Requiem for a Sailor-President,
November 22-25, 1963
On the evening of Nov. 20, 1963, a birthday party was held at the Hickory Hill estate of United States Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, 38, at McLean, VA. His wife Ethel offered a subdued toast to the crowd of assembled guests: "To the President." Later, she said to US Supreme Court Justice Byron "Whizzer" White---the sole Kennedy Administration appointee to that august body---"It's all going too perfectly."
She was right, for just two days later, in Dallas, TX on Nov. 22, 1963, her brother-in-law---John F. Kennedy, 35the President of the United States-the youngest man ever elected to that office and the only Catholic, was assassinated in his Presidential limousine by rifle fire, being hit by at least two known bullets. Although the third one of three fired killed him with a massive and mortal head wound, the second one fired and the first of two to hit him severed his spinal cord, and thus would have incapacitated him as Chief Executive in any case had he lived.
Later, at Dallas' Parkland Memorial Hospital, doctors pronounced him officially dead, but, in fact, he was practically dead the very moment that the head shot impacted, and anyone in that small Dealey Plaza who witnessed the events knew it to be true, especially war veterans, police, and hunters---anyone familiar with firearms and their damage.
Certainly the Secret Service did, and immediately shifted their protection from the mortally wounded Kennedy to the new President of the United States, the former Vice President, Lyndon Johnson. Following JFK's official death at the hospital, the new President was taken under armed escort to his aircraft, Air Force One, waiting at Love Field outside Dallas. Today, it is on display at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base at Dayton, OH.
A visit to it immediately shows how small and cramped it was for the 27 people crowded aboard for the flight back to Washington, DC that late afternoon once former First Lady Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy and the coffin of her slain husband arrived. Although he was already President in fact, LBJ took the oath of office on board the aircraft on the advise of his past and future bitter rival, Attorney General Kennedy, back in the Nation's Capital.
Once returned to Washington, the President's widow and brother jointly began making the decisions that would determine JFK's State Funeral and its military aspects. "I don't want Jack to go to any awful funeral home," asserted Jackie, and RFK agreed, while the slain leader's coffin arrived at length in the East Room of the White House. The coffin was draped in the standard issue Veterans Administration flag to which he was entitled as both a US Navy veteran of World War II, and as President of the United States.
A Joint Service Casket Team was selected to mount the Honor Guard in vigil over the President's bier, while Gawler's Funeral Home was being brought into the matter despite the Kennedys' wishes because the Dallas coffin had been damaged, and a new one was needed. There, a plain one was chosen for $ 3,160 because it would represent the mass of the American people by the trio of men known within the Kennedy White House as the "Irish Mafia:" Kenneth O'Donnell, David Powers, and Lawrence O'Brien.
As the President's body had been put into it, his Air Force military aide---Brig. Gen. Godfrey McHugh---remained beside it, watching over his dead chief until the end. At the White House, Mrs. Kennedy was vehemently opposed to an open coffin for the Presidential lying-in-state: "It's the most awful, morbid thing; they have to remember Jack alive," she asserted over the arguments of both RFK and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara that, "Everybody wants to see a Head of State."
Actually, the most immediate precedence---that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1945--was on her side, as FDR had a closed coffin. The clincher came, however, when RFK approached the open casket in the East Room and saw his dead brother for the first time since Dallas, and he instantly decided that Jackie had been right after all. The decision was made: the coffin would remain closed.
Meanwhile, there were various reactions of global grief over the President's death; sadness was almost universal. In the US, where JFK had been elected with a slim 49.7 % of the 1960 vote, after Dallas that figure jumped to 65 % of Americans who claimed to have voted for him.
Overseas, President Charles de Gaulle of France asserted that, "I am stunned. They are crying all over France. It is as though he were a Frenchman, a member of their own family.
At Spandau Prison near Berlin, imprisoned Nazi war criminal Albert Speer noted in his secret diary, "I feel that Kennedy's assassination is not just an American tragedy, but a tragedy for the world, and I could not help thinking that here only one confused loner was at work, so it seems; he conceived the plan and the assassination was successful. But the attempts on Hitler's life---how many undertakings there were, planned with the precision of a General Staff operation by circumspect, cool-headed people, year after year, and never did they succeed---that is the real tragedy."
Others weren't so kind, however: in then Red China, a Communist Party newspaper in Peking (now Beijing) published a cartoon of JFK lying on his face with a caption that read, "Kennedy biting the dust."
Meanwhile, back in Washington, the political rivalry that would dominate the remainder of the decade in the US was being rekindled in the White House between LBJ and RFK when they ran into each other in a hallway for their first encounter since the Attorney General had bypassed and ignored the new President and gone straight to Jackie on Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, MD when the plane landed.
"I want to talk to you," Johnson said. "Fine," RFK responded flatly. Each hated the other and knew it. It was no secret that Bobby had wanted Lyndon dumped from the Democratic ticket in 1964 (which had been unlikely), and there was now already talk of an RFK-Hubert Humphrey ticket for that year, despite the new reality of an entity known as "President Johnson" in the White House.
RFK refused now to hold the meeting in the Oval Office, and they met instead in a small anteroom opposite the President's washroom. LBJ wanted RFK to remain in the Cabinet into the 1964 campaign, while the more immediate concern of the late President's brother was the retention of his office furniture there for a few days longer. "Can you wait?" Johnson was asked. Johnson decided to return to the Executive Office Building next door during the brief transition period, but there was still published a haunting photo of JFK's famous rocker---upside down-being wheeled out of the White House.
And the man who had allegedly caused all this national anguish---Lee Harvey Oswald, a former US Marine---said in a Dallas jail, "People will forget that within a few days. There will be another President."
