William Richard Spates, Jr. – Sergeant, United States Army


SSG William R. Spates, Sr.

8 September 1939 – 25 October 1965
1st Relief Commander (64-65)
Killed in Action in Vietnam
Buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Section 27

William Spates was born on September 8, 1939.  He became a member of the Army while in Kensington, Maryland and attained the rank of SSGT (E6).

On October 25, 1965 at the age of 26, William Spates gave his life in the service of our country in South Vietnam.

You can find William Spates honored on the Vietnam Memorial Wall on Panel 2E, Row 134.

Courtesy of The Pentagram:

November 15, 2002
Guardians of the Unknowns return
By Dennis Ryan, Pentagram staff writer

William Spates was a history buff and native Washingtonian, who loved performing his duties at Arlington National Cemetery. It is fitting then that he is buried within sight of the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Staff Sergeant William Spates served as a tomb sentinel relief commander from 1964 to 1965 before duty in Vietnam. It was there on October 25, 1965 Spates became the first tomb guard killed in action at the age of 26.

Sergeant Marvin Franklin, another tomb sentinel who died in Vietnam in October of 1967, Spates and all sentinels were honored Sunday morning at Arlington with a wreath laying and a memorial service at the cemetery’s beautiful old amphitheater. The Society of the Honor Guards for the Tomb of the Unknowns conducted the events.

The inscription on the side of the Tomb of the Unknown reads “Here Rests In Honored Glory An American Soldier Known But To God.”

Only 80 percent of those who try out for sentinels pass the strenuous requirements.

The sentinels guard the tomb 24 hours a day, year-round. Their precisely measured 21-step walk has become one of the leading tourist attractions in Washington.

The sentinel faces the tomb for 21 seconds before resuming the march down the 63-foot walkway. The number 21 corresponds to the highest possible salute given to dignitaries. The guard is changed every hour.

James Spates, 62, a retired career soldier who spent 23 years in the Army, wore his brother’s uniform Sunday.

“We were very close,” James Spates said. “What you call Irish twins, he was only 10 and a half months older. He had three brothers and all four were in the Army. Dad was a World War II marine. He had a sign over the bar in the basement, ‘it takes one marine to make four soldiers.'”

David Woods of Austin, Texas, a sentinel from ’64-’65 served with Spates.

“He was a fun loving guy, a regular military person,” Woods said. “But he had a great sense of humor. He was real supportive of everything we did.”

Woods, who went to Texas Tech after his service time and became a teacher and tennis coach, looks back fondly on his time as an Old Guard Tomb sentinel.

“I think it was the focal point of my life,” he said. “It gave you the feeling you could accomplish anything. It really imbued me with a sense of history.”

Richard Azzaro, president and one of the founders of the society, served as a sentinel from March of 1963 to April of 1965 and witnessed much change. There were about eight burials a week when he began and by the end of his tour there were 15 burials a day.

“It was a combination of Vietnam and the assassination of President Kennedy,” Azzaro said. “It was really stressful on the infrastructure that was in place.”

Azzaro worked as a police officer while attending law school and is now the general counsel for the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.

Spc. Daniel Schumann is a current sentinel who was recently elected to the board of directors of the society.

The society hopes to help preserve the tomb and to educate the public about it and the actions of its guardians.

“It’s a very big honor,” Schumann said. “It is not only for something that will preserve history, but it will preserve a legacy.”

Mary Spates, mother of William, talked about her son at his gravesite in the shadow of the tomb.

“He would have really been honored,” She said. “He’d be amazed to tell you the truth. It gives you a feeling of peace and patriotism.”

tusbadge (1)

Honor Guard Badge – Tomb of the Unknowns


  • DATE OF BIRTH: 09/08/1939
  • DATE OF DEATH: 10/25/1965


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