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Former Sentinel Stuart Aspinall speaks at SMC Nov. 10

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Plaza Opens to the Public for Centennial

Published on November 11, 2021 - 3 p.m.

A sacred part of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier usually only visited by presidents and foreign dignitaries opened to the public Nov. 9-10 in honor of the 100th anniversary of the memorial dedicated to America’s unidentified war casualties.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Plaza on the hallowed ground of Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery is usually reserved for Sentinels such as Grand Haven’s Stuart Aspinall who stand guard and presidents and other dignitaries presenting a wreath or flowers.

Ahead of Veterans Day on Nov. 11, when President Biden placed a wreath, the American public was given the chance to step forward on the plaza and pay their respects by placing flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Aspinall, who guarded it from July 2018-May 2020, told Southwestern Michigan College’s Academic Speakers Series Nov. 10.

“I read that they had over 14,000 people visit,” Aspinall said.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in 1921 was a flat crypt which didn’t take on its present appearance until 1932. Marble for the Tomb came from a Colorado quarry.

“The original cost was $48,000,” he said. “In today’s money that comes to just over $800,000. The three figures on the Tomb are Peace, holding a dove, Victory, and Valor, holding a sword. Those are on the front side. The Tomb is guarded from the back. The six wreaths, three on each side, represent major battle campaigns the U.S. fought during World War I.”

Aspinall described three “flaws” on the Tomb. “There is a natural crack that goes all the way around the Tomb. Second, on the inscription, two letters run together and touch. Third, one of the leaves within the wreaths is chipped.”

On Memorial Day 1921, four unknowns were exhumed from an American cemetery in France and placed before a highly-decorated WWI veteran, U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger. After he selected a casket for Arlington, the body lied in state in the Capitol rotunda until midnight on Nov. 10, 1921. The next day, Armistice Day, a caisson transported the casket to Arlington escorted by President Warren G. Harding, Supreme Court justices, cabinet members and military leaders.

The selection process for the WWII unknown was postponed by fighting breaking out on the Korean Peninsula.

Navy Hospital Corpsman 1st Class William R. Charette selected the WWII unknowns — one each from the European and Pacific theatres.

In 1984, the final unknown soldier from the Vietnam War was laid to rest. Because of DNA technology advances, the body was exhumed in 1998 and identified as Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie, shot down in 1972. It was decided the Vietnam crypt will stay vacant.

“We are never allowed to tell how many people are part of the platoon for security reasons,” Aspinall said. “The Tomb wasn’t guarded until 1925. The civilian guard was only there when the cemetery was open. The first military guard was posted in 1926. It wasn’t actually until 1937 that the first 24-hour guards were posted. It went over 30,000 days during my time there.”

“I didn’t mind the cold so much, but my last summer, 2019, was miserable, with a hot, humid stretch where the heat index got over 100,” Aspinall said.

Soldiers who want to become Sentinels undergo extensive training in arms and uniform preparation and face several tests before becoming a Tomb guard.

According to the Society of the Honor Guard, the guard is changed every half hour in the summer and every hour in the winter. The watch continues regardless of conditions outside. “In fact,” the society says, “it is considered an honor to walk the mat during inclement weather.”

Tomb guards work on a three relief (team) rotation — 24 hours on, 24 hours off, 24 hours on, 24 hours off, 24 hours on, 96 hours off. It takes the average Sentinel eight hours to prep their uniform for the next work day. Additionally, they have physical training, Tomb guard training and haircuts to complete before the next work day.

Sentinels takes 21 steps during their “walk,” alluding to a 21-gun salute, the highest honor given any military or foreign dignitary.

Sentinels do not execute an about face. Rather, they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. Then they turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21-step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21-step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel repeats this over and over until the guard-change ceremony.