In the United States, the last Monday of the month of May is Memorial Day, in which everyone takes off from work to remember those who died in various U.S. wars. Originally called Decoration Day, this national holiday began in 1868 to commemorate those who died in the American Civil War (1861-1865). However, eventually, the holiday evolved into remembering those who died in any U.S. war.
The American Civil War also gave birth to Arlington National Cemetery, in Arlington, Virginia, which is arguably the most famous cemetery in the United States. Although it is currently closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic (except for those who have family members buried there), during normal situations, it provides daily bus tours to visitors. Because of its vast size of 624 acres, with over 400,000 burials, the tour only covers several major highlights.
Perhaps one of the most important stops on the tour is Arlington House, since it is a mansion located on the cemetery grounds that predates the Civil War. Once the Civil War began, the United States’ government took over this strategic location near the country’s capital. However, they chose to make the land surrounding the mansion a cemetery, in order to prevent its owner from eventually returning to it. Its owner was the Confederate General Robert E. Lee. He inherited the house from his wife, who was herself a descendant of George Washington’s wife, Martha (from Martha’s first husband).
During the Civil War, the U.S. government buried soldiers from any rank at Arlington. However, as time passed, the Cemetery gained prestige, and now has a more selective process of who can be buried there. Among the famous men buried there (as mentioned on the tour) are General John J. Pershing who served in WWI, President John F. Kennedy and his brothers Robert and Ted (the former two served in WWII, and the latter enlisted after the War), and President William Howard Taft. President Taft never served in the military, so I am not sure how he ended up at Arlington. However, he is the only person to have served as both the U.S. president and the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Finally, Audie Murphy is buried at Arlington. He was the most decorated soldier in WWII.
John F. Kennedy was actually a war hero during WWII. The 1963 film PT 109 tells that story. After the War, Audie Murphy landed a career in Hollywood. The 1955 film To Hell and Back is an autobiographical movie that stars him. I have watched both films a while ago. I do not remember them well but do remember thinking that they were mediocre but interesting films.
Perhaps the most famous site at Arlington National Cemetery is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This tomb began in 1921, with the remains of four unidentified dead soldiers from World War I. Unidentified soldiers from World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War were subsequently added to the tomb. Volunteers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment guard it 24/7, in rain or shine. Seeing the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and its guard is perhaps the highlight of the Arlington National Cemetery tour.
Since the Cemetery is currently closed, you can download the app to have a free tour from home, or find the same information on a site called ANC Explorer: https://ancexplorer.army.mil/publicwmv/#/arlington-national/ You might also be interested to know that during this pandemic, the Cemetery decided to open its 105-year-old time capsule.
Sources and Further Reading
Arlington: Field of Honor. Directed by John B. Bredar. New York: National Geographic, 2005.
“General Information.” Arlington National Cemetery Tours. https://www.arlingtontours.com/general-information (accessed May 24, 2020).
“History of Arlington National Cemetery.” Arlington National Cemetery. https://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/Explore/History/History-of-Arlington-National-Cemetery (accessed May 24, 2020).
Machemer, Theresa. Arlington National Cemetery Opens Its 105-Year-Old Time Capsule.” Smithsonian Magazine. May 20, 2020. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/arlington-cemetery-opens-its-105-year-old-time-capsule-180974924/?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=socialmedia&fbclid=IwAR3C6LRxI9DqfUV_Cxd2IP4a1nvDd1zBrzsj-cHAsuPiuGhrYrBHG_Fzyhc (accessed May 24, 2020).
PT 109. Directed by Leslie H. Martinson. Burbank, California: Warner Bros., 1963.
Sorto, Gabrielle. “What You Need to Know about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.” CNN. May 27, 2019. https://www.cnn.com/2019/05/27/us/tomb-of-the-unknown-soldier-trnd/index.html (accessed May 24, 2020).
To Hell and Back. Directed by Jesse Hibbs. Universal City, California: Universal Studios, 1955.
Van Vleck, Jennifer Leigh. “Arlington National Cemetery and the Origins of Memorial Day.” Arlington National Cemetery. May 21, 2020. https://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/Blog/Post/10817/Arlington-National-Cemetery-and-the-Origins-of-Memorial-Day (accessed May 24, 2020).