People travel to Washington from all over the world to experience the sights that we routinely pass right by. That’s even true for Arlington National Cemetery, the Old Post Office and the Washington Monument.
“[Washington] is understated and elegant. It’s so impressive,” says Irene Thompson of Northern Ireland as she walks with her sister-in-law, Anne Thompson, through the cemetery on a DC by Foot tour of about 50 people.
Every Saturday at 10 a.m., DC by Foot offers free tours of the cemetery where soldiers from the Revolutionary War though the Iraq War, as well as other notables, are buried. The tours are fast-paced and fact-filled and will leave you at once with a sense of awe for the beauty of the cemetery as well as the many interesting and surprising stories of people buried there.
The two best-known stops at the cemetery, the eternal flame that marks President John F. Kennedy’s grave and the Tomb of the Unknowns, are on the tour. But the cemetery is home to more than 400,000 resting places, and as tour guide Christopher Rehling pointed out on a recent tour, that’s more than 400,000 stories.
“See that white headstone?” Rehling asks the tour. “That’s James Doolittle.” During World War II, Doolittle was responsible for the first air attack on the Japanese after Pearl Harbor. Alec Baldwin played him in the movie “Pearl Harbor.”
And that one over there? That’s Lee Marvin, Rehling explains. He earned a Purple Heart for his service in World War II and went on to become an actor playing Maj. John Reisman in “The Dirty Dozen.”
On a sloping hill, Rehling points to a memorial marker. “Glenn Miller, the band leader,” he says. His plane went down in Europe during World War II, and his remains were never recovered.
Most of the 13 Supreme Court justices buried in the cemetery are in Section 5, known informally as “Justice Hill.” Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who was the oldest serving justice at the age of 90, is one of them; the tour guide reminds us that Holmes wrote the court opinion for the unanimous ruling that made it illegal to falsely yell “fire” in a crowd.
Then there’s Abner Doubleday, the man most often credited with inventing America’s pastime, as indicated by the baseballs that line his black obelisk grave. In defense of Fort Sumter, he was the first Union soldier to fire a shot in the Civil War. Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the French-born architect who served in the Continental Army before designing the “federal city” of Washington, is buried just outside Gen. Robert E. Lee’s mansion, Arlington House, at the top of the hill. And William Howard Taft, the 27th president and the only one to serve as chief justice of the Supreme Court, is buried under a tree near the Women in Military Service for America Memorial.
The tour is packed with so many facts that it’s hard to process them all as you walk among the solemn beauty of the white gravestones and reflect.
“It’s phenomenal,” says Leslie Johns, a recruiter visiting from Mississippi. Her father fought in the Korean War and her husband, a Marine, died in Vietnam. “It means a lot,” she says.
When: Every Saturday and most Thursdays at 10 a.m. as well as additional tours throughout the summer months. Tours start promptly. Be prepared to walk at a brisk pace.
Where: Arlington National Cemetery, 1 Memorial Drive, Arlington. Meet to the right of the welcome center. DC by Foot tour guides wear bright orange shirts or vests.
Cost: Free, although the guides accept and welcome tips.
Information: Reserve a spot at www.freetoursbyfoot.com or call 202-370-1830. Walk-ups are accepted, but registration is preferred.