Ed Tatum stands in red shirt and holds up an old photograph of himself receiving a military badge in uniform

Border Belt People: A Q&A with former Tomb of the Unknown Soldier guard Edward Tatum

By Kerria Weaver


Edward Tatum of Elizabethtown served in one of the nation’s most prestigious military units, the Old Guard, as a sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington, Va.

The Old Guard assists with funerals at Arlington National Cemetery and guards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It is the oldest active-duty unit in the Army, founded in 1784. Its members stand watch over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 

Tatum, 73, still runs his used car business, Tatum’s Auto Sales of Lumberton. He and his wife Pam have two sons and one daughter.

The Border Belt Independent asked Tatum to reflect on his journey as a member of the Old Guard and what it means to have been a part of this revered unit. 

Q. When were you drafted into the Army?

I was drafted into the Army in 1971. They had a national draft lottery and my number was 18. At the time, I thought getting drafted was one of the worst things that could happen because of the Vietnam War.

Q. How did your family react to you getting drafted?

They were surprised like me, not knowing what was going to happen in my future with everything going on in the Army. I went to basic training in Ft. Jackson, S.C. I got promoted to AIT (Advanced Infantry Training) and The Old Guard, and then things just changed. It was great. I’m from a small town. To go to Washington D.C., and be involved in so many historical events was amazing. I did several things, but I mainly did military funerals.

Q. What is the Old Guard?

The Old Guard, also known as the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, is a regiment of the United States Army. The Old Guard is the official ceremonial unit of the U.S. Army where soldiers pay their highest respects to those who made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom. Their mission is to oversee memorial affairs and ceremonies to honor fallen comrades.

Q. How did you qualify to become a member of the Old Guard?

When I was at boot camp they started an Old Guard AIT unit. There were 120 guys in the company, and one morning they asked for volunteers for the Old Guard. I didn’t raise my hand because I was told to never volunteer for anything in the Army. My drill sergeant was standing next to me that morning and he told me to raise my hand. “You won’t have to go to Vietnam if they choose you.” The requirements to volunteer were you had to be between six feet tall and 6′ 4” and you could only have one traffic ticket. There were 34 guys who volunteered and they only chose two of us. You have to go through tests and learn the history of the position. There’s the manual of arms, a written test, a physical test, and you have to be able to locate certain places in Arlington National Cemetery. Then you end up taking a test on Arlington Cemetery and all the duties of the sentinel. From there you’re voted on whether you become a sentinel or not.

Q. Did you have the chance to hand off the flag to the family during a burial ceremony?

No, I never did that part of it. I was the one that when the flag came to the end in the triangle I would straighten it out and make sure all the stars at the bottom were lined up correctly and that no red was showing. On a folded flag when it is handed off, there is not supposed to be any red, just blue and white.

Q.  What stories can you share from your experience?

I got to attend the inauguration ball of Nixon and did the halftime show for the Miami Dolphins at the Pittsburgh Steelers. I was on the drill team at that time. That was the year the Miami Dolphins didn’t lose a game in 1973. I was also at the 80th birthday party for Gen. Omar Bradley. He was the last five-star general and Bob Hope was the guest host that night. I was also the casket bearer for Col. William Nolde, who was the last man killed in Vietnam before the truce was signed. I was at Lyndon Johnson’s funeral and I was also at Gen. Westmoreland’s retirement. I was also in attendance at Gen. Alexander Haig’s induction as secretary of defense. Plus, I guarded the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Q. Did your family come and see you guard the tomb

Yes, my family did come. My wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, came to see me and I also did a tour with my aunt and uncle, who raised me. My dad was killed after World War II in a car wreck. My aunt and uncle came up to Washington D.C., to see me and I had the chance to take my uncle to the horse corral in Arlington. He got to take a picture with Blackjack, which was the riderless horse in John Kennedy’s funeral.

