The Fate of the Unknowns

The first account of cracks dates to 1963, although they probably existed well before that, a cemetery report says. One is 28.4 feet long and growing.
The first account of cracks dates to 1963, although they probably existed well before that, a cemetery report says. One is 28.4 feet long and growing. (By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)

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By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 14, 2007

The two old sailors stepped side by side toward the Tomb of the Unknowns, carrying a memorial wreath to their shipmates between them. The crowd stood hushed in the autumn sun while the pair, in ball caps and blazers, approached the white marble monument, left their wreath, stepped back and saluted.

A bugler had just played taps, and as the breeze rustled a majestic elm nearby, the moment was almost perfect: Few seemed focused on the jagged crack that zigzagged through the 48-ton stone like a scar, or the dings and chips in its surface.

But away from the scene in Arlington National Cemetery last week, debate raged over the fate of the nation's legendary icon to its unknown war dead. The cemetery has long wanted the tomb's weathered aboveground monument replaced. Preservationists want it repaired and retained. And now Congress is involved.

Two senators, James Webb (D-Va.) and Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), added an amendment to the Senate version of this year's defense authorization bill that would halt any decision on replacing the tomb, pending a report to Congress. And in a letter last month, they urged the same to the Army, which operates the cemetery.

At the tomb Thursday, memories brought tears to the eyes of Harold R. Hayes, 81, of Largo, Fla., who, with Eugene F. Phillips, 77, of Vernon, Conn., laid the wreath in honor of their ship, the destroyer USS Gherardi.

"Repair it," Hayes said of the tomb monument. "Too many people walk through here, see this. . . . Don't replace it. Repair it."

Its historic value, Phillips said, is irreplaceable.

The debate goes back years and pits two potent sensibilities: interest in historic preservation and the desire for perfection at the most famous memorial in the nation's most famous cemetery.

Argument has gone back and forth, mostly out of the public eye, although it is picking up and is "very much alive," said Richard Moe, president of the Washington-based National Trust for Historic Preservation. "As a matter of fact, it is currently quite hot."

"There's a fair amount of interest in this, much of which we are trying to generate," he said. "We do not think it should be replaced."

But the cemetery does.

Its mission "is to maintain the . . . monument's condition and appearance in a manner that fully reflects the honor, dignity and reverence for those . . . it represents," the cemetery says in a report posted on its Web site. "Repeated repair to a deeply flawed monument will not achieve this goal."

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