-Ronald M. Johnson
It was a moment born of war and remembrance. Two flag-draped caskets, side by side, rested on black catafalques in the filtered light of the Capitol Rotunda. Long lines waited patiently to view them. Many of those who passed by must have thought of Pearl Harbor, Normandy, Iwo Jima, Chosin Reservoir, Inchon Landing, and all who had died in those and other battles during the preceding years of war.
Fifty-six years ago, during the last days of May, an event filled with poignant emotion unfolded in the Capitol Rotunda when a special tribute honored two unknown soldiers who had died serving their country during World War Two and the Korean War. As Congress had done in 1921 when a single unknown soldier laid in state in the Rotunda and was then moved to be the first so honored in the recently constructed Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This time the site hosted two individuals who had lost their lives in battle, their identities “known but to God,” as stated on the Tomb.
During a three-day period lasting from May 28 to 30, 28,000 people passed through the Rotunda, over 6,000 arriving the morning before burial. At 1 p.m. on May 30, a funeral procession bearing the two caskets began the slow march to Arlington National Cemetery where burial would occur in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This began the process that would expand the memorial to one representing more than just those who had died in World War One. The site had also earlier become a place of memory for those who had died during the Civil War and the Spanish-American War.
The 1958 funeral cortege included military units and featured President Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon, along with members of Congress and the Supreme Court. The estimated 100,000 who lined the streets grew silent as the procession passed. “Men bared their heads. Many men and women wept,” noted one newspaper account, as it “appeared from interviews that hundreds of bereaved parents and relatives of war dead had come here in the belief that perhaps the two unknown servicemen were theirs.” Warm temperatures marked the day and the final ceremonies movingly affirmed the significance of the burials.
Few in the crowds who viewed the caskets fully understood the lengthy effort that undergirded this expansion of the Tomb as a site of national memory. The effort was first authorized in 1946 by Congress as Public Law 429, sponsored by Illinois Congressman Charles M. Price, as a way to honor the fallen dead of World War Two. The long process of choosing two unknowns who represented all the branches of the military and the detailed planning of the ceremonies was further extended by the outbreak of hostilities in Korea in 1950.
That conflict, lasting until 1954, led Congress to expand Public Law 429 to include two unknown soldiers who had died during those years. Finally, in 1955, with the selection process completed and the Korean cease-fire line in place, the decision was made to go forth and add the additional soldiers to the Tomb. As in 1921, Americans united around the ceremony and joined in honoring the two lost lives. Later, in 1984, a fourth unknown solider who represented those who died in Vietnam would be added with a similar ceremony at both the Capitol and the Tomb.
The act of honoring the military dead has greatly deepened the tradition of lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda. In death, there must be remembrance. In dying for one’s country, whether a President, Senator, General, Civil Rights activist, or a soldier fallen in battle, there is national remembrance. Such occasions, especially those in the Capitol Rotunda, serve to unite us as a nation and transcend the many factors that otherwise might divide us as a society. We are brought together in a public affirmation of national service and individual sacrifice.
Note on the Sources: The historical background on the 1958 event can be found in B.C Mossman and M.W. Stark, The Last Salute: Civil and Military Funerals, 1921-1969 (Department of Army, Washington, D.C., 1991), pp. 93-124. The New York Times, May 31, 1958 carried a front-page story of the event and provided important details of the event. A helpful on-line source is the Architect of the Capitol’s “Explore Capitol Hill” and its discussion of “Lying in State,” found at http://www.aoc.gov/nations-stage/lying-state.