The home town of the VFW honor guard that participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on May 29 was reported incorrectly. It is from Mountville, Pa.
Twenty-five years ago the remains of two unidentified servicemen, one from World War II and the other from Korea, were laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. Among the hundreds of groups that participated in the ceremony was an honor guard from the Veterans of Foreign Wars, a group of 71 men composed of veterans from Pennsylvania and the Washington area.
Yesterday, in the dreary morning rain, some who had been in that contingent gathered again at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to commemorate that day in May 1958 and the special meaning that it holds in their lives.
The boot heels still clicked smartly, and the salutes were crisp despite the soggy climate when the wreath of red and white chrysanthemums was placed before the memorial grave. A four-man color guard flanked the tomb, while the other veterans faced it in salute. A bugler played taps as the crowd of about 100 stood in silence.
The date of the reunion, on the eve of Memorial Day, was chosen to allow the groups from Pennsylvania to return home today in time to participate in their local observances.
The official commemoration of Memorial Day will take place at Arlington today at 11 a.m. when Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Thayer, representing President Reagan, will lay a wreath at the tomb. A plaque representing the unidentified dead from the Vietnam war will be dedicated and placed at the shrine at 11 a.m.
Yesterday, after their brief ceremony, the 19 veterans posed on the steps of the amphitheater as wives and fellow veterans took pictures for the veterans' posts back home.
After a quarter of a century, some of the details of that earlier ceremony may have blurred, but all of the group remembered standing at "Present arms" on the grassy slope opposite those steps for what had seemed like hours after a five-mile parade on what was recalled as a scorchingly hot day.
"It must have been in the nineties," said Robert Keck, 57, one of eight "originals" who returned from the Millersville Pa. VFW group.
"I had heard it was about 82 degrees," said Raymond Herr, 65, also from Millersville.
"It had to be in the nineties," Keck insisted. "Some of the guys on the bridge were dropping like flies."
Whatever the temperature, it was important to remember, everyone agreed, that while some of the younger, active servicemen wilted that day, the contingent from the VFW never faltered.
Bill Ross, a member of the Washington-based VFW National Honor Guard from Hyattsville, said that he was proud to stand in tribute at the memorial again, even in the rain.
The men pointed out that the VFW is the only organization not an active military unit that is permitted to perform in ceremonies held at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
"Basically, underneath it all, when the chips are down, patriotism is still there," said Ross. "I would have stood there all day, if need be."
"You'd best believe it," chimed in Howard Collier, a truck driver from Media Pa., who said that he had been thinking about this visit while driving his 75-mile route every day since January.
"It's just been creeping up inside me for months," said Collier.
Bill Brady, 61, another veteran from Media, recalled that the VFW unit was "the lowest on the totem pole" 25 years ago, when hundreds of military groups marched ahead of them in the parade on Constitution Ave, but that they probably stood closest to the remains of the unknown servicemen that were entombed that day, "right there, in front of the cassions."
The Arlington Memorial Amphitheater was dedicated in 1920. The following year, the remains of an unknown soldier from World War I were interred there and in 1931 the original tomb, a solid block of marble, was completed.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier originally was dedicated as a memorial to the unidentified dead of World War I. It was expanded when, on May 30, 1958, the remains of unidentified servicemen from World War II and the Korean conflict were entombed there.
VFW members, Brady said, take special pride in guarding the memories of those who have served their country, and for many it is their dream to be buried with other veterans in their home communities or in Arlington Cemetery.
"Maybe a psychologist would say it's just a desire to return to a group, where you were a unit and were trained together," Brady said. "You get that feeling."