Monday, November 10, 2008

Tomb of Unknowns: Repair or replace?

Tomb of Unknowns: Repair or replace?

Monument remains symbol of sacrifice, patriotism
By Dennis Camire - Gannett News Service
Posted : Friday Nov 7, 2008 15:08:36 EST

ARLINGTON, Va. — A proposal to replace the cracked and weathered white marble monument that crowns the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery has stirred up a years-long controversy.

The always-guarded tomb to the nation’s war dead is a potent symbol of sacrifice and patriotism and the above-ground monument, which has cracks running 48 feet around it, is the most visible part of it.

Congress authorized the tomb in 1921 as a memorial to honor the unknown dead of World War I, which had ended three years earlier. On Nov. 11 that year — then known as Armistice Day and now Veterans Day — an unidentified American soldier from the war was interred in an underground vault.

“The Tomb of the Unknowns is the most important war memorial in America, bar none,” said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “It is iconic in the regard in which it’s held by all Americans, but especially veterans and families of those who have died in our country’s wars.”

For years, Army officials have studied the idea of building a replica because of concerns that the damage, which is getting worse despite repairs, is distracting from the monument’s solemn appearance. Moreover, officials say, replacement marble is becoming scarce and should be secured now.

An August report said the Army would again repair the monument while a final decision is being made. The repairs would cost about $65,000, and a replica monument would cost about $2.2 million.

“The importance of preserving that tomb as long as possible is paramount,” said Tom Sherlock, the cemetery historian. “The decision has been made to repair as much as possible and to only ultimately replace it if that becomes a necessity in the future.”

Preservationists and others argue that repairs should continue since the authentic monument conveys a symbolism that a replica cannot duplicate.

Moe said the latest Army report was a victory of sorts.

“We are not totally satisfied with this, but for at least this go-around, we seemed to have persuaded them to repair it and not replace it,” he said. “It is important to have the authentic tomb that was there when the first remains were interred.”

Harold Phillips of Port Deposit, Md., who was visiting the tomb for the first time in October, said being able to see the original monument carries a deeper meaning for him.

“Anything and everything we can do to try to create that type of patriotism, and honor those who [have] sacrificed for you, needs to be done,” he said.

The sarcophagus-shaped monument is a solid block of marble, weighing 36 tons and topped with a 12-ton cap and resting on a 16-ton base, according to the U.S. Army Military District of Washington. Four other pieces of marble are used in the sub-base.

In the years since 1921, unknown service members from World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam were added, with their tombs marked by marble slabs in the tomb’s plaza.

The Vietnam soldier’s remains were later exhumed and identified, and that tomb remains vacant, although a new plaque was added to honor the nation’s missing service members from 1958 to 1975.

The Army’s new report said the cracks are not compromising the stone’s structural integrity and are repairable, but the monument’s condition will continue to deteriorate.

Repeated repairs will leave the monument looking “patched, worn and shabby,” counter to the cemetery’s purpose of maintaining a dignified memorial to the nation’s war dead, the report said.

The Army has support for its position of repairing the monument now but keeping the option open to replace it in the future.

“Repairing it would be the best option because of the symbolism,” said William Gray of Big Rock, Tenn., who was also visiting the tomb for the first time. “If that is not practical, it needs to be replaced because it needs to be in good condition.”

The Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion also support the Army’s strategy.

“If the best short-term course of action is to continue spot repairs, then the replacement of the tomb monument must also be fully considered,” said Glen Gardner, national commander of the VFW. “Hallowed ground is only sacred if people care enough to maintain it.”

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