Rotary Hears From Founder Of The Society Of The Honor Guard, Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier

Vice President
Rotary Club of Los Alamos

“Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”  So reads the inscription on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.  It was retired Army Sgt. Major Gavin McIlvenna, founder and eleventh president of the Society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, who recalled this solemn remembrance when he spoke to the Rotary Club of Los Alamos from Portland, Oregon on May 4.

McIlvenna spoke in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which will be commemorated on November 11.  In preparation, The Society, founded in 1997, is planning and encouraging celebrations across the country.  Never Forget gardens are being planted and dedicated; workshops for high school students are being added to curricula; wreath ceremonies are being scheduled; nationwide touring of the half-scale replica of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is underway; multi-media exhibits, lectures, and panel discussions are being prepared, and walking tours in France, the country in which the Unknown Soldier was killed in World War I.  Veterans’ organizations in municipalities in Washington state, Texas, Louisiana, Rhode Island, Montana, New York, and Pennsylvania are attentively involved as others join them.

McIlvenna explained that the idea for this American memorial “was inspired by the French and English who had erected memorials to their war dead following World War I.”  For those families whose loved ones never returned from World War I, the memorial was proposed in order to give them a place to honor and remember those they had lost.  It continues to do so today. 

In March of 1921, Hamilton Fish, Jr., a congressman from New York and World War I veteran, introduced the legislation that Congress passed to bring home a fallen American serviceman and bury him in what today is known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  President Woodrow Wilson signed the legislation into law.

Later that year, on October 24, U.S. Army Sgt. Edward Younger, a combat hero from Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 50th Infantry who had served in Germany, was chosen to select one of the four caskets lying in state in Hôtel de Ville in Châlon-sur-Marne where they had been brought from four different American military cemeteries across wartime France.  The soldier in the casket he selected would become the first Unknown Soldier.  Younger circled the caskets slowly, eventually choosing the casket third from the left because he sensed the soldier appealing, “You fought with me.”  Younger indicated his choice by placing a bouquet of white roses upon the casket.  

The Unknown Soldier was escorted by caisson and rail from Châlon-sur-Marne to Paris and then to the port of Le Havre and placed upon the USS Olympia, a steel warship, on October 25th.  The caskets of the remaining three Unknown candidates were reburied in the Meuse Argonne American Cemetery.

Challenges plagued the voyage across the Atlantic to the Washington Navy Yard.  It was soon discovered that the casket of the Unknown Soldier was too wide to fit through the warship’s narrow doorways.  Rather than tilt the casket to fit, which would disturb the Unknown Soldier’s remains, the ship’s Captain directed the casket to a higher location on the warship for fear that it would be swept overboard in the heavy seas they encountered throughout the voyage.  The casket was secured inside an outer box, covered in canvas, and strapped in place, as were the Marines standing guard.  Despite being buffeted by the remnant winds of two hurricanes and facing the brutal cold and seagoing perils of any autumn crossing of the Atlantic, the USS Olympia and the Unknown Soldier arrived safely at the Washington Navy Yard on November 9th; the casket then lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda. 

The flowers that lay upon the Unknown Soldier’s casket accompanied the body for the entirety of its transport from France to the United States.

On November 11th, during the burial ceremony, President Warren G. Harding conferred the Medal of Honor upon the Unknown Soldier, a tribute that has been bestowed upon each Unknown Soldier since.  Among the dignitaries present was Chief Plenty Coups of the Crow Nation.  He lay a traditional war bonnet and coup stick, a symbol of bravery, upon the tomb in recognition of the Native Americans who had served beside the Unknown Soldier so well and bravely during WWI. 

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was initially left unguarded until civilian guards were eventually assigned daytime-only shifts.  In the 1930s, in response to complaints that the memorial was not properly respected by the general public, the sarcophagus atop the Tomb was added to prevent visitors from sitting or picnicking upon the grave.  The same marble used for the Lincoln Memorial was used for this structure, with Greek figures representing Peace, Victory, and Valor sculpted on the east end and the “honored glory” quote on the west.  Three wreaths are sculpted on the north and south panels.

