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Thousands lay flowers at Tomb of the Unknowns to mark its centennial

In a first, members of public follow the path where sentinels keep their 24/7 watch.

People walk to place flowers during a centennial commemoration event at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery on Nov. 9. (Alex Brandon/Pool/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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Thousands of people joined a solemn procession at Arlington National Cemetery on Tuesday, following a path trod for decades by only the Old Guard, to lay flowers and pay respect to the nation’s military dead at the Tomb of the Unknowns in honor of its centennial.

The line moved at a steady pace and the row of flowers — the stems arrayed side by side, along with slips of paper and small U.S. flags — rose steadily higher as a uniformed sentinel of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as the Old Guard, kept precise, ritualistic vigil on the eastern side of the massive stone crypt overlooking the cemetery and the nation’s capital.

The event — which continues Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and is open to members of the public who must register to attend — was one of several to commemorate the establishment of the tomb 100 years ago. A memorial procession, accompanied by a military flyover, will be held Thursday beginning at the main entrance on Memorial Avenue near the welcome center; the public will be able to observe.

Some people attended Tuesday’s ceremony in formal funerary attire, while others came in shorts, sneakers and T-shirts. Some wore masks because of the pandemic, but many did not. They filled the plaza and the steps above the memorial and yet remained so quiet that the breeze could be heard sifting copper-colored leaves from a nearby tree.

One man knelt at the foot of the tomb and made the sign of the cross before leaving a flower. Four people dressed in black motorcycle vests, black jeans and riding boots saluted the tomb, then turned toward the public before marching off. A woman pushed her walker across the plaza, its wheels squeaking faintly on the stones. An Air Force major paused to take a picture but was asked by guards to keep moving. Some sat on the stairs above the plaza, watching the line go past. Others took pictures.

The hush was broken now and then by passenger jets in slow descent toward Reagan National Airport, or an occasional three-gun volley from military funerals somewhere far off on the cemetery’s grounds.

Rixie Lowden, of San Clemente, Calif., who was in Washington to attend her father’s funeral at the cemetery the day before, came to view the changing of the guard and lay a bouquet of daisies, roses and carnations at the tomb.

“Because I am the daughter of a Marine, I was just thinking about all the fallen people that have come here … and especially for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and what that would mean for me if that had been my dad that was never found,” said Lowden, whose father, ret. Sgt. Maj. James D. Lowden, had served 30 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, including two tours in Vietnam, before his death at the age of 75. “How sad that would be if we never knew where he was or what happened to him.”

The soul of America: The day the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was dedicated

The memorial was established following World War I to commemorate what, at least until then, had been an unprecedented level of carnage in modern warfare. More than 100,000 Americans perished, as did hundreds of thousands of French, British, Germans and others. At the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, more than 19,000 British soldiers were killed in a single day — most within the first 30 minutes, historian John Keegan wrote. The war ended on Nov. 11, 1918.

America's bloodiest battle occurred during World War I, historians say

Three years later, thousands lined the District’s streets to watch as a horse-drawn casket carried the remains of an unknown American soldier through the city, over the Potomac River and into the cemetery.

Thousands of people visited Arlington National Cemetery on Nov. 10 for the centennial anniversary of the Tomb of the Unknowns. (Video: The Washington Post)

On Tuesday, Raymond and Robert Longo, two brothers from the Washington metro area, said they wanted to join the procession to honor the sacrifice of everyone who has served in the military.

“It’s a reverence for those served and for what the unknowns represent,” said Raymond Longo, 56, of Ashburn, Va., who served 22 years in the Air Force and National Guard. He said he wanted to take advantage of the historic opportunity to pay his respects at the foot of the tomb. “It’s the sacrifice,” he said. “Everyone who has served has sacrificed, and they represent the ultimate sacrifice.”

Robert Longo, 61, of Germantown, Md., said he wanted to honor not just those who served but those who serve now. “I support the military and everything they stand for,” he said.

The Revs. Tim Wezner and Brian Meldrum — both of whom live and serve parishes in Michigan but are on leave studying at the Catholic University of America in the District — joined the procession in keeping with the Catholic Church’s dedication of November for venerating the dead and honoring the sacrifice made by many military people.

“They went away and never came back,” said Wezner, 40, who recited the traditional Catholic prayer for the dead.

The procession to walk on the plaza and lay a flower at the tomb will resume Wednesday. Those wishing to participate are asked to register at Attendees must have government-issued identification. Visitors are encouraged to bring their own flowers but complimentary roses, daisies and sunflowers will be available.

The cemetery’s trams will be available free of charge for the public to reach the Memorial Amphitheater, adjacent to the tomb.