The massive planning for the military aspects of the State Funeral for America's Sailor-President proceeded with a dress rehearsal for everything being conducted at Washington's Ft. Lesley J. McNair, where Maj. Gen. Philip C. Wehle told Capt. William Smith, "This is going to be a golden moment for you. You are going to be the first junior officer in history to issue the order, 'Joint Chiefs of Staff! Forward, march!"
By now, Jacqueline Kennedy had decided to walk the entire parade route from the White House to Catholic St. Matthew's Cathedral---eight blocks away---for the funeral Low Mass to be presided over by the Kennedy family Prelate, His Eminence Richard Cardinal Cushing of Boston, whose "Dear Jack" homilies still resonate even today.
"Nobody has to walk but me," she said, but in the end, everyone of any importance also walked, behind her. This included dozens of Chiefs of State from all over the globe.
When the great procession actually took place---akin to that of Britain's King Edward VII in London in 1910-she was dressed in black and flanked by her two brothers-in-law, the Attorney General and the junior United States Senator from Massachusetts, Edward Moore Kennedy, who alone today among them survives. Still, to the people watching, they saw no one but her, and at the age of 34, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy entered the national consciousness from that time as its most enduring heroine, a legacy she enjoys still, years after her death.
The famous Scottish Bagpipe Team from the noted Black Watch Regiment had played at the White House on the lawn below the Truman Balcony the previous August, and it was now scheduled for the funeral at Arlington as well. That choice of location had been decided upon by Mrs. Kennedy, too, as had also the selection of US Sen. Mike Mansfield of Montana to deliver what turned out to be a thrilling eulogy for the President in the Capitol Rotunda under its great, hulking dome: "She took a ring from her finger and placed it on his hand."
Although many thought it too emotional and overstated, Mrs. Kennedy wasn't among them: "It was the one thing that said what had happened." Afterwards, Sen. Mansfield walked over to her and presented Jackie with the original manuscript. "You anticipate me. How did you know I wanted it?" The Senator bowed his head and replied, "I didn't. I just wanted you to have it."
Probably the thing that sticks most in the minds of Americans of that era who were living, and watched the events on television live as they unfoldedn was the continual
playing of the Presidential theme Hail to the Chief, which many had never heard before. It seemed to become the signature refrain of that funeral, as did the constant replaying of the funeral dirge and the mournful roll of the traditional muffled drums, as depicted in the still available video, Years of Lightning, Day of Drums by filmmaker David L. Wolper, narrated by Richard Basehart, one of the best narratives of the JFK Administration.
Another stark image was that of the team of horses pulling the military caisson bearing the President's flag-draped coffin through the streets of Washington from the White House to the Capitol past hushed, overflow crowds of people. They stopped at the East Side---called the Senate Side---of the building where a 21-gun military salute was fired as the President's coffin was carried up the steps for a later public viewing night and day until the actual funeral service at the church was held.
During one of the planning sessions for the funeral in those dark days and hours, Jackie blurted out suddenly, "And there's going to be an Eternal Flame," like the one she had witnessed in Paris during her trip there with the late President in April 1961 when they'd visited Napoleon's Arch of Triumph. She ordered brother-in-law R. Sargent Shriver to make the necessary arrangements, and he did, even setting it up so that she could light it on-site at the Arlington gravesite; it still burns there now.
In the small hours of Nov. 24-25th, the casket team drilled at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with a coffin filled with sandbags that was also straddled by two men's weight to get the eight-man team used to carrying it without fail for the morrow's events. Up and down the steps they went again and again until they got it perfect.
Simultaneously, in 20 cities across the country including Washington and Dallas, the nation's billboard industry had been plastering select boards with a simple black-lettering-white-background message: Friday, November 22, 1963.
By now, it had been decided, too, that there would be an aerial flyby over Arlington of Air Force One and jets representing all 50 States of the Union.
At the Capitol Building, Army 1st Lt. Samuel R. Bird, commander of the Joint Service Casket Team, told his men, "Bow your heads," and then prayed silently, "Dear God, please give us strength to do this last thing for the President," to remove the coffin from the Rotunda, past the bier of which 250,000 people had already filed, after having endured a wait in line at night of three miles long.
Before Lt. Bird and his men could depart, however, the trio of Kennedys---Jackie, Bobby, and Teddy---came in for a final 10 minutes of prayer. Then the funeral march began to the Cathedral and Arlington.
In the church, Jackie cried again when Cardinal Cushing intoned, "May the angels, dear Jack, lead you into Paradise." Seeing her mother weep, Caroline gave her a small hand to hold and said, "You'll be all right, Mummy. Don't cry. I'll take care of you."
At Arlington, The Star-Spangled Banner was played, then a 21-gun artillery salute was fired, and another from the rifles of the US Army's famed Old Guard unit as depicted later in the film Gardens of Stone starring James Caan. At that point, bugler Sgt. Keith Clark pointed the bell of his bugle at the widow and began to trumpet out the mournful notes of Taps: "Day is done. Gone the sun...."
According to the late author William Manchester in his epochal study The Death of a President: November 1963 "And there Clark, after four years of playing Taps daily, lost the first note of his career. It cracked; it was like a catch in your voice, or a swiftly stifled sob." It can still be heard just the way he played it, too, on Years of Lightning, Day of Drums.
"The Honors" given at the gravesite negated the speeches with which the two Kennedy brothers had planned to give following them---a split-second decision at the end that was probably in better taste as well.
Turning instead from the pine boughs to JBK, Bobby said to Jackie, "Say goodbye to Gen. Taylor. He did so much for Jack." Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor would now go on to be one of the leading architects of the post-JFK policy of military escalation in Vietnam, and Bobby named a son after him.
It was over.
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