Oct. 24, 1921: In the city hall of Chalons-en-Champagne, France, U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, a highly decorated veteran of The Great War (World War I), is assigned to select only one of four caskets recently exhumed from four dissimilar American cemeteries in France. Each casket contains the unidentified remains of an American soldier. After thoughtful consideration, Sgt. Younger places a spray of white roses on one of the caskets.
The Unknown is shipped to the United States aboard the USS Olympia to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda until Armistice Day. On Nov. 11, 1921, President Warren G. Harding officiates at a ceremony behind the Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery, and the Tomb of the Unknown becomes a part of American history.
No plans existed for future unknowns since The Great War was touted as "the war to end all wars." Not until 1958, under the governance of former-General then President Dwight D. Eisenhower, were World War II and Korean War unknowns exhumed and reinterred in what is called the Tomb of the Unknowns.
In 1998, Vietnam’s unknown, 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie, USAF, was identified by using mitochondrial DNA testing. Lt. Blassie’s remains were exhumed and returned to his family in St. Louis, Mo.
An elite assignment
The U.S. Army’s Third Infantry Regiment,
called the "Old Guard," is entrusted to guard The Tomb of the Unknowns. Fewer than 20 percent of those who volunteer for the duty are selected for training, and only one in 25 makes it as a Sentinel at the Tomb.
Other "Old Guard" members serve with The Army Drill Team, The Caisson Platoon, Presidential Salute Battery, Fife and Drum Corps, Pershing’s Own, and the Continental Color Guard.
The Sentinels, the elite of the elite, have what it takes to safeguard the Tomb of the Unknowns. A native of Rockdale County and graduate of Rockdale High School, Herb Smith holds Honor Badge 070 of the Tomb of the Unknowns Honor Guard.
Just over 600 Honor Badges have been earned; they are second in rarity only to the Astronaut Badge.
Smith was drafted while attending Georgia State in 1967. His manner, 6-foot-2 physique and 29-inch waistline, and test scores after basic training earned him a one-way ticket to Fort Myer, Va., home base of the "Old Guard."
This is his story.
Herb Smith looks and acts like an Honor Guard. He’s courteous, tall, neat in appearance, and yes, ladies, handsome. His polo shirts proudly display the Honor Guard Wreath.
‘A different drum’
His words: "We actually walk to the beat of a different drum, or more precisely, mentally measure 21 steps on a 63-foot mat, click our heels, turn to face the Tomb for 21 seconds, click our heels, turn to complete the about-face, click our heels, and wait another 21 seconds before taking the next 21 steps down the same mat. The 21 represents the highest military accolade, the 21-gun salute."
He continues: "Our uniforms are dress Army blues, indicative of the regalia worn by the American Revolutionary Army and the Union blue worn by federal soldiers during the Civil War. Our highly polished shoes are Army issued with 2 inches added to the soles to protect the Sentinels’ feet from the frigid cold and blistering marble that can reach 135 degrees in summer.
"We are allowed one official indulgence, sunglasses, to prevent sun blindness from the same bright marble. The uniforms are made of wool, the only fabric capable of holding a crease in hot weather.
"The 9.5-pound M-14 rifle we carry is not for show. The black mourning strap does signify respect for the Unknowns, but the chrome ceremonial bayonet indicates the weapon can and will be used to protect the Tomb from harm."
Smith continues: "I’m a native of Rockdale County. After graduating from Rockdale High School in 1965, I attended Berry College in Rome. Upon completion of my first year, I transferred to Georgia State, but with the Vietnam War heating up, a college transfer disqualified an educational deferment. I received orders to take my physical for the military in less than a year."
Smith was selected for OCS (Officer Candidate School), but those orders were abruptly canceled and he was sent to Fort Myer, Va.
"I was filtered through the ‘Old Guard’ and trained with the drill team. In November of 1967, the platoon sergeant called me in and told me to go check out an M-14 from the quartermaster. I saw a guy observing me as I walked through the courtyard. The sergeant had set me up. I was being scrutinized for the Tomb Guards."
Smith fit the bill.
He recalled, "My first job was ‘pedestrian control’ at JFK’s gravesite. The assassination was fresh in everyone’s mind, having occurred in 1963, so we were busy. We principally answered questions and assisted the public. The Kennedy family visited the gravesite after hours, normally Ted, Bobby and Rose Kennedy. Rose would kneel on the granite for prayers. One afternoon, she was having trouble getting back up, so I offered assistance and asked if she was OK.
Rose looked up and replied, ‘It’s that damned hard granite!’ Rose was quite a lady, and I’ll always remember her."
Off-duty and on days off, Smith practiced for guard duty at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
"I’d practice with the Tomb Guards in the catacombs beneath the colonnade area of the Amphitheater. Needless to say, it was intense. When ready, a ‘new man’ was only allowed to walk night duty while the cemetery is closed. ‘New men’ are closely monitored by other guards and the Relief Commander."
A shift of 24 hours was the norm, one hour on duty, three hours off.
"After a 24-hour shift, we’d get two days off, but a lot of that time is spent getting ready for your next 24-hour shift."
Asked if 24 straight hours was hard to do, Smith replied, "Not at all. We were young, tough,
and dedicated to our mission."
The "Sergeant of the Guard" is the highest enlisted rank at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
Smith said, "Our Sergeant of the Guard received orders for Vietnam, and the sergeant who replaced him came in from Vietnam. He had served a year with the LRRPs (pronounced ‘Lurps’ for long-range reconnaissance patrol – patrols deep behind enemy lines). To tell you the truth, he was in bad shape. He later committed suicide."
Smith and two other guards received orders for Vietnam.
"The orders were canceled," he said. "The Tomb just couldn’t spare experienced guards."
Smith received new orders in February 1969 for "rotory" school.
"Rotory meant training to become a chopper pilot," he said. "My wife and I were expecting our first child by then, so my 1st sergeant advised, ‘Smith, you don’t want to do this,’ and I had to agree with him. It was time to go."
Herb Smith left the Army. He retired from Michelin after 39 years as a sales representative.
In closing, Smith wanted to be clear on a few Internet rumors.
"We are not required to sign anything when we leave the Tomb. Rumors have it that we can’t drink or swear, as if we’re above being human. Not true. Conduct unbecoming a Tomb Guard can get your Badge rescinded, and we’ve had a few rescinded, but on the whole our intense training, the discipline, and the honor of being a Tomb Guard keeps most of us from embarrassing the Tomb. Always, honor the Tomb."
Time and space will not permit a full account of the Honor Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns. For detailed information, go to tombguard.org