Last Monday’s unveiling of the statue honoring the Alabama soldiers of the famous Rainbow Division during World War One started me thinking. Just as in more recent conflicts, there was a chance “over there” that an American soldier in World War One might have “died unidentified,” or, as we say, UNKNOWN. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia exists to honor those nameless soldiers’ efforts and sacrifices, though their identities are “Known But To God.”
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery stands atop a hill overlooking Washington, D.C. On March 4, 1921, Congress approved the burial of an unidentified American soldier from World War One in the plaza of the new Memorial Amphitheater. The white Yule marble (from Colorado) sarcophagus has a flat-faced form and is relieved at the corners and along the sides by neo -classic pilasters, or columns, set into the surface. Sculpted into the east panel which faces Washington, D.C., are three Greek figures representing Peace, Victory, and Valor. Two sides bear three wreaths each, which represents the six major campaigns of World War One. Inscribed on the back of the Tomb are the words: “Here Rests In Honored Glory An American Soldier Known But To God.”
The Tomb sarcophagus is placed above the grave of the Unknown Soldier of World War One. West of the World War One Unknown, are the crypts of unknowns from World War Two, Korea, and Vietnam, though the Vietnam crypt is empty today because its contents have been identified. These three graves are marked with white marble slabs flush with the plaza. That’s the Tomb complex proper, but what about the soldiers who guard the Tomb or, “walk the mat,” as it is called? There’s probably no better source or authority for information concerning the Tomb and its guards than The Society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The mission of the Society is to educate the general public about the Tomb and the United States of America’s unknown war heroes.
It preserves the history and traditions relating to the Tomb, and it provides assistance to the Tomb and the current Tomb Guards and their families. The goal of the Society is to make certain that the individuals who made the ultimate sacrifice of their life for our freedom are not forgotten, and that the general public understands this price of freedom. The membership of the Society is made up of former and current Tomb Guards. Almost daily, the Society fields questions from the public. Many of these inquiries concern the guards themselves.
Charged with Tomb security is the 3rd U.S. Army Infantry Regiment, the famed “Old Guard,” headquartered at Ft. Meyer, Virginia. Some of the questions fielded by the Society are: How does the guard rotation work? Is it an eight-hour shift? Currently, Tomb Guards work 24 hours on, 24 hours off, 24 hours on, 24 hours off, 24 hours on, and 96 hours off. But this time off isn’t exactly free time, as it takes a guard an average of eight hours to prep their uniforms for the next work day. Then there’s intense physical training and study. The guards Do Not wear rank insignia so as not to possibly out-rank the unknowns. The guards are actually referred to as “Sentinels.”
When a Sentinel “walks the mat,” he takes 21 steps to the other end, stops, and faces the Tomb for 21 seconds. The 21 seconds and 21 steps refer to the honor surrounding the 21-gun salute. He then shoulders his rifle on the other shoulder and takes the 21 steps back to the other end. His rifle is always shouldered between onlookers and the Tomb. Is the Sentinel’s M14 rifle loaded? Don’t try to find out! The Sentinels are there to protect the Tomb, and they take their assignment very seriously! The gloves they wear are lightly moistened for a better grip on the rifle.
The average tour of a Tomb Sentinel is 18 months, though there is no set time for service there. During their 24-hour shifts, the Sentinels stay in a barracks under the steps of the Tomb Amphitheater. In recognition of their service as a Tomb Sentinel, the Tomb Guard Identification Badge is awarded after the Sentinel passes a series of tests and has been a Sentinel at the Tomb for nine months. The Badge can be revoked if an offense discredits the Tomb of the Unknowns, even if the Sentinel has left the service and is a civilian. It is worn on the right breast pocket of the uniform jacket. Over 600 Badges have been awarded to date.
The Sentinels appear to have a smooth, fluid motion when walking the mat due to the fact that their dress shoes are constructed so that the soles and heel are equal in height. Rolling the shoe onto its outside when walking accentuates the perception that the Sentinel is gliding -along with no apparent up and down bobbing motion. You may have noticed the green shack next to the Tomb? The “Box” is used primarily during wreath-laying ceremonies for the Sentinel to retreat to while flowers and TAPS are being presented. There is also a telephone with a direct line downstairs to the Tomb Guard Quarters.
As far as the weather is concerned, the Sentinels of the Tomb are dedicated to their duty. The weather does not bother them, and it is considered an honor to “walk the mat” in inclement weather. Line 8 of the Sentinel’s Creed refers to the “discomfort of the elements,” though the Sentinel is never put at risk from the elements (Lightning, high winds, etc.). There are contingencies that are ready to be executed if the weather conditions ever place the Sentinels at risk of injury or death. Even when the cemetery is closed, the Tomb is guarded 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There has been a Sentinel on duty in front of the Tomb every minute, of every day, since 1937!
The Sentinels are changed every 30 minutes during the summer (April 1 to September 30) and every hour during winter (October 1 to March 31). During the hours the cemetery is closed, the Sentinel is changed every two hours. The Sentinel’s Creed is short, and to the point…..”My dedication to this sacred duty is total and whole-hearted. 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 the thoughtful peace of night, this soldier will in honored glory rest under my eternal vigilance.”
The State of Alabama is honored to have had three of the Old Guard “Walk the Mat.” They are: Phillip B. Wells, Badge # 122, Montgomery, William P. Duke, III, Badge # 211, Lineville, Alabama, now living in Columbus, Georgia, Matthew Woody, Badge # 428, Birmingham, now living in Atlanta, Georgia. These, and indeed all the Sentinels are truly the Most Elite of the elite. Sentinel Phillip Wells of Montgomery served as a Sentinel of the Tomb from 1971-1973. Staff Sergeant Wells left active army service in 1983. Since then, he has served in the Montgomery Police Department from 1984-2004 and the Alabama National Guard. Now pretty much retired, he travels the state, speaking to various groups such as the DAR, ROTC, and other groups.
When we see them on television or in person, the Sentinels appear almost robot-like with their level of precision and their serious, stoic expression. But Sergeant Wells says there are light moments. Once, while walking his tour at night when the cemetery was closed, a huge power failure cut-off practically every light on the property. Plunged into darkness, in a cemetery no less, Wells thought of all the horror movies he’d seen and wondered what might be lurking in the dark! Nevertheless, he finished his shift with no incident. And then there are little children. Bless their hearts, they say the darndest things. While walking the mat one day, Wells noticed a small child who was scrutinizing his every move. As Wells approached that particular point on the mat, directly across from the child, he heard the child tell his dad, “that guard sure is skinny!” It was all Sentinel Wells could do to keep from bursting-out laughing, but he maintained! But then, in those days, Wells’ nickname was “slinky,” so the child’s observation was accurate.
The Sentinels have a reunion every even-numbered year, but in 2021 they plan a very special reunion to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the first unknown to be laid to rest on the plaza, the unknown from World War One. It was quite an honor to have chatted with Sentinel Phillip B. Wells of Montgomery. Becoming a Sentinel of the Tomb is not easy. Most don’t make it. Those that do make it, are indeed the Most Elite of the elite.