Arlington National Cemetery on Tuesday opened the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Plaza to the public, allowing people to approach and lay flowers for the first time in nearly 100 years.
The opening of the plaza is part of the Centennial Commemoration of the Tomb that runs from Tuesday and Wednesday. The event is free and open to the public.
The plaza’s entry is usually only reserved for members of “The Old Guard,” sentinels in the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment who stand watch constantly at the landmark.
President Warren G. Harding and former President Woodrow Wilson took part in the first ceremony on Nov. 11, 1921. UPI reported that day that more than 100,000 people attended to pay the last tribute to the remains of an unknown soldier from World War I.
The procession carrying the body from the Capitol rotunda, where it had lain in state, to the cemetery included Harding’s Cabinet, governors from each state, and members of Congress.
“While a fiery dawn filled the sky the rumble of artillery, the hoof, beat of horses and the tramp of marching feet came through the mist, the host of a mourning nation gathering at the Capitol to bear America’s heroic dead to his final resting place,” UPI correspondent Herbert W. Walker reported.
Remains of unknown soldiers from later wars were added in 1958 and 1984.
“The tomb has served as the heart of Arlington National Cemetery,” Karen Durham-Aguilera, executive director of Army National Military Cemeteries and Arlington, said in a statement. “It is a people’s memorial that inspires reflection on service, valor, sacrifice and mourning.
“As a sacred memorial site and the grave of three unknown American service members, the tomb connects visitors with the legacy of the U.S. armed forces throughout the nation’s history.”
Harry Rock Above, a descendant of Crow Nation Chief Plenty Coups, who attended the original burial, spoke at the ceremony Tuesday, which coincides with National Native American Heritage Month.
Members of the tribe were the first to lay flowers at the tomb.
A stream of visitors took advantage of the rare opportunity to pay respects on Tuesday, pausing only to watch the Old Guard take part in an abbreviated changing of the guard ceremonies at the top of each hour.
A public flower ceremony will be held from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. EST Tuesday and Wednesday.
The ceremony will conclude Wednesday with the original benediction recited by the Army Chief of Chaplains, Maj. Gen. Thomas L.Solhjem.
On Thursday, in recognition of Veteran’s Day, the public will be invited to observe a joint full honors procession meant to replicate elements of the World War I Unknown Soldier’s 1921 funeral procession and a joint service flyover with aircraft from all branches of the military.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough is scheduled to host an invitation-only Presidential Armed Forces Full Honor Wreath-Laying Ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the National Veterans Day Observance at the Memorial Amphitheater.
“Throughout this year, the cemetery has held events leading up to the centennial ceremony,” Charles “Ray” Alexander Jr., superintendent of Arlington National Cemetery, said. “We encourage the public to experience and participate in the commemorative events in many ways, both at the cemetery and virtually.