World War II Unknown Soldier

Summary of War

Starting with the Blitzkrieg upon Poland in 1939, the Axis powers, led by Germany and Adolf Hitler, began offensives throughout Europe. Eventually, most of Europe was occupied by Germany including France, with only Russia and England remaining. Japan, interested in domination of the Far East, aligned with Germany in this effort. While this occured, the United States of America (U.S.) stood off to the side. World War II (WWII) officially began for the U.S. in 1941 after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan. The next day, the U.S. declared war on the Axis powers. This would be a two front war, posing a serious challenge.

European Theater

Soon the U.S. invaded North Africa, jumped into Sicily and Anzio, pushed onto Rome and the soft underbelly of Europe. On June 6, 1944, Operation Overlord (D-Day) began with assaults by air and on beaches. Once a foothold was gained on the beaches, the Allies continued to push inland, eventually liberating Paris in August of 1944. This was followed by a massive airborne invasion of Holland in September 1944. Despite many fierce battles won by both sides, the Allied countries, mainly made up of the U.S., Great Britian, and Russia pushed Germany back into their homeland and it was there the atrocities Hitler committed against millions of people in the concentration camps (Holocaust) were discovered. The capture of Hitler ended with his suicide outside the "Fuhrer Bunker" in Berlin, and the surrender of Germany on May 7, 19451.

Pacific Theater

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese quickly sought to take Midway, Guam and Wake Island. The U.S. Navy had to quickly get the fleet back into the fight, and aircraft carriers became one of the key weapons. There were many famous battles during this campaign. The U.S. launched the "Doolittle Raid" on the Japanese homeland helping the morale of the troops and the nation, by launching bombers for the first time in history from the deck of carriers. Other battles at Midway Island, Guadalcanal, Wake, the Philippine islands, and Iwo Jima would show the world the determination of the U.S.

On August 6 and 9, 1945, the U.S., ordered by President Harry S. Truman, dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. WWII finally came to an end with the unconditional surrender of Japan on the deck of the battleship USS Missouri. While war with Japan had ended on August 15, 1945, Victory over Japan Day (V-J Day) is celebrated on September 2, when the surrender document was signed in Tokyo Bay.

1 The official surrender ceremony was held of May 8th, and called Victory in Europe Day (V-E Day).


Following the war, there was growing interest in having an unknown soldier from WWII laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery (ANC). On September 6, 1945, a bill providing for the interment in (ANC) of a WWII unknown was introduced in Congress by the Honorable Melvin Price of Illinois. The measure was approved in June 1946 as Public Law 429, 79th Congress. It directed the Secretary of War to return a WWII unknown soldier from overseas and to arrange for his burial with appropriate ceremonies near or beside the WWI Unknown Soldier buried in ANC. The original date set for the interment was Memorial Day, May 30, 1951.

On 10 November 1950, after the outbreak of hostilities in Korea, President Truman approved the recommendation that the intement of the WWII unknown soldier be postponed until it appeared advisable to revive the matter. This did not take place until after the Korean War came to an end in 1953 and now that war was over, the U.S. decided to select and bury an unknown from both WWII and the Korean War.

Since WWII was primarily fought in two theaters, there needed to be a selection of candidates from both theaters. The unknown candidate from the Pacific Theater (Trans-Pacific) would be selected at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, while the unknown candidate from the European Theater (Trans-Atlantic) would be selected at Epinal American Cemetery and Memorial in France. After each selection was made, the final selection would be made off the U.S. coast.

Read the complex story behind the selection and transportation of the candidates from each theater of operation HERE

Trans-Pacific Unknown Candidate

After the war, all U.S. unknowns from the Pacific Theater were buried in two locations; the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii or in the Fort McKinley American Cemetery and Memorial in Republic of the Philippines. A total of six candidates would be chosen from these locations, four from the Philippines and two from Hawaii. The final selection of the Trans-Pacific unknown candidate would be made on May 16, 1958.

