The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier: Marble Tribute
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JIM LEHRER: Now on this Veterans Day, a story about the marble shrine at the center of today’s ceremony in Washington. Tom Bearden reports.
SPOKESMAN: Forward, march.
TOM BEARDEN: The soldiers who guard the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery walk their posts with metronomic precision. Twenty-four hours a day, they stride back and forth in front of the huge piece of gold-flecked marble that sits atop the grave of “a soldier known but to God” — an American serviceman who died in World War I. The remains of two additional unknowns are interred nearby, casualties of World War II and Korea. A fourth, a Vietnam-era soldier unknown at the time of interment, has since been identified and removed. The guards are here rain or shine. The unit even declined an offer to take shelter during the hurricane that hit Washington last summer.
SPOKESMAN: …And ordered. Remain as directed.
TOM BEARDEN: The throngs of daytime visitors stand in silence. Only the most observant notice that the tomb has a serious flaw. John Metzler is the superintendent of Arlington National Cemetery.
JOHN C. METZLER: The stone has developed a crack, and the crack has gone all the way around the stone once, and it’s starting to go around the stone a second time. And what we’re concerned about is that the crack itself will start to come apart, and the figures and the wording on the stone will start to chip away. And, of course, the worse case scenario is the stone itself could shear off.
TOM BEARDEN: The stone was originally quarried in the 1930s near the little town of marble, in western Colorado. Back then, the Yule quarry boasted the largest stone finishing mill in the world. It supplied uniquely high-quality marble for many projects, including the Lincoln Memorial. The stone for the tomb was rolled down the mountain, then transported by train to Washington, where it was carved. The tomb itself was dedicated in 1932. Metzler believes the crack probably occurred during the transportation process and has been there all along. Recently he ordered a study of the tomb by experts.
JOHN METZLER: This report told us a couple things: One, is that the choices we had were either to completely enclose the tomb or to replace the tomb. The other thing the report told us is that we should be cleaning the tomb on a yearly basis and monitoring the crack, and to be sure that we are paying attention to this. So we have been cleaning the tomb each year.
TOM BEARDEN: The challenge now is to find a perfect piece of marble to replace the damaged stone, and they’re looking again at Marble, Colo. The Yule Quarry shut down half a century ago, when marble fell out of favor as a building material. The town’s population dropped from thousands to dozens. But some believed the vast remaining deposit of pure white marble, considered by many to be the finest in the world, could still support a viable business despite its remote location.
Now the quarry makes headstones for the national cemeteries, and is cutting a piece of marble that will be made into a life size sculpture of George Bush Sr. for his library in Texas. The current owner, Rex Loesby, has been thinking about a replacement stone for the tomb for more than ten years.
REX LOESBY: The seed of the idea was in 1990, when I reopened the quarry, then reopening it after it had been closed for 50 years. My wife and I visited Washington, D.C., and we were able to go out to Arlington before the changing of the guard at the tomb of the unknown and look at the stone.
I said, “Gee, there is a crack.” So I contacted Arlington then, and said, “We are working through an area where we might be able to get a tomb block. Are you interested in replacing it?” And it took them two or three years for them to get back, and they said, “Yes, we would like a new stone.”
TOM BEARDEN: The search for the perfect piece of marble began in earnest two years ago. The challenge would be to find a piece that was as big as a garage that was pure white all the way the through. Quarry superintendent Garry Bascom has been at it since last year.
GARRY BASCOM: This is our second attempt at this block. We tried one last year, we didn’t feel was good enough.
TOM BEARDEN: In June, Bascom and his crew thought they had found the right location. It took more than 40 hours of cutting to get the piece off the wall. Because the slab is so large, the crew had to practice on a similar sized block to make sure they could remove it without damaging the stone.
They realized they’d need something to cushion the fall, so they spread out two truckloads of gravel. In July, they reached the final stages. The crew used a hydraulic jack to move the slab out six inches at a time. Slowly, the slab inched further and further away from the wall. When the stone was far enough out, they brought in a large piece of construction equipment to finish the job.
SPOKESMAN: You got a tape measure, Mario?
TOM BEARDEN: Once on top of the stone, Loesby wasn’t sure it would fit the bill.
REX LOESBY: What I’m worried about is this … it’s a little bit gray right through here.
TOM BEARDEN: Bascom said seeing the slab finally come off the wall was a relief.
GARRY BASCOM: We all take a lot of pride in it, of course. We’re all Americans. We know that the original one came from this quarry, there’s a lot of history with it. And, of course, a few of us are veterans, so it means a lot to us personally.
TOM BEARDEN: After a few weeks of using a diamond saw like this one to cut the slab down to get look at the quality of the interior, Loesby’s suspicions about the gray spotting were confirmed.
REX LOESBY: We are basically inside the block that we tipped over a few weeks ago. We made a few cuts on it, and as you can see this area right in here, this is really beautiful stone. It matches pretty much what the Tomb of the Unknowns has in it right now. But then we get into this stuff what you see right here, and that certainly doesn’t. And that’s something we can avoid and get a block that doesn’t have it.
TOM BEARDEN: Loesby showed us some grey discolorations that he feared would be all around the stone.
REX LOESBY: This area … I was kind of worried about it, that we might run into this, because I knew these were here, but I thought it would get better as we went to the South. And it turned out it didn’t. So we’re going to go to another area, and it will probably take us eight or nine months to get to that area before we start on another stone.
TOM BEARDEN: Despite the setbacks, Loesby is still planning to not only excavate the slab from his quarry, but to duplicate the carvings on the original before it journeys to Washington. And he wants to do all that at no cost to the government. Loesby has started a $400,000 fundraising drive with the help of the residents of Marble and the American Legion to make the donation possible. He hopes to have the stone completed for installation by Memorial Day 2005.
JIM LEHRER: President Bush was among those who attended today’s tribute at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.