By Wesley Schwenk
Collections Manager, National Museum of the United States Navy
As the nation commemorates the 245th birthday of the United States Navy, we take a moment to reflect on those sailors and civilians who faithfully served the Navy and were laid to rest in the hallowed ground of Arlington National Cemetery (ANC).
The Navy has long played an integral role in the history of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, visited by millions of people from around the world each year. In 1921, the World War I Unknown was chosen from four sets of remains disinterred from American military cemeteries in France. He began his final cruise home and returned to the United States under the leadership of the Navy aboard USS Olympia. After making port at the Washington Navy Yard, the Unknown’s casket ceremoniously disembarked down the gangway and was escorted by naval personnel until it was placed in the caisson. Navy personnel also took part in many other aspects of the ceremonies to honor and bury the World War I Unknown. The Navy’s connection to the Tomb continued with the addition of Unknowns from subsequent wars. The crypts situated to the west of the grand marble sarcophagus, representing Unknowns from World War II and the Korean War, were chosen and safeguarded aboard USS Canberra (CAG 2) and transferred to USS Blandy (DD 943) until debarkation. In 1984, the Vietnam War Unknown traveled aboard USS Brewton (FF 1086) for a short time.
Other memorials on ANC’s grounds honor groups of seafarers lost in the line of duty. The USS Maine Memorial features a large vertical mast from Maine, which marks an area where 165 sailors were reinterred in 1899, after the conclusion of the Spanish-American War (1898). The remains of two unidentified Civil War sailors, recovered from inside the turret of the first American ironclad warship, Monitor, were buried at the cemetery in 2013 in a ceremony that honored the other 14 Monitor crew members lost that day. A monument dedicated in 2019 honors the 129 sailors and civilians that perished when the submarine USS Thresher (SSN 593) tragically sank on April 10, 1963. Near Memorial Amphitheater is a monument for those 134 men killed after a violent explosion aboard USS Forrestal (CV 59) on July 29, 1967. Outside of the cemetery, on Memorial Avenue, the National Seabee Memorial commemorates the heroic efforts of the members of the Naval Construction Battalions, more commonly known as Seabees, and their dedication to do their jobs no matter the cost.
Some of Arlington National Cemetery’s other unique Navy connections involve those who led exploration beyond the sea. Astronauts and naval aviators who worked tirelessly to put a human into space and then onto the surface of the moon reside in Arlington as well. U.S. Navy astronauts buried at ANC include: AS-204 (Apollo 1) pilot Roger Chaffee; Apollo 12 moonwalker Charles “Pete” Conrad Jr.; quadruple Space Shuttle journeyman David Walker; and test pilot Elliot McKay See Jr. Two upright monuments with brass plaques pay homage to all of the crewmembers, including three United States Navy personnel, killed in the Space Shuttle Challenger and Columbia disasters. Uncovering Earth’s secrets, too, involved incredible bluejacket personalities, including navigational expert and 19th-century explorer Charles Wilkes; polar travelers and naval aviators Richard Byrd and his compatriot Floyd Bennett; Arctic explorers Robert Peary and Matthew Benton; and Norwegian-born Navy captain Finn Ronne and his wife Edith, who made expeditions to Antarctica.
On headstones at Arlington, you will see dozens of other familiar Navy names: Civil War Admiral David Dixon Porter; James Forrestal, the first Secretary of Defense; Fleet Admiral William Leahy; Admiral Harold Stark, who led the Navy’s expansion as Chief of Naval Operations during World War II; the Kennedy brothers—Joseph P. Jr., John F. and Robert F.; Fleet Admiral William Halsey; and the “Father of the Nuclear Navy,” Hyman Rickover.
But there are hundreds or even thousands of names that you may not know, representing fascinating naval careers and accomplishments that echo through the ages. Some examples include the lone Continental Navy sailor at Arlington, John Follin; engineer and inventor George Westinghouse; Lenah Higbee (pictured, left), one of the first twenty Naval nurses and second superintendent of the Navy Nurse Corps; World War II Navy fighter pilot ace David McCampbell; the first African American vice admiral, Samuel Gravely Jr. (pictured, right); Henry Gabriel Sanchez, a prominent Hispanic naval aviator; mathematician and computer science pioneer Grace Hopper; highly decorated medical physician Joel Boone; Gordon Beecher, composer of over 700 pieces of music; Joy Bright Hancock, one of the first women sworn into the regular U.S. Navy in 1948; dive bomber pioneer Arthur Davis; first female carrier-based fighter pilot Kara Spears Hultgreen; and five-war veteran Clark Woodward. These individuals represent the progress and distinctiveness of the Navy.
The stories of these Americans reveal their lifelong pursuit to continuously uphold the tenets of honor, courage and commitment. Their accomplishments, both in and out of uniform, continue to offer encouragement to future generations. Serving in the United States Navy means serving “not self but country,” as the unofficial motto goes.
Next time you visit those Navy shipmates who forever sleep in plots at Arlington National Cemetery, greet them with a “thank you” and maybe even a proper final salute. Listen closely, and you might hear the sound of eight bells and the opening notes of a bugle. Fair winds and following seas. We have the watch.