Prior to this date, the appropriate candidates had to be brought to Hawaii from the Pacific Theater. The process for selecting the final candidates was completed in the following manner: numbers from the grave markers of six completely unidentifiable servicemen had been recorded on cards and sealed in unmarked envelopes; from these six envelopes, two were selected by drawing and subsequently were taken to the Army Mortuary in Honolulu; there the remains were examined to assure the absence of identity, and were prepared for the final selection ceremony. Also, four caskets had been chosen in the same manner at Fort McKinley, and had arrived at Hickam AFB on April 29, 1958 by U.S. Air Force transport.

The grassy mall at the base of the water tower at Hickam Air Force Base was chosen as the site of the selection ceremony. Honor and color guards from all the U.S. Armed Forces participated in the services. At the U.S. Army Mortuary the six unknown candidates were placed in identical caskets, in readiness for the final selection ceremony. All records pertaining to the unknown servicemen, both overseas and at home, were assembled and destroyed to prevent future speculation about the selected candidate.

The sky on May 16 was overcast, with clouds moving gently over Hickam and adjacent Pearl Harbor, the scenes of the first attack of WWII. After participating military personnel, invited guests and the public had taken their places, the ceremony began. Under a canopied area, the six U.S. flag-draped caskets were flanked by honor and color guards from the U.S. Armed Forces. In the center of the lawn stood an empty bier, destined to receive the honored casket after the final selection. On the bier a white carnation lei had been placed.

Colonel Glenn T. Eagleston, of the 313th Air Division, U.S. Air Force, a combat pilot with an impressive record in both WWII and the Korean War, had been designated to select the unknown candidate to represent the Pacific Theater. Colonel Eagleston lifted the lei from the empty bier, approached the six caskets under the canopy, and after a few seconds hesitation, placed the lei on one of the caskets. Accompanied by a muted roll of drums, military pallbearers then carried the Trans-Pacific unknown candidate to the waiting bier. Air Force Chaplain Colonel Howell G. Gum delivered a prayer of dedication, at the conclusion of which the National Anthem was played.

In the early morning hours of May 17th1958 a four engine C-54 Skymaster of the Fleet Tactical Support Squadron VR-21 received the Korean War Unknown and the Trans-Pacific candidate at Barbers Point Naval Air Station (NAS) and transported them to Naval Base at Guantanamo, Cuba.

Arriving at McCalla Field NAS Guantanamo, twelve Sailors accepted the caskets with reverence and respect and transported them to the Naval Hospital.

The caskets of the Korean War Unknown Soldier and the Trans-Pacific candidate remained under guard at the Navy mortuary until May 23, 1958 when they were transported to the dock and carried by motor launch to the starboard side of the USS Boston. At 11:10 a.m. on Friday May 23rd the Boston left her anchorage at Guantanamo for the North Atlantic.

View the USS Boston log for May 23, 1958 HERE

Trans-Atlantic Unknown Candidate

Selection of the Trans-Atlantic unknown candidate was conducted on May 12, 1958 at the Epinal American Cemetery and Memorial in France1. As was the case with the Trans-Pacific ceremonies, the first task was to have a representative group of remains assembled, from which an unknown candidate to represent those lost in the European Theater would be selected. To assure that all the unidentifiable dead of the European Theater were properly represented, 13 principal and 13 alternate unknowns were designated for disinterment. Remains were taken from the following cemeteries maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission:

Ardennes American Cemetery (3)
Brittany American Cemetery (1)
Florence American Cemetery (1)
Lorraine American Cemetery (1)
Luxembourg American Cemetery (1)
Netherlands American Cemetery (1)
Normandy American Cemetery (1)
North Africa American Cemetery (1)
Rhone American Cemetery (1)
Sicily-Rome American Cemetery (1)

The 13 principal unknowns were assembled in the mortuary in Frankfurt, Germany. Once in Frankfurt, the caskets were rearranged by successive teams of U.S. troops to assure their anonymity2. A suspension-span, white wooden canopy was erected at the cemetery, appropriately draped with red, white and blue bunting and equipped with floodlights.

