There has been an email circulating for well over 13 years. The email starts:
“On Jeopardy the other night (MD: !), the final question was: “How many steps does the guard take during his walk across the Tomb of the Unknowns?” All three contestants missed it! This is really an awesome sight to watch if you’ve never had the chance.”
The email (read a full version here in PDF) goes on to give a prolonged and largely true answer. However, thanks to the good work at Snopes, I wanted to put out a cleaner and more accurate version out there.
Working through the Jeopardy archives, the only specific question and date I could find was in episode #4751 on April 11, 2005, which makes the initial email confusing since it would seem to ante-date the Jeopardy question:
“ARLINGTON’S TOMB OF UNKNOWNS: Sentinels at the tomb walk exactly this many steps at a time before they stop & turn”
In terms of my own discoveries, I wasn’t sure if the right name is Tomb of the Unknown Soldier or the Tomb of the Unknowns. It turns out that it is commonly known by both, but there is no official name.
Herewith, a breakdown of the still-circulating email.
- How many steps does the guard take during his walk across the Tomb of the Unknowns and why?
ANS: 21 steps: It alludes to the twenty-one-gun salute which is the highest honor given any military or foreign dignitary.
Snopes says: The guards do make 21-step walks past the Tomb of the Unknowns because 21 is considered a number of special significance. It relates to a naval “code” of canons on land replying with 21 shots to a ship’s 7-gun salute. Read here for the origins of the 21-gun salute.
- How long does he hesitate after his about face to begin his return walk and why?ANS: 21 seconds for the same reason as answer number 1.
Snopes says: This is a somewhat true but incomplete statement. The guard does not execute an about-face, and there is more involved in the procedure than is described here. This other site describes the process more precisely.
- Why are his gloves wet?
ANS: His gloves are moistened to prevent his losing his grip on the rifle.
Snopes says: Correct.
- Does he carry his rifle on the same shoulder all the time and, if not, why not? |
ANS: He carries the rifle on the shoulder away from the tomb. After his march across the path, he executes an about face and moves the rifle to the outside shoulder.
Snopes says: OK.
- How often are the guards changed?
ANS: Guards are changed every thirty minutes, twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year.
Snopes says: From 1926 through 1937, the Tomb was guarded only during daylight hours. Ever since 1937, it has been continuously guarded 24 hours a day, every day of the year. Sentinel guards are changed every thirty minutes between 8 AM and 7 PM during the period from early Spring to early Autumn (April 1 through September 30), and every hour between 8 AM to 5 PM the rest of the year. At all other times (i.e., while the cemetery is closed), the guard is changed every two hours.
- What are the physical traits of the guard limited to?
ANS: For a person to apply for guard duty at the tomb, he must be between 5′ 10′ and 6′ 2′ tall and his waist size cannot exceed 30.
Other claims in the email:
They must commit 2 years of life to guard the tomb, live in a barracks under the tomb…,
Snopes says: Incorrect. “Sentinels at the Tomb do not have to commit to serving there for any fixed period of time, and the average tour of duty is only about half the two year period claimed here. Like most servicemen, Tomb guards may live either on-base … or off-base in housing of their choosing.
…[they] cannot drink any alcohol on or off duty for the rest of their lives.
Snopes says: Incorrect. There are no restrictions on guards’ off-duty drinking.
After two years, the guard is given a wreath pin that is worn on their lapel signifying they served as guard of the tomb. There are only 400 presently worn. The guard must obey these rules for the rest of their lives or give up the wreath pin.
Snopes says: Incorrect. The badge is worn on the pocket of a uniform jacket, not a pin worn on the lapel.
The shoes are specially made with very thick soles to keep the heat and cold from their feet. There are metal heel plates that extend to the top of the shoe in order to make the loud click as they come to a halt.
Snopes says: Incorrect. The shoes are standard issue military dress shoes.
The first six months of duty a guard cannot talk to anyone nor watch TV.
Snopes says: Incorrect. “A Tomb guard’s behavior is not so stringently regulated that he is prohibited from speaking to anyone for a full six months (someone seems to have confused the Old Guard with a monastery!), and guards may do whatever they want (including watching TV) during their off-duty hours.”
Every guard spends five hours a day getting his uniforms ready for guard duty.
Snopes says: Correct.
Post Scriptum from snopes
Although serving as President of the United States qualifies one to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, only two former Presidents are interred there: William Howard Taft and John F. Kennedy.
Post scriptum in the email
The email I received went on with a further tribute:
In 2003 as Hurricane Isabelle was approaching Washington, DC, our US Senate/House took 2 days off with anticipation of the storm. On the ABC evening news, it was reported that because of the dangers from the hurricane, the military members assigned the duty of guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns were given permission to suspend the assignment. They respectfully declined the offer, “No way, Sir!” Soaked to the skin, marching in the pelting rain of a tropical storm, they said that guarding the Tomb was not just an assignment, it was the highest honor that can be afforded to a service person. The tomb has been patrolled continuously, 24/7, since 1930.
In any event, while there are some inaccuracies in the email, the intention is good. This post is my small little tribute to the men and women who serve and a special salute to the guards.
By the way: The word TOMB appears 21 times in the article above!
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