While much of what’s there is to see and do in Washington DC is on one side of the Potomac river, there are two very good reasons to cross it – The Pentagon and Arlington Cemetery.
Tours of The Pentagon become available 90 days in advance, are limited in number and they book up fast. Though you probably won’t find out if you can definitely go until 24 hours beforehand, because of the need for security clearance which needs to be current.
Its easy to get there as has its own Metro stop and once there and through security, you’re taken into a waiting area with a fake press podium and a small shop. Then you file into a theatre for a short briefing, before being divided into smaller groups for a tour led by two guides who are serving members of one of the defence departments based at the Pentagon. One of our guides was from the army and the other the navy. The air force and marines are also headquartered at the Pentagon and although not based there the fifth defence department, the US Coastguard, is also in evidence.
That evidence is seen when the guides take you through 1.5 of the 17.5 miles of corridors that run around the vast building. Each corridor features large displays and photographs, presumably because these are the ones used for the tour, but maybe it’s the same in every corridor.
We were told that The Pentagon has 27,000 employees, 7,000 of which are civilian but the rest are uniformed – our guide told us with some relief that the five acre central courtyard is a no salute zone. If it wasn’t the younger servicemen who have their hands raised all the time!
All the way the guide at the front of the group walks backwards. Sounds simple but it’s clearly a skill the guides have mastered and means they always have eyes on the tour group which also never has to stop and gather round, potentially getting in the way of the multitude of personnel going about their daily business in the Pentagon.
As well as defence matters, that daily business includes personal stuff too as the building has everything they need to stay put and not need to venture outside. A dentist, florist and clothes stores were just some of the businesses we spotted, alongside a huge food court and four Starbucks coffee shops.
Throughout the visit there’s a strong emphasis on what happen on 11 September 2001 and as part of the tour you visit the section of the building where the plane struck. At that spot there’s a moving memorial room where all those who lost their lives are honoured. No photos are allowed inside this (or anywhere in the Pentagon), but there’s also a memorial outside which we visited on our own before the tour. Walking around the building to see this gives you some sense of its enormous scale, created in a five sided shape simply to fit into the available space.
Once the tour is finished you’re escorted back to the waiting area as the many food, drink and retail therapy options aren’t available to visitors. However just one metro stop away there’s a huge shopping mall at Pentagon City with plenty to choose from including a Macy’s department store, a food court and a Johnny Rockets diner where we had a simple but very tasty grilled cheese sandwich.
Then it was back on the metro for a couple of stops to Arlington, the national cemetery where thousands of military personnel are buried. I’d seen photos, but nothing quite prepares you for the vastness of it. Row after row of white grave stones are lined up as straight as soldiers waiting for their orders.
Towards the back there’s a large amphitheatre where state funerals and services to mark occasions like Memorial Day and Veterans Day are held. Just behind is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier containing the remains on unknown service members from World War I, World War II and the Korean War. Soldiers keep a 24 hour a day vigil here with a ritual changing of the guard every half hour or hour depending on the time of year.
Also nearby are memorials to the astronauts lost when the Challenger exploded and to the hostages held in Iran, but a short walk away is the most famous memorial at Arlington – for the much loved former president John F Kennedy. The eternal flame was lit by his widow Jackie who was later buried alongside him. Also close by are other Kennedy family graves including JFK’s brothers Bobby and Ted.
And there’s lots more notable memorials and graves than I’ve mentioned, but on a hot day we felt we’d covered enough ground to get a sense of why Arlington is one of the most revered burial sites in the US.
Click on an image below to scroll through the gallery. And you can read more about Washington DC in my post Why I was wowed by Washington DC.