You may have read that “The Great War” officially ended with the Treaty of Versailles, signed June 28, 1919 in the Palace of Versailles. It is true that it did take from November 11, 1918 until June 28, 1919 for terms of the peace agreement to be reached, but for celebratory purposes, November 11, 1918 marked the end of “the war to end all wars.”
President Woodrow Wilson of the United States declared November 11 as Armistice Day, and began the public and official commemoration on that date in 1919, one year after fighting ceased. He declared that the observance of a day of remembrance will enable “America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations.”
In reading some of the early proclamations for Armistice Day, Congress and the President urged that the national holiday be observed with “thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations.”
When General Dwight D. Eisenhower, himself a veteran of World War II, was president, Public Law 380 was passed on June 1, 1954, declaring that November 11 become not only the memorable Armistice Day commemorating the end of World War I, but Veterans Day, honoring American veterans of all wars. On October 8, 1954, President Eisenhower issued a proclamation that a Veterans’ Day National Committee work with the Chairman (now Secretary) of Veterans’ Affairs to plan for the day. Regardless of the day of the week on which Veterans’ Day falls, it is observed on November 11 to honor America’s veterans for their patriotism, love for country, and willingness to sacrifice their lives for the common good of all citizens of this nation.
Another significant milestone happened in American history. On November 11, 1921, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was dedicated at Arlington Cemetery on a hill overlooking the nation’s capital. The caskets of four unknown soldiers interred in France during the Great War were disinterred, and Sgt. Edward F. Younger, wounded in World War I and a highly decorated hero, chose the third casket from the left and placed white roses on it. Thus was designated the Unknown Soldier from World War I. The Unknown’s casket was transported to America aboard the USS Olympia and lay in state in the rotunda of the capital until Armistice Day, November 11, 1921. The other three unknown American soldiers of World War I whose remains stayed in France were buried in the Meuse Argonne Cemetery in France.
President Warren G. Harding presided at memorial services on the dedication day of Arlington Cemetery on November 11, 1921. The Unknown Soldier was interred in the white marble sarcophagus with symbols representing Peace, Victory and Valor. The inscription on the tomb reads: “Here rests in honored glory an American Soldier known only to God.”
Since that day in 1921, three other unknown soldiers from World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War have been interred west of the sarcophagus, their graves marked with white marble slabs.
In 1930, the perpetual military guard was set up to patrol the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It is a unique honor to be chosen for this assignment. Guards must pledge to abstinence, and cannot disgrace the uniform they wear by swearing or any sort of immorality. They take their duties as seriously and somberly as any soldier preparing for battle. Their 21 steps in formation are representative of a 21 gun salute. The gun carried by a guard is always away from the tomb. A 21 second pause comes with each about-face after each 21 pace march is completed. Guards are changed every thirty minutes, twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year. They chose to serve when urged not to do so as Hurricane Isabelle threatened Washington in 2003. The servicemen chosen for this guard duty consider it the highest honor given to them. Each serves for two years.
To veterans, we salute and honor you. To those of us who are not veterans, we can only imagine the price you paid for the freedoms we enjoy. With deepest gratitude, we thank you.
c2005 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Nov. 10, 2005 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.