LUMBERTON — Guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., won’t stop for anything when performing their duty of guarding and remembering the fallen.
Ed Tatum, an Elizabethtown native who runs a Lumberton business, says being a guard at the Tomb in the early 1970s is one of his proudest achievements.
“It brings a lot of pride and respect for those who have given the ultimate sacrifice,” Tatum said. “Some of the most touching moments were standing guard. People would tell me about a son or daughter they lost, just tell me their story.”
Tatum’s story began in 1969 when a CBS news report interrupted the regularly scheduled broadcast of the television show “Mayberry R.F.D.” to broadcast live from the Selective Service headquarters. On an unremarkable set, backdropped by a light blue chart, New York Congressman Alexander Pirnie reached into an over-sized glass jar filled with 366 blue, plastic capsules.
Inside each capsule was a piece of paper printed with a date — one for every day of the year, including Feb. 29 to account for the leap year. Pirnie drew the first, opening it to reveal Sept. 14.
That date would be placed on the light blue chart in the slot labeled 001, moving young men born on that day to top of the draft for the Vietnam War.
Tatum’s birthday, Dec. 21, was the 70th number pulled, guaranteeing his service.
“I won the lottery,” Tatum said with a bit of irony.
Pausing, he leaned back in his chair and raised an eyebrow. Behind him, in his office at Tatum’s Auto Sales, faded photographs tell of a decorated soldier in uniform.
Tatum entered the Army in November 1971 and completed basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., about the time a new program was being started, the Advanced Infantry Training program, which provided training for the Old Guard. The Old Guard was searching for volunteers no shorter than 6 feet and no taller than 6 feet 4 inches to conduct ceremonies and funerals at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., and similar events around the nation.
Thirty men volunteered alongside Tatum that day, but only he and one other soldier were selected.
“I was assigned to the Alpha Company in Fort Myers in Washington, D.C.,” Tatum said.
That year, he took the first step to solidifying a small place in history.
“In the first year I did full honor funerals for Arlington Cemetery. I was on the WWI drill team and we did special events around Washington, D.C.,” Tatum said. “I was really very, very fortunate to be involved in some of the historic events going on in our nation at that time. I was on the funeral detail of the last man who died in the Vietnam War.”
Lt. Col. William Nolde, a 22-year Army veteran and father of five, died 11 hours before the 1973 truce, becoming the 45,914th — and final — confirmed American death.
“He was buried on Feb. 5, 1973,” Tatum said.
Tatum served as a one of eight casket bearers at the funeral.
More joyful memories include participating in the 80th birthday of Gen. Omar Bradley, a U.S. Army field commander in North Africa and Europe during World War II, that was hosted by Bob Hope.
“I was on the drill team and we performed for him,” Tatum said. “I went to three of the inaugural balls for President Nixon and I met Tricia Nixon and his wife, Pat Nixon.”
Ron Narramore, a friend of Tatum’s, suggested that he pursue becoming a guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, a monument dedicated to American service members who have died without their remains being identified. The tomb is guarded 24 hours a day, seven days a week, come rain, shine or hurricane.
There are three unknown soldiers buried in the tomb: one from WWI, WWII and the Korean War. An unknown soldier from the Vietnam War was later identified using DNA and his bodied was exhumed.
“In Army terms, they put you on temporary duty assignment for three weeks and you go to the Tomb every day and they train you and then they vote on whether you made it or not. You have to be chosen by the fellow Tomb guards.”
Once Tatum was selected as a sentinel, he had three shifts, called reliefs. Each relief has soldiers of the same height in order to promote uniformity. A relief is on guard for 24 hours, and then off for 48 hours. On each relief there are four sentinels and one sergeant of the Guard. The sentinel goes up for one hour, walking 21 steps continuously— in accordance with the 21-gun solute — back and forth across the Tomb. After an hour, the guard is replaced in a ceremony called the Changing of the Guard.
“You usually walk for an hour,” Tatum said, “go clean up your brass, re-shine your shoes, press your uniform and then go back upstairs. You usually take four to five walks a day.”
After passing a series of tests, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Guard Identification Badge is authorized for wear. Tatum’s badge now rests in a frame, along with a photograph of him in full uniform.
Only 605 badges have been awarded since the very first one on Feb. 7, 1958, making it the second rarest badge awarded in the U.S. Army, behind the Army Astronaut Badge. Tatum’s badge is No. 134.
He served as a guard for a year.
“On my last walk, an old lady came up with a hanky and blessed me. She told me she had lost her son,” Tatum said.
Tatum left the Army in 1973 to study Business at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke. He is the husband of Pam Tatum, the father of Walker, Winston and Charlotte, and a member of the Society of Honor Guards, who meet once a year to lay a rose at the Tomb.
“There’s a saying that the Tomb guards use. It says, ‘Soldiers never die until they are forgotten, but Tomb guards never forget.’”