Ed Tatum holds up an old sepia toned photograph of himself in military uniform
An old photograph of Ed Tatum shows him, far right, receiving his badge for the Old Guard. Photo by Ben Rappaport

Q. For those who don’t know, what is the history of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier?

We followed England because they had the first unknown soldier. Four bodies (killed in World War I) were exhumed from the unknown graves in France from the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. Sgt. Edward Younger, a Medal of Honor winner, was chosen to pick which tomb would get placed at Arlington Cemetery. He selected the unknown by placing a spray of white roses on one of the (four) caskets and the burial was held at the tomb on Memorial Day, 1921. The World War II and the Korean War tombs were chosen in a similar manner but by different people. Navy Hospital Corpsman First Class William R. Charette, a Medal of Honor recipient from the Korean War, selected the World War II unknown. Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle selected the Korean War unknown.

There are four graves on the plaza. The big tomb is for the World War I unknowns and the three other gravesites in front of it are for World War II,  Korean War, and Vietnam War. An interesting thing about the Vietnam War unknown is there was a gentleman by the name of Ted Sampley who was a POW/MIA activist. He did research on the remains of the soldier buried in the Vietnam War grave and determined it was Lt. Michael Blassie. Sampley got in contact with the family of the lieutenant and they got in contact with Congress, which decided to exhume the remains and do a DNA test. The results showed it was Lt. Blassie. At the request of Blassie’s family, he was re-interred at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. So there’s no body in the Vietnam War tomb.

Q. Tell me about the honor guard and what the shift is like.

The honor guard is based out of Fort Myers, Va., and you stay at the fort. When you go to the tomb you’re on duty for 24 hours and they have three reliefs. Each relief is the same height, the first relief is the tallest, the second and third are the shorter ones, but they all are pretty much six feet. When you’re not guarding the tomb you’re either working on your uniform or training tomb guards or sentinels. When you’re on the plaza guarding the tomb, there is a certain way you have to walk. You take 21 steps, which is indicative of the 21-gun salute. After taking 21 steps you stop, click your heels, and face the tomb for 21 seconds, and you’re counting this off in your head.

A CD case reading 'DUTY/HONOR/SACRIFICE THE UNKNOWNS' sits atop memorabilia from Ed Tatum's time in the Honor Guard.
Tatum has preserved his badge, photos and other memorabilia from his time in Old Guard. He was also featured in a documentary about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier entitled The Unknowns. Photo by Ben Rappaport

Q. Did you ever get replaced on your shift due to weather conditions or health reasons?

I never did get replaced while on the plaza guarding the tomb. I have been out in the rain and a little bit of snow. Like I said, the tomb is guarded for 24 hours. During the day, the guard is out there in shifts of 30 minutes and at nighttime you’re out there for two hours, but at night it’s not a ceremonial walk, it’s just a regular guard post.

Q. Is there a lasting camaraderie among those who served?

The people who were on my relief and some of the other reliefs, we still see each other, we’re all friends. We’re friends with the first female who was chosen to guard the tomb. Her name is Heather Wagner.

Q. What was the most challenging part of training?

The most challenging part was the handling of weapons because it had to be very exact. The next thing was keeping a straight or solemn face. You can’t smile and you can’t talk. The only time you talk is when someone is misbehaving. You turn to that person and tell them it is requested that everyone maintain a mature and reverent attitude in the vicinity of the tomb.

Q. How did it feel to be honored in a documentary?

I was very proud, being that back then I was a young man from a small town. They interviewed me for the The Unknowns documentary (on Tubi), which was in the movie theaters. Ethan Morris, who was the producer, (later) called me and wanted me to be in the television documentary, Honor Guard (on Amazon Prime).

Q. Is there a specific story that you remember while on your shift or just being a guard?

During my last walk, a lady walks up to me dressed in black and she takes a handkerchief and blesses me. She told me she lost her loved one in the war. She didn’t say which war or who her husband was but she came up and blessed me and she must’ve blessed me good.

Ed Tatum stands in red shirt and holds up an old photograph of himself receiving a military badge in uniform
Ed Tatum, an Elizabethtown resident, is a former Old Guard member who was a sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He poses with an old photograph of him receiving his badge. Photo by Ben Rappaport