: The POW's died while in captivity in the Washington DC area, and following international treaties, were given a proper burial. Arlington was used because it was the closest national cemetery
Tom Sherlock: Thank you for your questions, it is time for me to get back to work getting ready for the Memorial Day Weekend, I wish everyone a safe and enjoyable holiday, but please take a moment to reflect on the real meaning of Memorial Day, and remember those who have died for our country.
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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