Interesting facts about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the sentinels of the United States Infantry Regiment “Old Guard”


How many steps does the guard take during his walk across the Tomb of the Unknowns and why?
     – 21 steps.  It alludes to the 21 gun salute, which is the highest honor given any military or foreign dignitary.
How long does he hesitate after his turn north or south to begin his return walk and why?
    – 21 seconds, for the same reason as answer number one.
Why are his gloves wet?
     – His gloves are moistened to prevent his losing his grip on the rifle.
Does he carry his rifle on the same shoulder all the time, and if not, why not?
     – No, he carries the rifle on the shoulder away from the Tomb. After his march across the path, he executes an about face and moves the rifle to the outside shoulder to signify that the Guard stands between the Tomb and any possible threat.

How often are the guards changed?
     -Guard changes are dictated by the season.  During the summer months, the Guard is changed every 30 minutes, and during the winter, the Guard is changed hourly.  This practice continues 24 hours a day, and 365 days a year.

 What are the physical traits of a guard limited to?
     -For a person to apply for guard duty at the tomb he must be between 5 foot 10 inches and 6 foot 2 inches and his waist cannot exceed 30 inches.
How many sets of remains are interred within the tomb?
     – Until 1998, the tomb held the remains of four unknown soldiers.  One each from WWI, WWII, Korea and Vietnam.  The remains of the Vietnam Unknown were exhumed May 14, 1998. Based on mitochondrial DNA testing, DoD scientists identified the remains as those of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie, who was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. It has been decided that the crypt that contained the remains of the Vietnam Unknown will remain vacant.   The crypt cover has been replaced with one that has the inscription “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

When the Tomb Guard completes his march across the mat, in which direction does he turn and face?
     – The Guard will always turn to the east – facing the monument.


How often is the rubber mat replaced?
     – The mat is usually replaced twice per year: before Memorial Day and before Veterans Day. This is required because of the wear on the rubber mat by the special shoes worn by Tomb Guards. The sentinels have metal plates built into the soles and inner parts of their shoes to allow for a more rugged sole and to give the signature click of the heel  during maneuvers. The sentinels wear sunglasses because of the bright reflection from the marble surrounding the Tomb and the Memorial Amphitheater.  On the ground not covered by the mat, a wear pattern in the tile can be seen that corresponds to the precise steps taken during the changing of the guard. On the mat itself, footprints worn in by standing guard are also visible.

How many sentinels have been female?
     – There have been over 630 Tomb Guards awarded the badge since 1958 when we started counting. There are hundreds more from the year 1926 when the Army started guarding the Tomb. The 3rd US Infantry (The Old Guard) is the unit that has been given the duty of guarding the Tomb.  It was given this sacred duty in 1948. The Old Guard was –and still is — considered a combat unit. As an Infantry unit, females were not permitted in the ranks for many years. It wasn’t until 1994 that females were permitted to volunteer to become a Sentinel when the 289th Military Police Company was attached to the Old Guard. The MP branch is a combat support unit and includes females.In 1996, SGT Heather Johnson became the first female to earn the Tomb Guard Identification Badge. She volunteered for duty in June 1995 and earned her badge in 1996.  However, SGT Johnson was not the only female Sentinel. Since then, there have been two additional female Sentinels awarded the Tomb Guard Identification Badge. SGT Danyell Wilson earned her badge in 1997, and SSG Tonya Bell received hers in 1998.

Other requirements of the Guard:

They must commit to one-year in guarding the Tomb, live either on Ft. Meyer or off base, and in the barracks under the monument for the 24 hours he is assigned to guard duty.  He cannot drink alcohol while on duty, swear in public or disgrace the uniform or the tomb in any way.


The Tomb Guard Identification Badge, first awarded in 1957, is an honor for which a guard qualifies by “flawlessly performing his duty for several months” and passing a test, not something simply handed out to everyone who serves for a given period of time.

The shoes are specially made with very thick soles to keep the heat and cold from their feet. There are metal heel plates that extend to the top of the shoe in order to make the loud click as they come to a halt.  There are no wrinkles, folds or lint on the uniform.  Guards dress for duty in front of a full-length mirror.


The first six months of duty a Guard may do whatever they want (including watching TV) during their off-duty hours. But since any soldier wishing to become a sentinel must undergo rigorous training, including several hours a day of marching, rifle drill and uniform preparation, and every tomb sentinel is expected to be completely versed in the history of both the tomb and of Arlington National Cemetery (including knowing how to find the graves of all the prominent person buried in the cemetery), they don’t necessarily have a lot of free time to devote to recreational activities.  


All off duty time is spent studying the 175 notable people laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery.  A guard must memorize who they are and where they are interred.  Among the notables are:  President Taft, Joe Lewis [the boxer] and Medal Of Honor recipient Audie Murphy –the most decorated soldier of World War Two and Hollywood fame.


The Sentinels Creed:

My dedication to the sacred duty is total and wholehearted.

In the responsibility bestowed on me never will I falter.

And with dignity and perseverance my standard will remain perfection.

Through the years of diligence and praise and the discomfort of the elements, I will walk my tour in humble reverence to the best of my ability.

It is he who commands the respect I protect, his bravery that made us so proud.

Surrounded by well meaning crowds by day, alone in a thoughtful peace of night, the soldier will be in honored glory rest under my internal vigilance.

