While Arlington National Cemetery honors the fallen from U.S. military actions and those who served proudly in uniform, it also is a living monument to the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. Along with its rows of uniform headstones, numerous memorials to naval craft and events tell the history of U.S. waterborne forces.
A Navy Seabees memorial greets visitors before they enter the cemetery. The Seabees were a key to victory in the Pacific, building airstrips and structures on isolated islands. Memorials to Navy vessels inside the cemetery include the USS Serpens (AK-97), a Liberty ship that exploded off Guadalcanal while men were loading her with depth charges, and the USS Thresher (SSN-593), a nuclear-powered submarine that sank during deep-diving tests off Massachusetts in 1963. Memorials to Navy- and Marine Corps–related events include the Iranian Hostage Rescue Memorial, the Beirut Barracks Memorial, and the Korean War Memorial.
Behind the cemetery’s amphitheater, the mast of the USS Maine (ACR-1) stands atop a turret-like memorial. An explosion ripped through the ship in Havana Harbor, Cuba, on 15 February 1898, killing 266 sailors and sparking the Spanish-American War. The memorial includes the Maine’s bell and the names of those lost in the explosion. With her foremast erected at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, some 37 miles away, the Maine is sometimes called the longest ship in the Navy.
President John F. Kennedy’s grave, with its eternal flame, draws thousands of visitors every year. Kennedy famously commanded PT-109, a torpedo boat cut in half by a Japanese destroyer in the Solomons. Near the President’s grave stands a cenotaph for Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., the President’s older brother, who served as a Navy lieutenant and died flying a radio-controlled bomber that exploded prematurely over England in 1944.
Walking through the cemetery is like walking though the Navy’s history. On the rolling hills lie the graves of Admiral David Dixon Porter of Civil War fame, Spanish-American War Rear Admirals William Sampson and Winfield Scott Schley, Arctic explorer Captain William Peary, and father of the nuclear Navy Admiral Hyman Rickover, to name a few.
Notable Marines include Lieutenant General John Lejeune, who commanded an Army division in World War I and became the 13th Commandant of the Marine Corps; Colonel Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, who earned the Medal of Honor leading the famed “Black Sheep” Squadron (VMF-214) in the Pacific; Corporal Ira Hayes, who helped raise the second U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima; Colonel John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth; and honorary Gunnery Sergeant R. Lee Emery, who earned fame playing a Marine drill sergeant in the movie Full Metal Jacket.
Two of the Navy’s four five-star admirals lie beneath Arlington’s soil: William D. Leahy and William “Bull” Halsey. Leahy served as President Franklin Roosevelt’s personal chief of staff and the first de facto chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, while Halsey was the commander of the South Pacific Area during the darkest days of the Guadalcanal campaign, earning a reputation as an aggressive commander.
Of course, do not ask the cemetery staff who is the most important sailor or Marine buried at Arlington National Cemetery. “I get that question all the time,” explained Command Historian Stephen Carney, “and there is only one answer: ‘Everyone here is important to someone.’”