3rd US Infantry guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers

Images courtesy of 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment

Winter, Blizzard, Snow, Wind Chill:

And Still They Stand Guard

| published February 10, 2016 |

By Earl Perkins, Thursday Review features editor


A few weeks ago, about all anyone could talk about was the weather. Indeed the country was hit with what was the biggest snowstorm ever recorded: it paralyzed the eastern half of the country, shut down entire stretches of interstate highway, spawned traffic jams which stretched for miles, triggered thousands of auto and truck accidents on frozen or snow-jammed roads, forced the closure of more than 1000 bridges and overpasses, and dropped up to 40 inches of snow in some places.

The winter storms (first Jonas, then Kayla) left dozens dead, left hundreds of thousands without power, and inflicted flood damage to some areas of New Jersey and Maryland still sorting out and rebuilding after Superstorm Katrina. Winter Storm Jonas also brought about a virtual shutdown of North American air traffic—more 13,500 airline flights canceled in four days. New York’s LaGuardia and JFK airports, and Washington’s Dulles airport, recorded more snowfall that had ever been measured in those airports’ histories. Dozens of governors, and about 700 mayors told citizens to stay indoors, resist the urge to sightsee, and, for God’s sake, stay the heck off of roads and sidewalks.

However, one group of soldiers received a different memo, according to the New York Daily News and several other news outlets. One now famous photograph shows a U.S. Army soldier standing guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery on a hill overlooking Washington, DC, while the blizzard raged around him.

The photo—one of several taken that day—shows what can only be described as epic snowfall in what must have been bone bone-chilling cold and wind.

On social media over the next hours and days I read numerous postings by clueless people, some of which almost made my blood boil despite the chill outside. Many of the comments were disrespectful, and seemed to imply that these soldiers were forced to perform this unpleasant duty in circumstances which any rational person would consider dangerous.

I understand there are trolls on the internet, but they should draw the line somewhere, even if their trolling comes about because they have nothing better to do in winter weather. And they should occasionally do their own original research. Here’s the deal: members of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, also known as The Old Guard or Escort to the President, stand guard at the monument—24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks out of the year. Inclement weather and terrorist attacks are not considered viable excuses for abandoning that time-honored post atop that knoll at the center of the cemetery.

The members of that special military unit are engaged in an enduring act of respect for those who died defending this nation—often so that you and I are not forced to do so. All members of the United States military are volunteers, no matter what their personal reasons for joining might include. But the members of the Tomb Guards are a special breed, and they rank among the most vigilant soldiers you will ever witness or meet.

"The Tomb Guards maintain a constant vigil at the Tomb no matter the weather conditions," states the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment's Facebook page. The photographs went over quite well with the general public, generating almost 20,000 shares and 23,000 likes.

Serving as a sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknowns is considered one of the highest honors available to service members. Fewer than 20 percent of all volunteers are accepted for training, and only a fraction pass testing and become full-fledged Tomb Guards. The massive attrition rate in training and testing makes the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Guard Identification Badge the second least-awarded qualification badge in the military.

The monument was first guarded March 25, 1926, and the first 24-hour military guard was posted midnight, July 2, 1937. A continuous military presence has existed at the Tomb of the Unknowns since that minute. The Tomb Sentinels have become famous and remain one of the most popular sights for tourists visiting Arlington National Cemetery, a fascinating and historic venue in itself, according to ABC News.

“The Tomb Sentinels are a familiar sight to most tourists who visit Arlington National Cemetery. Dressed in their dress blue uniforms, they ‘walk the mat’ on the plaza in front of the white marble sarcophagus that lies above the remains of an unknown soldier from World War I. Unknown soldiers from World War II and the Korean War are buried in crypts in front of the sarcophagus,” its story noted.

And while much of the Eastern Seaboard braced for that record-breaking blizzard, soldiers guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns were “looking forward to this and kind of excited about it,” said Major Russell Fox, spokesman for the Army’s Old Guard. “These guys will be out in the snow, no matter what. They love what they’re doing and they’re dedicated.”

The Tomb photographs were some of the most iconic images emerging from the historic storm, which was the largest recorded in many areas, according to The Weather Channel.

In Washington, snowfall rates reached two to three inches per hour during the height of Winter Storm Jonas, leading the District of Columbia and its environs to reach record levels by the time the storm had subsided. The storm also brought heavy winds, and every other condition understood to qualify as a blizzard. In some areas travel was not merely ill-advised, but even restricted and prohibited, and many mayors and governors asked that pedestrians avoid sightseeing during the storm and its aftermath, as walkers have been known to be injured or killed by snowplows and emergency responder’s vehicles when snow reaches more than 25 inches along roads and streets.

Even this extreme adversity, and its chill factors which at times dipped below zero, this did not deter the mission of the Guard at Arlington Cemetery.

