Robbinsdale retiree guarded the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier during Vietnam
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery is ceremonially guarded, day and night, by American soldiers in honor of the collective memory of those who died anonymously in foreign conflicts.
Sgt. Wendall Willis was one of those guards, rigidly patrolling the tomb’s white marble sarcophagus for hours at a time.
“You couldn’t smile, you couldn’t show emotion. When I was on duty and out there, I didn’t blink,” he said from the living room of his apartment at Copperfield Hill, a senior living center in Robbinsdale. “Two hours, and you never seen me blink.”
The tomb is guarded 24 hours per day, 365 days per year, regardless of weather.
“In the summertime, I had a bee fly in the bottom of my cap, and the people around me saw that and they said, ‘well, what is he going to do with that bee in there?’ That bee flew out, crawled on my forehead and then flew away, and the people clapped,” Willis remembered with a laugh. “I was so scared, I didn’t know what to do.”
Willis wore special shoes with thick, raised heels to keep his feet safe from the extreme heat or cold of his post, he said, and had to learn to walk in perfectly measured steps.
“You had to walk and not bounce,” he explained. Tomb guards must walk at a cadence of 90 steps per minute.
Willis said the prestige of the post appealed to him and because, “I figured it wouldn’t be any worse than Vietnam.”
Willis was a “sentinel” at the tomb during the mid-1960s – the height of the Vietnam War. He remembers Vice President Gerald Ford visiting the tomb to observe the changing of the guard, a highly ritualized ceremony befitting the tomb.
“The two guards say their orders, then the one guard who’s going off duty walks off and the one guard that’s going on duty goes on,” he says simply, belying the highly-regimented nature of the ritual.
In the ritual, a relief commander, the relieving guard, and the guard going off duty salute the unknown soldier, symbolically pass on their orders, and inspect the M-14 rifle used by the guards.
Guards are not allowed to speak during their shift except during the changing of the guard, but Willis said he almost made an exception one day.
“While I was walking, there was a gentleman that came up and stood next to the chains and said, ‘I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but I just found out my son was killed in Vietnam.’ And I almost broke the code of silence and said, ‘stay until the guard change and I want to talk to you.’ And that was tough,” Willis said, adding that the experience was the only time he felt he had to break the tomb’s ceremonial silence.
“I almost felt an obligation to say something to him, but I’m not supposed to talk,” he explained.
Willis guarded the tomb throughout his stint in the military, after which he moved to Minnesota.
During the Chicago native’s 26 year career with Honeywell, he said he woke up at 6 a.m. every day – a byproduct of his regimented schedule as a guard.
Now sitting comfortably in a recliner at Copperfield Hill, he said his schedule has changed once more.
“Here, they get me up at five just to get ready,” he said with a wry smile.
Contact Joe Bowen at [email protected]