Sentinels of the Tomb

Photo: “Walking the Mat” in inclement weather is considered an honor among the Sentinels of the Tomb.
Photo contributed


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.

Photo: Sentinel Phillip Wells of Montgomery says that the Badge may be retained for life, though it is subject to being revoked. Photo contributed

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.

Photo: The Sentinel’s Badge is one of the highest marks of distinction a soldier can receive.

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.



Daycare fallout should be no surprise


The political rhetoric got much hotter this week over the issue of the recent failed daycare license bill. Some of the State’s most provocative commentators lay the blame for the death of 5-year old Kamden Johnson at the feet of legislators that failed to pass a bill restricting a license exemption for some church-affiliated daycare centers.

Community Nursery & Preschool in Mobile became the quintessential example of negligence in childcare recently when Johnson was tragically killed while in its care. But it was political negligence that led to the fall out of the legislation in the first place.

Though politics can often be predictable, it seems surprises were in plentiful supply surrounding this bill. Sen. Cam Ward carried the bill in the Senate to restrict an exemption for church-affiliated daycare providers. Rep. Pebblin Warren carried the bill in the House. They were both surprised there would be much opposition at all.


Sure enough, Ward says that Rep. Jim Carns and Rep. Randall Shedd, as well as lobbyists and lawyers for some of their key constituents, had some problems with the bill as introduced.

“The House folks had some problems with it, particularly in my caucus. I told them, you get it worked out (in the House) and I’ll support whatever compromise you come up with in the Senate. So Eric Johnston, who represents a lot of your conservative church groups like Eagle Forum and ALCAP (Joe Godfrey), came to me and said ‘we have a deal.’ The House overwhelmingly passed the bill and they told me we were good to go,” Ward says.


“The first time I heard anything negative, Eagle Forum shows up at a Judiciary Committee meeting and just blasted us. I thought, wait a minute we had this worked out. The lawyers for these Christian groups have signed off on this. (Eagle Forum’s) response was, ‘ we don’t necessarily agree with them.’ So these House guys felt kind of betrayed.


One might be a bit harsh on Ward for assuming that voters with widely varying degrees of concern about particular interests can just be grouped together like this. But, in Ward’s defense, this is just how things are usually done. Complicated topics are often grossly oversimplified in the Legislature. That is business as usual.


This is not the first time changes were proposed to the law. Ward says that when he was in the House in the mid-2000s there was another attempt to get rid of the exemption. The difference then was that the Democrats were the one to kill the bill.

“The argument against it then was, ‘you require everybody to be regulated, then daycare will become too expensive and no one will be able to afford it.’ I call baloney on that. I think the problem was you had some people that owned or had an interest in daycare and they didn’t want to be regulated,” Ward said.

But this time around the objection is not financial, but ideological.


Deborah Love, Executive Director of Eagle Forum of Alabama, is quick to point out that while some church-affiliated daycare centers are licensed, many of those who are exempt take the same steps and follow the same regulations as licensed facilities, but choose to be unlicensed because they have the option and view it as a religious liberty issue. Since the license is optional, many opt out.

“Rather than address the issue of DHR’s failure to ensure that federally subsidized facilities follow the law, proponents of HB277 advocate removal of religious liberty protection of all church ministries,” Love said. “Some have disingenuously and deceitfully refused to recognize the facts in favor of unconstitutional church regulation.  The individuals who violated current state laws and the authorities who failed to enforce them are the individuals responsible for this tragic death. Clearly, the individual who neglected or harmed the child should be held responsible.  The question remains, “Why is DHR not ensuring compliance with federal and state law?”

Rev. Robin Mears who helped in writing the Child Protection law in 1999 and is Executive Director of Alabama Christian Education Association stated, “If the 2017 legislature had passed HB277, it would not have prevented this tragedy. Why pass more laws if the agency entrusted to oversee the compliance with those laws is AWOL?”

Love, Mears and others who share their views seem to have a distrust in government generally and when given the option to opt out, they do. Whether their fears of government overreach are justifiable or not does not seem to matter.

It seems the two loudest sides of this issue are talking past one another. Surprised?

Rep. Pebblin Warren carried the bill in the House. Ward and Warren both say their objection was not necessarily tied to legitimate daycare centers affiliated with churches, but with certain problem operators who seek the exemption to keep authorities away from shoddy operations. Warren said she knows personally of an operator (another from the Mobile area) where the ceiling is nearly falling in, but the owners, who own multiple exempt daycare centers drive to work in Mercedes. Following the death of a child, Warren says there is more of a reality to the situation that people can easily understand.

“Since this bill failed, we also had an incident with a child being burned by a cigarette. You shouldn’t even be having a cigarette in a daycare. So it’s out of control. You have some people who are not in this business looking out for the best interests of the children and they are hiding behind the exemption,” Warren says.

