There are more than 30 group burials at Arlington National Cemetery ranging in size from two to 250 veterans. There are 2,111 Civil War Unknowns buried together in section 26.
However, it is important not to confuse a group burial with that of an Unknown. In a group burial, the individuals are known, but because of the circumstances of their deaths, they are individually unidentifiable. When this occurs, the Department of Defense directs that all remains be interred together and a headstone be erected with each person's name and other pertinent data engraved upon it. The funeral is closely coordinated with the respective service and the next of kin of the deceased. Factors such as location, date and time, and general logistics are arranged according to the wishes of the next of kin.
The largest group burial at Arlington National Cemetery took place on June 15, 1949, when 250 men from the USS Serpens were interred in 52 caskets. These men were killed on the night of Jan. 29, 1945, when the U.S. Coast Guard ammunition ship exploded and sank at Lunga Beach, Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands. This catastrophe was the single greatest disaster suffered by the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II, and cost the lives of 193 Coast Guardsmen, 56 soldiers and one U.S. Public Health Service surgeon. There were 30 grave sites set aside for the burials, arranged in five rows of six graves each. The 52 caskets were buried in 28 graves. Two grave sites in the center of the block of 30 were reserved for the octagonal memorial on which all names were inscribed.
In front of the Memorial Amphitheater stands another memorial dedicated to 18 sailors who died aboard the 76,000-ton aircraft carrier, USS Forrestal. On July 29, 1967, while off the coast of Vietnam, the exhaust from a jet accidentally touched off a missile on another plane. The missile exploded into a tank of high-test gasoline, and within seconds, the flight deck was engulfed by flame. One-hundred thirty-four men died in the accident.
In April 1980 eight men were killed during a commando raid in an attempt to rescue 53 Americans held hostage in Teheran, Iran. Three of these men are buried together across from the Memorial Amphitheater. Above their grave is a large, square headstone which reads "killed in the line of duty - Iran."
The headstones give little detail of the disastrous events that the deceased suffered, nevertheless, they serve as silent sentinels to the memory of these soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen whose lives ended so tragically.
Courtesy of the Military District of Washington (MDW), United States Army.
Updated: 28 April 2000 Updated: 21 March 2003