WWI vets were architect and sculptor behind Tomb of Unknowns
What do a private first class, a sacred American monument and a fabled university have in common?
Lorimer Rich already had his degree from Syracuse University in New York when he answered his nation’s call as an Army infantryman during World War I. He remained in Europe after the war, studying classical architecture at the American Academy in Rome.
Back in the U.S., he headed to New York City to associate with other young architects, sculptors and painters seeking to learn from local masters, and embarked on a career that saw him rub elbows within the upper ranks of his profession. After eight years with the architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White during the Big Apple’s building renaissance of the late 1920s, Rich struck out on his own.
An architect’s seminal work
Within a year of establishing his own business, the former muddy boots Soldier had collaborated with sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones and was selected as architect for the Tomb of the Unknowns. He bested a field of 85 candidates.
Later, Rich would teach at Columbia University in addition to designing a plethora of government and other important buildings, including both the law school and the renovated Archbold Gymnasium at his alma mater. He also achieved fellowship status in the American Institute of Architects.
But the Tomb of the Unknowns remains his signature project.
And what a project it was: After the first Unknown was interred in the Tomb, Nov. 11, 1921 – then Armistice Day – Congress authorized $50,000 and announced the design competition which would lead to planned Tomb completion in 1926. Funds were not appropriated until 1929, however. Then the Vermont Marble Company spent a year painstakingly removing the 124-ton block of Yule marble (the same rare marble that comprises the surface of the Lincoln Monument) from the Yule Creek Valley in Colorado’s West Elk Mountains.
It took the work of 75 men to cut the block down to 56 tons, remove it from the quarry and prepare it for the four-day journey to West Rutland, Vermont. Craftsman in Proctor, Vermont, then cut the marble to its final size before shipping it to Arlington National Cemetery by rail.
It was September 1931 before a total of seven blocks, per Rich’s design, were in place at the cemetery. Even then, carving was delayed by three more months when an imperfection was discovered in the base, requiring three additional tedious, logistically challenging quarryings. Finally, sculptor Jones supervised the work of the Piccirilli brothers (the same team that carved Lincoln’s statue, and the task was completed without formal ceremony, April 9, 1932.
Just as President Warren G. Harding personally officiated at the 1921 interment, the three subsequent funerals (World War II, Korea and Vietnam) were led by presidents. The incumbent commander in chief also presented each Unknown with the Medal of Honor and acted as next of kin in accepting the burial flag.
Beginning with the First World War, each set of remains was chosen from among four “unknowns” by a highly decorated, enlisted combat veteran of that particular war.
Owing to advances in DNA testing, today there are only three warriors interred at the Tomb of the Unknowns: Air Force 1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie, the Vietnam Unknown, was identified and his remains were returned to his family in St. Louis. The pilot was reinterred at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, July 11, 1998.
His former slab in Arlington has been replaced with one that reads, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen.”
The sentinels, who ensure a ‘round the clock, day and night watch over the Tomb, have their own traditions.
It is deemed honor enough to receive orders to the Arlington-based 3d U.S.Infantry Regiment (“The Old Guard”), but those who aspire to actually guard The Tomb of the Unknowns are vetted through an arduous training and initiation regimen which includes intense memory work, superior physical stamina and an expert, demonstrated knowledge of drill and ceremony.
The badge, permanently awarded to Tomb guards only after nine months of successful service, is a hard one to obtain, second only to the Army Astronaut Badge in its rarity. Fewer than 20 percent of all sentinel volunteers are chosen. In 1963, the Tomb Guard Identification Badge was designated as one that could be worn by its recipient as a permanent part of the Soldier’s military uniform. And it is the only badge awarded by the United States Army that can be revoked for “any act which would bring discredit upon the Tomb of the Unknowns.”
Former Tomb Sergeant of the Guard, Sgt. 1st Class Tanner M. Welch of Austin, Texas, now stationed in Germany, said that “the badge means nothing by itself. It is a reminder of the expectation to perform to the very best of my abilities every day.”
When asked if there was a sense of awe attached to his Arlington assignment, or any special moments he remembers, the three-tour Iraq vet said he was “aware of the enormity of the job when I took it, (having) been in the regiment for several years before attempting training at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.”
Still, Welch added, “it was a unique experience (to be) standing at the end of the mat facing the president of the United States and knowing my next steps would take me face to face with him.”
And, while he was allowed “numerous opportunities for incredible interactions” with people ranging from Jimmy Doolittle’s co-pilot to one of the few surviving quadruple amputees to French President Francois Hollande, he remembers most “the time spent at the Tomb during snow storms when everyone else stays home.
“D.C. is quiet,” the NCO said, “and when the snow first starts to drop you can almost literally hear the flakes hit the ground. In that silence, seemingly alone with the Unknowns, reflecting on many things – that is the memory that stands out the most.”
Academe meets patriotism
The long line of service Welch represents dates back to Rich, his designs and his service. Rich also reflects another longstanding tradition: the connection between Syracuse and the military. For two decades during the Cold War, Syracuse professors taught Russian and Slavic to Air Force linguists, for example.
The school continues to partner with the Department of Defense, providing programs and services that are noteworthy even in the current national wave of higher education support fueled by the robust Post-9/11 G.I. Bill. The “Big Orange” is home to the Defense Comptroller Program at the Martin J. Whitman School of Management, and the Military Photojournalism Program. It also boasts the Entrepreneurship Boot Camp for Veterans with Disabilities.
Shortly after coming aboard in 2014, Syracuse Chancellor Kent Syverud appointed an Air Force veteran, Dr. J. Michael Haynie, as vice-chancellor for military and veterans affairs, putting real teeth (and funding) into Syverud’s vow to make the university “the place for veterans.” They are even exploring adding a medical school designed specifically to teach doctors how best to treat veterans.
Plans are already on the table for a National Veterans Resource Complex that will place Syracuse’s Army and Air Force ROTC units in the same building with the school’s Student Veterans Organization. An intrinsic benefit will be the valuable synergy between those training to serve and “veterans that have done it,” said current SVO president, John Miccio, an information management and technology major who had six years in the Army.
Meantime, military and veterans observances take on special meaning befitting of a school that prides itself on its 1946 ”G.I. Bulge” (when student enrollment doubled with 9,464 WWII veterans), the football team’s relationship with the 10th Mountain Division at nearby Fort Drum, and the frequent campus sightings of T-shirts which read: “Real Veterans Wear Orange.”
Veterans Day 2015, for example, the multi-layered observance ran an entire week, including a special tribute to that World War I Soldier who became an architect. But an even higher honor had been bestowed on Rich in 1978; that’s when President Jimmy Carter personally approved a particular interment at Arlington National Cemetery.
Today Pfc. Lorimer Rich, U.S. Army, Syracuse University Class of 1914, rests in Lot 48, directly behind the Tomb of the Unknowns.
Editor’s note: This particular perspective on the Tomb of the Unknowns was the brainchild of Soldiers photojournalist Sgt. Jose A. Torres Jr., a former member of The Old Guard and a graduate of Syracuse University’s Military Photojournalism Program, administered by the Newhouse School of Public Communications. Veterans Day 2015, Torres was honored by the university during a multimedia concert, which featured photographs he had taken of Old Guard Soldiers performing their duties at Arlington National Cemetery.