The U.S. Coast Guard's Role at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

A military honor guard attends the casket of a fallen soldier with a U.S. flag in the background
The Vietnam Unknown is transported to his final resting place, May 17, 1984 (USCG)

Published Nov 14, 2022 2:20 PM by U.S. Coast Guard News

[By Nora L. Chidlow]

On May 27, 1958, the Coast Guard Cutter Ingham quietly escorted the Navy destroyer USS Blandy up the Potomac River, toward Washington, D.C. Blandy carried the mortal remains of two unidentified American soldiers, one from World War II and one from the Korean War. They were to be laid to rest in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.

Since its creation in 1921, the Tomb has become a symbol of ultimate valor and sacrifice during wartime. In December 1920, New York Rep. Hailton Fish, a World War I veteran, proposed the idea of a tomb for an unknown soldier at Arlington, Virginia. Great Britain and France had already buried their unknowns Nov. 11, 1920, at Westminster Abbey and the Arc de Triomphe, respectively. After more than 100,000 American casualties in a war that encompassed the world, it seemed natural for the United States to have its own nationally recognized memorial.

Very little is known about the role of the Coast Guard in the 1921 ceremony. The service was still in its infancy, after the 1915 merger of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service and the U.S. Life-Saving Service to form the modern Coast Guard. The Coast Guard Commandant William Reynolds walked in the procession to Arlington, next to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, William Taft, who had served as the president of the United States from 1909 to 1913. Another, unidentified Coast Guardsman walked with President Warren Harding’s entourage.

In June 1946, a year after the end of World War II, Rep. Charles Price of Illinois sponsored a bill that became Public Law 429, authorizing the burial of an unknown World War II service member at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider. Two years later, on July 23, 1948, the Army issued orders to begin the formal selection process. After several changes, the selection ceremony was scheduled for May 26, 1951; however, the outbreak of the Korean War put that on hold.

Price went on to sponsor another bill authorizing the selection and burial of an unknown Korean War service member at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This became Public Law 975 when it was passed on Aug. 3, 1956. It was decided to build two new crypts, rather than tombs, for the unknowns from World War II and the Korean War, and work began in November 1957.

In May 1958, the Ingham and the Blandy arrived at the Washington Navy Yard, where they were greeted by solemn fanfare and a large detail of active duty service members from all of the armed services. The caskets of the two unknown soldiers, accompanied by an honor guard, were brought ashore to a ceremonial area in preparation for the official burial ceremony the next day. Five Coast Guardsmen served as pallbearers, among them Quartermaster First Class Lennox Johnson, stationed at Norfolk, Virginia, Boatswain’s Mate First Class Joseph Knoll of Coast Guard icebreaker Westwind, and Aviation Machinist’s Mate Joseph Fachko of Coast Guard Air Station Salem, Massachusetts.

Johnson, a North Carolina native, had served in the Navy during World War II, going on to enlist in the Coast Guard in February 1949. Being chosen as a Coast Guard pallbearer for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was quite an honor for him. Years later, he would visit the memorial several times with his grandchildren, observing the changing of the guard and telling the story each time of his role in the 1958 ceremony. He retired a lieutenant commander in 1974 after serving during the Korean War and the Vietnam War, moved to Florida and became an avid gardener. When his grandchildren visited in the summer, he would walk with them through the rows of vegetables and tell stories of his youth and military service. He passed away in 1998 at age 72 and is buried at Arlington National Ceremony, but his legacy lives on in his granddaughter, Lt. Cmdr. Michelle McNally. His stories had so impressed her that she enlisted in the Coast Guard in 2004. Today, she is a lieutenant commander like her grandfather, and serves as the commanding officer of the Coast Guard Cryptological Unit in Washington, D.C.

Born in Buffalo, New York, to Slovakian-Polish immigrants, Fachko enlisted in the Coast Guard at age 18 in 1948. He was stationed at Coast Guard Air Station Salem starting in December 1953, where he rescued survivors of the infamous July 1956 collision between the SS Andrea Doria and the MS Stockholm. Fachko was actually a last-minute replacement in the May 1958 ceremony for another Salem crewmember who had a family emergency. He passed away in 2022 at the age of 92.

In 1973, Congress authorized the burial of a Vietnam War casualty at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Due to red tape, 11 years passed before this took place and the deceased solider was selected, an event that took place May 17, 1984, at what is now Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii. The casket was placed on the Navy destroyer USS Brewton and escorted by the Coast Guard Cutter Storis for the voyage to Naval Air Station Alameda, California, arriving on May 24, 1984. The casket was then taken to Travis Air Force Base, some 40 miles north, for repose until the next morning, when it was flown to Washington, D.C.

The Vietnam Unknown lay in state at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda for three days, and thousands of Americans paid their respects. President Ronald Reagan presided over the official burial at Arlington on May 28, 1984. However, in 1998, the body was exhumed and identified as the remains of Air Force Lt. Michael Blassie. He was reinterred at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri, and the crypt for the Vietnam War Unkown has remained empty to this day.

Nora L. Chidlow is an archivist for the United States Coast Guard.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.