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The AAA Companion
July | August 2004
Volume 78 Issue 4
Feature Article

Guarding History and Tradition
A visit to Arlington National Cemetery should include a stopover at nearby Fort Myer.     

U.S. Army Military District of Washington
By Nancy Hoyt Belcher

The expectant crowd falls quiet as an impeccably dressed soldier appears on the plaza. He announces the changing of the guard — his voice carrying over the crowd and across fields of endless white crosses. Two other soldiers step in measured time, as if to define and mark every life that has been lost. Their focus is intense, their bearing respectful.

The children look on with a sense of wonder; the adults look inward.
At Arlington National Cemetery — our nation's shrine to the men and women who have defended our country — the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns can be a highlight of any trip to Washington, D.C.

Few of those watching, however, realize that the soldiers of the Tomb Guard are all volunteers of the elite U.S. Army 3rd Infantry, stationed at Fort Myer, adjacent to the cemetery. And that the 3rd U.S. Infantry, know as "The Old Guard," is the army's oldest active infantry regiment — older than the Constitution — dating back to 1784.

For those who want to learn more, Fort Myer is open to the public and well worth a visit.

In fact, the fort has played some of the most significant roles in our nation's history. The land that it, and the cemetery, occupy was once owned by the family of Robert E. Lee, who led the Army of Northern Virginia and then the Confederate forces during the Civil War. After the Civil War, Fort Myer housed the fledgling Signal Corps and subsequently a cavalry post, including two Buffalo Soldier units. In 1949 President Harry S. Truman reactivated the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment as a ceremonial unit and for security in the Washington region; he named it "Honor Guard to the President" in 1952.

Today, in their official capacity, soldiers of The Old Guard (said to be the crème de la crème of the Army), are responsible for military ceremonies at the White House, the Pentagon and national memorials, in addition to maintaining the 24-hour vigil at the Tomb of the Unknowns. They also serve as the mounted escorts for funerals at Arlington National Cemetery.

The primary ceremonial site, Summerall Field, is where the first military test flight of an aircraft was made in 1908; the pilot was Orville Wright and he stayed in the air for one minute and 11 seconds. His second test flight crashed after four minutes. Wright was injured and his passenger, Lt. Thomas Selfridge, was killed, becoming the first powered aviation fatality. A marker that indicates the crash site is in front of Headquarters.

A major attraction open for touring at Fort Myer is the century-old stable that houses the horses and caissons of The Old Guard Caisson Platoon, where the Army's only official horses are kept. Visitors can walk about on their own or ask for a soldier to provide a guided tour.

Available for inspection are the caisson rooms; the farrier (blacksmith) room; and the tack rooms, where the soldiers maintain and polish all tack and equipment daily, and where children delight in "riding" the life-sized plastic horse, Zerox. And, of course, you can walk down the aisles of the barn and look into the stalls to see about three dozen of our country's most esteemed horses.

The caissons, built in 1918 to haul 75mm cannons and ammunition, are now used to transport caskets during full-honor funerals, which average six every day. Six horses hitched in pairs and ridden by three men on the left side pull the caisson with its flag-draped casket.

Chief Charles Sowles, a past commander of the caisson unit, has high praise for the soldiers in The Old Guard. "They have to be a step above the rest," he says.

He feels the same way about the horses. "They can stand quiet for eight hours," he says. "And they have to be totally unperturbed by noise, cannon fire, fluttering of flags, papers blowing around them; you could set off a bomb beside them and they'd stay still."

Without any doubt, the most famous horse was Black Jack (named after General "Black Jack" Pershing), the Caparisoned horse who followed John F. Kennedy's caisson in the funeral cortege. The Caparisoned horse walker represents the highest of Army standards, walking with the riderless horse with the scabbard, ammunition pouch and riding boots reversed on the saddle to symbolize that a fallen comrade will never ride again.

Black Jack, who arrived at the fort as a six-year-old in 1953, also accompanied the caskets of Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, Herbert Hoover and Dwight D. Eisenhower, as well as General Douglas MacArthur, and hundreds of others.

When he died in 1976 (after retirement in 1973), Black Jack was buried on the parade grounds in a funeral procession with full military honors — only one of two horses that have been awarded such a tribute. (The other is "Comanche," the only surviving horse of Custer's command at the Battle of Little Big Horn, who is buried in Fort Riley, Kansas.) Black Jack's grave is near the flag pole on Summerall Field.

Sgt. York is the current official riderless horse and Pfc. Joseph Armstrong, 24, who sometimes serves as a guide, describes him as "the most mild-tempered horse in the barn, and he's also smart." As an afterthought, he adds, "We even have birthday parties for this guy."

The small but worthwhile Old Guard Museum is a short walk from the stables, along Sheridan Avenue. It's a good place to learn more about the 3rd U.S. Infantry — from 1784 when it was formed to protect the then western boundaries of the United States to its modern-day role. There are extensive collections of artifacts, historical photos and military art presented somewhat in a time-line manner in several small galleries, as well as changing exhibits and special programs.

Collections range from dress uniforms and drums to insignias and memorabilia about the Tomb Guard, as well as muskets and bayonets, saddles and boots used by the military in diplomatic funerals. An extensive flag collection includes what is the oldest known national color of the 3rd Infantry, probably carried in Texas and Mexico during the war of 1846-47.

Be sure to watch the fine 15-minute historic video at the museum; you'll come away with a better understanding of the pride and honor the soldiers feel about the tradition of The Old Guard — and especially their role at the 24-hour vigil at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Nancy Hoyt Belcher is a freelance travel writer/photographer who lives in Alameda, Calif.

Planning Your Trip
You can walk to Fort Myer from the Lincoln Memorial across the Memorial Bridge, or take the Blue Line Metro from D.C. and exit at Arlington Cemetery. Driving directions from the district are on the web site www.fmmc.army.mil. There is ample parking at the fort on McNair Road, across the street from the Community Center.

The fort is open Monday through Saturday 9 to 4 and Sunday 1 to 4. Tours of the stables are held daily from Noon to 4 p.m. Also available are maps with detailed information for self-guided walking tours.

Visitors are asked to sign in at the gate, state their business and must have a valid photo identification before they are given a visitor's pass. Cameras are restricted to use inside the museum and the stables; they cannot be used on the grounds.

If you are driving, soldiers will conduct a thorough inspection of your car — from the glove compartment and trunk to under the seats. This may include wheeling a mirror under the vehicle to check for explosives. To speed up the process it might be a good idea to empty extraneous items from your car prior to arrival.


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