Walking the mat

There is a meticulous routine that the guard follows when watching over the graves. The Tomb Guard:

Marches 21 steps south down the black mat laid across the Tomb.
Turns and faces east, toward the Tomb, for 21 seconds.
Turns and faces north, changes weapon to outside shoulder and waits 21 seconds.
Marches 21 steps down the mat.
Turns and faces east for 21 seconds.
Turns and faces south, changes weapon to outside shoulder and waits 21 seconds.
Repeats the routine until the soldier is relieved of duty at the Changing of the Guard.


Changing of the Guard

The guard change is very symbolic but also conducted in accordance with Army regulations. The relief commander or assistant relief commander, along with the oncoming guard, are both required for a guard change to take place. The relief commander orders the guard being relieved to “pass on your orders” to the oncoming guard. The guard being relieved will say to the oncoming guard, “Post and orders remain as directed.” The oncoming guard’s response is always, “Orders acknowledged.”



During changes when the public is witnessing the ceremony, the commander will inform the public that the ceremony is about to take place and that those in attendance should remain “silent and standing” throughout the entire event.


More interesting facts about the Tomb of the Unknown itself:

The marble for the tomb of the unknowns was furnished by the Vermont Marble Company of Danby, Vermont.  The marble is the finest and whitest of American marble, quarried from the Yule Marble Quarry located near Marble, Colorado and is called Yule marble.  The marble for the Lincoln Memorial and other famous buildings was also quarried there.


The tomb consists of seven pieces of rectangular marble:

Four pieces in the sub base weigh approximately 15 tons;
One piece in base or plinth weighs approximately 16 tons;
One piece in die weighs approximately 36 tons;
One piece in cap weighs approximately 12 tons;
Carved on the east side (the front of the tomb, which faces Washington, DC) is a composite of three figures, commemorative of the spirit of the Allies of World War One.
In the center of panel stands Victory (female).
On the right side, a male figure symbolizes Valor.
On the left side stands Peace, with her Palm branch to reward the devotion and sacrifice that went with courage to make the cause of righteousness triumphant.
The north and south sides are divided into three panels by Doric pilasters. In each panel is an inverted wreath.
On the west, or rear, panel (facing Amphitheater) is inscribed: HERE RESTS IN HONORED GLORY AN AMERICAN SOLDIER KNOWN BUT TO GOD.


The first Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was a sub base and a base or plinth.  It was slightly smaller than the present base.  This was torn away when the present tomb was started August 27, 1931.  The Tomb was completed and the area opened to the public 9:15 AM, April 9, 1932, without any ceremony.

Cost of the Tomb: $48,000

Sculptor: Thomas Hudson Jones

Architect: Lorimer Rich

Contractors: Hagerman & Harris, New York city

Inscription: author unknown

The Third Infantry Regiment at Fort Myer has the responsibility for providing ceremonial units and honor guards for state occasions, White House social functions, public celebrations and interments at Arlington National Cemetery and standing all very formal sentry watch at the Tomb of the Unknowns.


The public is familiar with the precision of what is called “walking post” at the Tomb.  There are roped off galleries where visitors can form to observe the troopers and their measured step and almost mechanically, silent rifle shoulder changes.  They are relieved every hour in a very formal drill that has to be seen to be believed.


Some people think that when the cemetery is closed to the public in the evening that the show stops.  First, to the men who are dedicated to this work, it is no show.  It is a “Charge of Honor.”  The formality and precision continued uninterrupted all night.  During the night time, the drill of relief and measured step of the on duty sentry remained unchanged from the daylight hours. 


To these men, these special men, the continuity of this post is the key to honor and respect shown to these honored dead, symbolic of all unaccounted for American Combat dead.  The study rhythmic step in rain, sleet, snow, hail, heat and cold must be uninterrupted.  Uninterrupted is the most important part of the honor shown.


When Hurricane Isabel came through this area it tore the hell out of everything.  They had thousands of trees down, power outages, traffic signals out, roads filled with downed limbs and “gear adrift” debris, flooding, and the place looked like it had been the impact area of an offshore bombardment.

The Regimental Commander of the U.S. Third Infantry sent word to the night time sentry detail to secure the post and seek shelter from the high winds, to ensure their personal safety.


During winds that turned over vehicles and turned debris into projectiles, the measured step continued.  One fellow said, “I’ve got buddies getting shot at in Iraq who would kick my butt if word got to them that we let them down.  I sure as hell have no intention of spending my Army career being known as the damned idiot who couldn’t stand a little light breeze and shirked his duty.”  Then he said something in response to a female reporter’s question regarding silly purposeless personal risk… “I wouldn’t expect you to understand.  It’s an enlisted man’s thing.”  God bless the rascal…In a time in our nation’s history when spin and total BS seem to have become the accepted coin-of-the-realm, their beat hearts – the enlisted hearts as we all knew and were so damned proud to be a part of –that fully understand that devotion to duty is not a part time occupation.  While we slept, we were represented by some damn fine men who fully understood their post orders and proudly went about their assigned responsibilities unseen, unrecognized and in the finest tradition of American Enlisted man.  Folks, there’s hope.  The spirit that George S. Patton, Arleigh Burke, and Jimmy Doolittle left us… survives.

On the ABC evening news, it was reported that because of the dangers from Hurricane Isabel approaching Washington, DC, the military members assigned the duty of guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier were given permission to suspend the assignment.  They refused, “No way, sir!”


Soaked to the skin, marching in the pelting rain of a tropical storm, they said that guarding the Tomb was not just an assignment; it was the highest honor that can be afforded to a service person.  The tomb has been patrolled continuously, 24/7, since 1930.

Very, very proud of our soldiers in uniform!

Much of the above information obtained from Wikipedia,, and

In closing, here is a video showing the changing of the guard:

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