In Alabama, almost 1,000 daycare centers are licensed and nearly the same number are exempt. Some of those licensed are church daycare centers. Some of those exempt church daycare facilities still follow all the requirements as if they were licensed. But some exempt daycares are putting children at risk. Most of us think of government licensing as a one way requirement, legally you need one to drive, you don’t need one to eat ice cream. But in this unique situation a license is not necessarily required to operate a daycare. Requiring one may be an even bigger fight next year than many are expecting.

Hundreds view unveiling of Rainbow Soldier


The Rainbow Soldier is impressive, being more-than-life-size.
Photo: Fred Marshall


Montgomery’s grand old Union Station has seen many travelers since it was built by the Louisville and Nashville Railroad in 1898.  If its walls could talk, imagine the stories they could tell.  Stories of joy , sorrow and loneliness, and also tales of great elation and anticipation. Leaving an old life behind and seeking a new one, or finally coming home to the security of family and friends and familiar surroundings. Union Station has also been the jumping-off point for thousands destined for an adventure of epic proportions.  An adventure with world-wide consequences.

One hundred years ago, as of last Monday the 28th, Union Station witnessed the departure of 3,677 sons of Alabama, bound for France and World War One.  The soldiers were Alabama National Guardsmen and would be known as the 167th U.S. Army Infantry Regiment of the Army’s Rainbow Division.  A century after their departure, to the day, hundreds of people gathered before the imposing facade of Union Station to celebrate the accomplishments of the 167th in France and to witness the unveiling of The Rainbow Soldier, a bronze statue memorializing the 167th Infantry Regiment.  The statue depicts a bigger-than-life-size World War I Rainbow Soldier carrying a deceased comrade, signifying the Regiment’s dedication to its duty, and to one another.

Rod Frazer is also the author of “Send the Alabamians: World War One Fighters in The Rainbow Division.” Photo: Fred Marshall

The 167th participated in several campaigns, including Champagne-Marne, Oise-Aisne, St. Mihiel, Meuse-Argonne, and especially at the Battle of Croix Rouge Farm and at the capture of Cote de Chatillon under the leadership of Douglas MacArthur.  MacArthur later wrote of the 167th:  “Two battalions of the 167th Infantry assisted by the 168th Infantry on the left, with the greatest courage and most severe losses, seized Croix Rouge Farm on the point of the bayonet.  The unexpectedness and violence, and the difficulty of this vital operation cannot be overestimated.  The gallantry and courage of the assaulting troops has never been excelled in the Rainbow’s history.”

Minus 616 killed in action, and with over 1,000 wounded, these brave sons of Alabama returned to Union Station on May 12, 1919.  Now known as the “Immortals,”  the 167th then marched up Dexter Avenue to be greeted by the largest crowd ever assembled at the State Capitol!  Colonel William Preston Screws, a native of Montgomery and a regular army officer, organized, trained, and led the 167th in combat in World War I.

The Rainbow Soldier is a gift to the city from the Croix Rouge Memorial Foundation, made possible through the generosity of Montgomery business man and community leader, Nimrod T. Frazer.  Mr. Frazer is a military hero himself, receiving the Silver Star for actions in Korea.  He has dedicated much of his life to ensuring present and future generations understand the legacy of the 167th.  His “Send the Alabamians: World War I Fighters in The Rainbow Division” tells the remarkable story of these soldiers.  He commissioned the Croix Rouge Farm Memorial in 2011.  Located to the south of the French city of Fere-en-Tardenois on the site of the Battle of Croix Rouge Farm, the memorial is the first casting of The Rainbow Soldier.  The unveiling of the second casting of this statue is what the people of Montgomery witnessed last Monday.

Hundreds attended Mondays unveiling of The Rainbow Soldier.
Photo: Fred Marshall

Both statues were designed by acclaimed British sculptor James Butler.  Butler also designed the bronze sculpture of Daedalus that was unveiled here at Maxwell AFB on April 6, 2017.  It commemorates the centennial of World War I and the pilots for whom the Order of the Daedalians was established at Maxwell in 1934.  James Butler has been a member of the Royal Academy since 1964 and is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of British Sculptors.  His monuments and memorials stand in the U.K., the U.S., Kenya, Zambia, Saudi Arabia, France, Singapore, and Madeira.

The Rainbow Division Memorial Committee members were: Frank Barnett, Michael Briddell, Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Charles Cleveland, A. Bruce Crawford, Col. Doug DeMaio, Melanie Golson, Col. (Ret.) Joe Greene, Dawn J. Hathcock, Mark Johnson, Meg Lewis, Graham Neeley, Mike Watson, Bill Wilson, and Dr. Mark Wilson.  Honorary Chairmen were Commissioner Elton Dean, Nimrod T. Frazer, Representative John Knight, and Mayor Todd Strange.  Ex-Officio were Dr. Monique B. Seefried, U.S. WWI Centennial Commissioner.  Chairman was Ashley Dubose Ledbetter.