The weather in France seemed to mirror that in Hawaii, with overcast skies. The 13 caskets were moved and placed on catafalques beneath the white canopy at the north end of the cemetery's Court of Honor. The caskets, draped with U.S. flags, overlooked a long grassy mall that terminated at a flagpole on which the U.S. flag flew at half-staff. Flanking the mall on either side were the white crosses and stars of David of the U.S. military dead. Honor and color guards from each of the U.S. Armed Forces entered the cemetery, and took their place facing the 13 caskets.

U.S. Army Major General Edward Joseph O'Neil, was designated to make the selection of the Trans-Atlantic unknown candidate. MG O'Neil moved briskly to a position near the bottom of the steps in front of the canopy-area, saluted the row of caskets, and bowed his head as the Chaplain offered a prayer of guidance. MG O'Neill then ascended the steps diagonally and walked slowly past the caskets, momentarily pausing in front of each casket. Next he descended the steps to his original position and faced the mall as his aide came forward with the selection wreath of red and white carnations, in the form of a white star on a crimson field against an evergreen background. MG O'Neill again ascended the steps, moving slowly to the fifth casket from the east. After standing the wreath in front of this casket, he stepped back and saluted. The ceremony concluded with the rendering of Taps, the U.S. National Anthem, and benediction.

Final Selection

The U.S. Navy was given the responsibility of selecting from one of the two unknown candidates for World War II. Once the two candidates had been selected, they were transported to a location off the east coast of the U.S. for the final selection ceremony aboard the USS Canberra.

View the USS Boston logs for May 26, 1958 HERE

By this time, the Korean War Unknown had been selected and joined both WWII candidates. The ceremony took place on May 26, 1958. One by one, the three teams of pallbearers, their steps in time to the measured cadence of Chopin's "Funeral March," carried the three caskets up to the rain-swept ceremonial area on the after-lower-missile deck. Each team of pallbearers was guarded by a U.S. Marine, with rifles carried at port arms.

With the sky-pointed Terrier missiles as backdrops, the caskets were placed in a row with the WWII unknown candidates on either side of the Korean War Unknown. Behind them, the U.S. Armed Forces Color Guard team strained to keep their colors erect against the wind. On either side of the USS Canberra rode the attending ships, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Ingham rolling gently at starboard and the USS Blandy to port.

Hospital Corpsman First Class William R. Charette, the U.S. Navy's only active duty recipient of the Medal of Honor (for actions during the Korean War), was designated to make the final selection of the WWII unknown. To the soft roll of drums, HM1 Charette marched briskly to the foot of the caskets, picked up the selection wreath of carnation, a white star in a red field, faced the caskets, saluted, and returned to the head of the biers. For a short time he stood silent, looking first to the left and then to the right. HM1 Charette, after first moving to the left, turned and walked to the casket on his right, placed the wreath carefully at the head, stepped back and saluted. With the final selection made, the caskets of the WWII and Korean War Unknowns were transferred back onto the USS Blandy.

The unknown candidate not selected, still aboard the USS Canberra, was readied for burial at sea. As the ship headed for deeper water, the order of "bury the dead" passed over the loudspeaker. As the ship stopped in her course, the wind died and the sea calmed. The remains of the unselected candidate were then removed from the casket, wrapped in the traditional white sailcloth shroud, and draped with the U.S. flag. Reverently, he was carried by six U.S. Navy pallbearers to a small mahogany platform on the starboard side of the ship. Here the ship's company was assembled on deck. Before the hushed assemblage, four chaplains, representing different faiths, each prayed in turn. With the ship rolling easily on the ocean swells, the final words of committal were spoken and the command of "Commit" was given. As the pallbearers tilted the mahogany sliding board, the weighted canvas shroud slid into the choppy waves, and the remains of this unknown American settled into 113 feet of water, thirty-three miles east of the Cape Henry Light. After the benediction, the firing of three volleys, and the rendering of Taps was sounded by a U.S. Navy bugler, ending the ceremony.

1 The cemetery is located in the Moselle River valley near the foothills of the Vosges Mountains, and is the final resting place of 5,255 U.S. war dead, and the names of 424 missing troops.

2 On April 25, 1958 all pertinent documents were destroyed.


With the final selection completed, the World War II and Korean War Unknown Soldiers then began the final journey to ANC.