On July 2, 1937, the tradition of the unbroken chain of Army Honor Guards began.  “We’re the only one [country] that provides a full 24-hour military guard,” McIlvenna said. 

The protocols established for selecting and transporting the remains of Unknown Soldiers was followed once again after World War II ended.  The magnitude of the war was so great that two Unknown candidates were selected, one from the European Theatre; the other, from the Pacific.  On May 26, 1958 the final selection for the World War II Unknown Soldier was conducted aboard the USS Canberra off the Virginia Capes, which define the entrance to Chesapeake Bay.  Later that year, the World War II Unknown and Korean War Unknown Soldiers were buried next to the sarcophagus of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  An Unknown Soldier from the Vietnam War joined the others in 1984, but was exhumed and claimed by his family upon the advent of DNA technology which confirmed the identification of the remains as those of US Air Force pilot, First Lieutenant Michael Blassie of St. Louis, Missouri.  He was 24 years old.  Blassie is buried now in Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery; and the crypt of the Vietnam Unknown Soldier remains empty.

The US Navy and Marines are responsible for bringing the bodies of the Unknown Soldiers home to the United States.  The honor of maintaining watch over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is held by the Third U.S. Infantry Regiment, “the Old Guard,” the Army’s official ceremonial unit.  These guards undergo a rigorous training of seven to twelve months and must show exacting knowledge of the Tomb’s history, military ceremonies, and uniform requirements.  McIlvenna said the shoes worn by the Tomb Guards weigh approximately five pounds each and are highly polished with “Kiwi and elbow grease.”  The guards are also responsible for “their own ironing press and building their own scabbards.” Men and women both can serve as Tomb Guards and must meet “high standards of conduct and professionalism.”  McIlvenna added that “The GuardTomb of the Unknown Soldier Identification Badge is among the least awarded in the Army.”  

McIlvenna served as Relief Commander in 1997-1998, a position that has significant daily responsibilities including the Changing of the Guard and the welfare of its sentinels, the guards “who are proficient enough to guard the Tomb in front of the public.”  McIlvenna usually walked the night hours.  He said he “loves the cemetery and seeing so much history.”  It was during his assignment that Michael Blassie, the Vietnam soldier, was exhumed and re-buried.  After guarding Blassie’s grave at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, McIlvenna remembers feeling as if he had said good-bye to a friend. 

Poignantly, McIlvenna recalled one night when a red fox slipped silently through his walk and paused as if giving tacit approval of McIlvenna’s commitment to the Unknown Soldier during hours when no one would see his faithful footsteps. 

In closing, McIlvenna encouraged Rotarians and other organizations in Los Alamos to join together to plant Never Forget gardens in remembrance and, on November 11th, to honor veterans, ring bells, offer a moment of silence, and play Taps at ceremonies across Los Alamos County.  “Soldiers never die unless they are forgotten.”

For more information about the Society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and to learn about the Tomb’s history and Centennial activities, please go to

Sgt. Major Gavin McIlvenna retired from the US Army after nearly 23 years of service, with various peace and contingency operations in Iraq, Bosnia, and Africa.  Throughout his career, he has held every key leadership role from sniper team leader to operations sergeant major.  

The Rotary Club of Los Alamos, through its Club Foundation, is a 501(c) 3 non-profit and one of over 34,000 clubs worldwide.  Rotary, which now has 1.5 million members, was founded in 1905; the local Club was chartered in 1966.  Rotary areas of focus, as noted in above, include promoting peace; fighting disease, particularly polio; providing clean water, sanitation, and hygiene; supporting education; saving and enhancing the lives of mothers and children; growing economies; and protecting the environment.

To learn more about the Rotary Club of Los Alamos and its humanitarian service, please contact:  Laura Gonzales, President, 699-5880 or Skip King, Membership chair, 662-8832.