Photographs which show soldiers guarding the Tomb under inclement weather conditions went viral as Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012, but that time they weren't as accurate as recent photos. The Sandy wire photo was taken during an earlier storm, but still represented the dedication exemplified by soldiers under trying circumstances.

“They remain at their posts rain, snow or shine and extreme weather is not a concern,” an ABC News report noted. “They remained at their posts during Hurricanes Isabel and Irene as well as the 2010 blizzard, nicknamed ‘Snowmaggedon,’ that shut down the capital for days.” 3rd US Infantry guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers

The now famous photo was the closest most people got to the Tomb during Jonas' east coast blizzard visit, because Arlington National Cemetery closed at noon that Friday as the storm approached and remained closed throughout the weekend. Despite the crippling blizzard and blinding snow, the 3rd Infantry Regiment's finest remained steadfast in their guard duty.

Visitors to Arlington National Cemetery are mesmerized by the sheer majestic history they are afforded. The list of monuments and memorials available for your viewing is extensive and incredible, and astute visitors and history lovers may want to obtain one of the several maps available to assist with sightseeing and locating well-known graves, markers and shrines.

We're talking anything from the John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy Gravesites, to edifices honoring veterans of the Civil War, the Battle of the Bulge, Argonne Forest, Korean War, Canada, Beirut Barracks, Rough Riders, plus nurses, Pan Am Flight 103, Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia.

But the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is one of the most imposing monuments, sitting atop a hill overlooking a wide vista of Washington, technically traces its history to the beginning of this country. Congress approved the burial of an unidentified American soldier from World War I in the plaza of the new Memorial Amphitheater.

A white marble sarcophagus has a flat-faced form, relieved at the corners and along its sides by neo-classic columns set into the surface. Three Greek figures, representing Peace, Victory and Valor, are sculpted into the east panel, which faces the Capitol.

"Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God," is inscribed on the back of the Tomb. West of the World War I Unknown are crypts of unknowns from World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

But where did the land that Arlington National Cemetery sits on come from?

I'm so glad that you asked, because many youngsters were never taught these things in school, and we at Thursday Review love information both useful and educational. George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of Martha Washington and step-grandson of George Washington, spent his life commemorating the Father of Our Country. The Arlington House was built on an 1100-acre plantation as a memorial to our first president, and Custis would will the property to his daughter in 1857. Mary Anna Randolph Custis married U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Robert Edward Lee in 1831.

That's right. A top graduate of the United States Military Academy, exceptional officer and combat engineer in the U.S. Army for 32 years, Lee distinguished himself during the Mexican–American War and served as Superintendent of the United States Military Academy. Offered command of what would become the Union Army, he turned down the commission and received safe passage from West Point to Virginia. Lee's home state seceded from the Union, and he would lead an undermanned and outgunned Confederate Army through the Civil War for half a decade until they were forced to sue for peace.

Also, most folks don't realize that Lee's father was Henry (Light-Horse Harry) Lee III, who helped found this nation.

Lee, a cavalry officer in the Continental Army, was also known for being a member of the Congress of the Confederation, member of the General Assembly and Governor of Virginia. More importantly, while at the Virginia Convention, he favored adoption of the United States Constitution.

Known for serving as a Major General in the U.S. Army, he would also become a member of the United States House of Representatives. You may recall him for a eulogy he delivered before a crowd of 4,000, for his dear friend—George Washington (Dec. 26, 1799): first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.

I found the stories of Robert E. Lee and Light-Horse Harry more intriguing than the property's conveyance, but that's also an incredible tale. The Lee family vacated their plantation when hostilities broke out at the onset of the Civil War in 1861, with Federal troops seizing the land as a camp and headquarters. Throughout the war, three forts were constructed on the grounds to help defend Washington, D.C., and the federal government established Freedman's Village to assist slaves transitioning to freedom. By the war's third year, Washington's capacity for burials was far outpaced, so the Union Army took 200 acres of the plantation for a military cemetery. The first burial occurred May 13, 1864, and on June 15 the War Department designated the burial space, creating Arlington National Cemetery.

A property tax dispute ensued, and the Lee family lost their portion of the land over $92.07, and the U.S. government would purchase it for $26,800 at public auction. George Washington Custis Lee sued for the return of his property in 1882, winning his case before the Supreme Court. Lee then sold the property, which by this time contained the graves of more than 6,000 Union soldiers, to the federal government for $150,000.

Tours of the house and its grounds—located on one of the highest points on what was the original land—are conducted most days when the cemetery is open. Of special note are the gravesites of John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, a short walk from the house itself. These are among some of the most visited places at Arlington Cemetery, and among the most moving.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Silent Night, Christmas 1914; Kevin Robbie; Thursday Review; December 24, 2015.

A Memorial Made of Flags; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; July 27, 2015.