View USS Blandy log for May 26, 1958 HERE
View page 2 of the USS Blandy log for May 26, 1958 HERE

On May 26, 1958, the two Unknowns, who were to be buried in ANC, were loaded onto the USS Blandy, escorted by the USCGC Ingham, was released to proceed up the Potomac to Washington, D.C. After anchoring overnight off Piney Point, Maryland, the USS Blandy and USCGC Ingham proceeded up the Potomac on the morning of May 27, 1958.

View the USS Blandy log for May 27, 1958 HERE

As they moved past Mount Vernon and the tomb of U.S. President George Washington, the ship's crew manned the rail according to tradition. A bell tolled, the ensign was lowered, and Taps was rendered over the Potomac as the sailors stood at attention. Shortly after noon the destroyer and the cutter arrived at the Naval Gun Factory to await the ceremonies planned for the following morning; then for the first time since the Unknowns had made the supreme sacrifice they would touch the soil of their U.S. homeland.

View the USS Blandy log for May 28, 1958 HERE

For the lying in state ceremony at the U.S. Capitol, the architect who had provided the catafalque for President Abraham Lincoln also designed an identical second catafalque. The two crypts at the Tomb also had been completed. Plans for the interment ceremonies been completed in early May 1958, and between May 12th and 23rd, every ceremony and every administrative function had been rehearsed at least twice. Some phases, such as traffic and parking control, were rehearsed four times.

On May 27, 1958, at 12:35 P.M., the USS Blandy arrived at the Naval Gun Factory. The caskets, accompanied by a joint honor guard, then were brought from below to the fantail ceremonial area in preparation for the reception ceremony the next day.

On May 28, 1958 troops and officials began to take stations for the ceremony. Aboard the USS Blandy, sailors and officers manned the rail. At 9:25 A.M., as the U.S. Navy Band concluded the hymns, the two groups of pallbearers boarded the ship to transfer the caskets. Once in position, the band sounded four ruffles and flourishes, and then played hymns as the caskets were borne from the USS Blandy. The World War II Unknown Soldier was taken ashore first. The caskets were carried to funeral coaches at the end of the pier and placed inside simultaneously. Following another salute, the procession departed.

The procession then moved up to the East Plaza of the U.S. Capitol. The pallbearers and color guard preceded the cortege to the Capitol, under separate police escort in order to arrive in time to meet the procession.

A joint honor cordon formed a corridor up the east steps to the Capitol rotunda. Inside the rotunda, standing six deep in a semicircle around the south end were many distinguished guests. The two catafalques were in the center of the rotunda.

As a hymn was played, the pallbearers removed the caskets from the funeral coaches and formed a column led by the clergy, with the WWII Unknown in front. The procession passed through the joint honor cordon at a slow cadence, and when it entered the rotunda divided to the right and left.

The pallbearers made a semicircle to the rotunda's far side then turned back to the catafalques in the center of the hall. The caskets were then placed on the biers and the pallbearers were dismissed. A Joint Guard of Honor (Death Watch) was then posted. U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon, as President of the Senate, placed a wreath at the head of the biers. Following him, the Speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn, and the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps, Dr. Guillermo Sevilla-Sacasa of Nicaragua, placed wreaths. Shortly after the wreath-laying ceremony ended, the public was admitted to the rotunda.

The Unknowns lay in state from May 28th to 30th. Tributes of flowers were accepted and arranged in the rotunda throughout this period. On May 29th, the caskets were switched so that the Korean War Unknown rested on the Lincoln Catafalque. At the same time, the catafalques were moved so that the WWII Unknown kept the senior position on the right.


On May 30th, the troops involved in the ceremonies started very early. Some 250 officers and men were to occupy fifty-one posts to cope with the 14,000 cars expected along the route and in ANC. The soldiers of the 3rd US Infantry Regiment (Old Guard), who were to man rope and security cordons, also arrived early. Part of them formed a cordon around the Memorial Amphitheater to keep the ceremonial area clear and later to direct movement from the amphitheater to the Tomb. Others manned a rope cordon along Roosevelt Drive, the route of the procession. In all, troops manned about six miles of rope. Medical aid was available during all phases of the ceremonies, due to the extreme heat. Four aid stations were set up, each staffed by a medical officer, nurse, and attendant and each equipped with supplies and an ambulance. Medics, in sedans, were to follow the procession to ANC to pick up and treat anyone who became ill in the ranks.

At 12:59 P.M., the U.S. Naval School of Music Band sounded attention. The pallbearers took up the caskets and, with the WWII Unknown leading, moved out of the rotunda. At the same moment, the saluting battery on the Washington Monument grounds began firing minute guns. The firing continued until the close of ceremonies at the cemetery except for a pause during two minutes of silence observed at the Memorial Amphitheater. The cease-fire signal for the minute guns was the firing of the first round of the final 21-gun salute at ANC.

The procession halted at the top of the steps while the U.S. Navy Band sounded four ruffles and flourishes and then began a hymn. During the hymn the procession descended the steps and the caskets were secured to the caissons.

The Joint Armed Forces Color Guard took post ten paces ahead of the clergy, while the pallbearers stationed themselves three on each side of each caisson. The cortege then moved north from the plaza to join the escort of the procession on Constitution Avenue.

The full procession started toward ANC a few minutes after 1:00 P.M. Along the route was a joint honor cordon. When the procession arrived at ANC, the caissons, which had been moving abreast, shifted into a column led by the caisson bearing the WWII Unknown. As the caissons entered ANC through Memorial Gate, twenty jet fighters and bombers passed overhead with one plane missing from each formation.

After the audience was seated, the U.S. Army Band (Pershing's Own), played four ruffles and flourishes, followed by a hymn. During the hymn the pallbearers removed the caskets from the caissons and, led as before by clergy and colors, carried them inside. The WWII Unknown was borne through the south entrance and the Korean War Unknown through the entrance on the north. Just inside the Memorial Amphitheater, each casket was set on a movable bier and wheeled around the colonnade to the apse, where the WWII Unknown was placed in front of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Korean War Unknown in front of Vice President Nixon.

After the caskets were situated, the Marine Band played the U.S. National Anthem. Following the invocation, a bugler sounded attention three times and a two-minute period of silence followed. President Eisenhower then arose and placed a Medal of Honor on each casket. As the funeral service was brought to a close, the Unknowns were taken to the Memorial Amphitheater Trophy Room. The Presidential party also withdrew to the Trophy Room, while the audience made its way to the Tomb Plaza for the committal.

There the procession halted while the Pershing's Own sounded four ruffles and flourishes. After this salute the procession descended the steps, and the pallbearers placed the caskets over the crypts. They then took hold of the U.S. flags that had draped the caskets and held them taut above the caskets.

The salute battery, from the Old Guard, then fired twenty-one guns. At the first round, the minute-gun battery on the Washington Monument grounds ceased firing. After the gun salute a firing party from the Old Guard fired the traditional three volleys followed by the rendering of Taps. The pallbearers then folded the U.S. flags and presented them to the President and Vice President, who in turn gave them to the ANC officials for safekeeping1. The presentation of the U.S. flags ended the committal. After the participants had left the Tomb Plaza, the public was allowed to file by the crypts and pay their respects. Later in the evening, ANC Superintendent John C. "Jack" Metzler and his assistant, F. A. Lockwood, lowered the caskets. The pallbearers stood behind a guide chain and saluted as the caskets were lowered into their respective crypts.

The final act, not part of any planned ceremony, took place on June 2nd, 1958. On that date, each crypt was filled with a concrete slab and topped with white marble. The marble tops bore only dates: 1941-1945 for the WWII Unknown, and 1950-1953 for the Korean War Unknown. At the same time, the dates 1917-1918 for the WWI Unknown were carved in the pavement in front of the Tomb.

1 These U.S. flags are currently on display in the Memorial Amphitheater Trophy Room along with the U.S. flags from the caskets of the WWI and Vietnam War Unknowns.

Support the Society

The Society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (SHGTUS) is able to provide our programs, events, assistance, scholarships, and services due to the generosity of its members, organizations, and individuals. SHGTUS does not receive institutional funding. Note: The Society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a 501(c)(3) organization, so your contributions may be fully tax deductible.