This week marks the 60th anniversary of one of the darkest days in American history, November 22, 1963, the assassination of the 35th president of the United States, John F. Kennedy. On the occasions of the 40th and 50th anniversary of that dark day in Dallas, Webb Weekly ran two stories featuring two individuals who had direct personal ties to that tragic event. We thought it would be interesting to our readers to revisit these two stories in connection with the 60th anniversary.
At the time of the 40th anniversary of the assassination of JFK, I was privileged to have interviewed Rich Gaudreau, then living in the Bloomsburg area. He has since moved from the area. Gaudreau was a part of history when he served as the Air Force representative on the JFK casket team through that dark weekend in November. What follows is the information I gained from that interview with him.
As a JFK pallbearer, he was center stage in the ritual of grief that was JFK’s funeral and burial ceremonies.
Gaudreau served in the U.S. Air Force as an Air Policeman from 1955 to 1979 and was a member of the U.S. Air Force Honor Guard at Bolling Air Force Base near Washington, D.C. When word was received of Kennedy’s death and that his body would arrive from Dallas at Andrews AFB, Gaudreau was ordered to assemble eight members of the Air Force Honor Guard to serve as a casket team to meet Kennedy’s body.
“We got out to Andrews about 3:30 p.m., but Air Force One did not arrive until a little past 6 p.m. While waiting, we had the Army, the Navy, and the Marines come in, and that is when an Army lieutenant, Samuel Bird, asked me who was in charge of the Air Force casket team,” Gaudreau recalled. “I said I was, and he told me, ‘Follow me.’ That’s how I ended up on the Kennedy detail.”
He said rather than using the military honor guard to offload Kennedy’s casket from Air Force One, members of the Secret Service and some of Kennedy’s staff took it off the plane and loaded it into a Navy hearse. The mixed service casket team that, now included Gaudreau, was taken by helicopter to Bethesda Naval Hospital, where Kennedy was being taken for his autopsy.
Gaudreau and the casket team reached Bethesda before the hearse bearing Kennedy’s body. They waited out front for its arrival.
“We saw the hearse pull up and stop and waited for it to back up for a little bit, and we went forward to take the casket out, but the hearse took off,” Gaudreau said. “The only thing we assumed is that Mrs. Kennedy did not want to get off at the morgue. She wanted to get off at the main entrance. So, it took off and apparently dropped her off and came back. This is when we took the casket and put it inside the morgue.”
He said some controversy was generated because two different coffins were used for Kennedy’s body. The original coffin that Kennedy was placed in at Dallas was damaged during loading and offloading of it from Air Force One. He said the original coffin had a broken handle and was deeply scarred, so another coffin was sent for from Gawler’s Funeral Home in Washington, D.C.
“We were then posted as guards at the mortuary entrance, and we were to notify the Secret Service if anyone sought entrance,” said Gaudreau. “No one sought entry during this time. While we were there, we brought the next casket in and put that on the floor and took the old one out and put that on the loading dock, and then they brought his suit in, a black pinstriped one, with a shirt and tie. Later on, we brought the flag in and draped the coffin.”
After that, the casket team went to the White House in a limousine to await the arrival of the President’s body. There, they took the casket out of the hearse, took it into the East Room of the White House, and placed it on a catafalque about 4:30 a.m. Saturday, November 23. The Death Watch then relieved them; a mixed-service honor guard then stood watch over Kennedy’s body at the White House.
“After we were relieved, Lt. Bird, who was in charge of the casket team, he told us to go home and to get a couple of hours sleep and then to assemble again at Fort Myer where we would practice,” Gaudreau said.
“The young lieutenant envisioned in his mind that we were going to carry the 800-pound coffin up the steps of the Capitol, and he wanted it perfectly level. In order to practice, we went to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the evening after it was closed, and they have stairs similar to those at the Capitol. Using a dummy casket, we practiced carrying the casket up and down the stairs there. This is where it gets a little comical; the dummy casket may weigh 300-400 pounds, so we put the Tomb guard inside the casket to give it some added weight and carried him up and down for a couple of hours. That was on Saturday.”
On Sunday morning, Gaudreau and the casket team went to the White House. They took Kennedy’s coffin out of the East Room, placed it on a caisson, and marched behind the caisson to the U.S. Capitol, where they took it up the steps and placed it on the Lincoln Catafalque in the Rotunda.
After that, they went back to Fort Myer to practice folding the flag because each service does it slightly differently, and the Army wanted it done according to their style.
The casket team went to a rally point and drove to the Capitol on Monday morning, November 25, to begin their task. They relieved the Death Watch and, took the coffin down the Capitol steps and loaded it on the caisson.
“Instead of marching behind the caisson this time, we rode a bus to St. Matthews Cathedral, where the funeral was going to be held because the family wanted to march behind the caisson,” Gaudreau said.
“After the service, we marched behind the caisson from St. Matthew’s to Arlington. That was a long trek. I remember the thousands and thousands that lined the streets.”
They then carried their precious cargo up the gentle hillside at Arlington, where last honors were rendered to John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
Gaudreau said that the hardest part at Arlington was waiting for the family and all of the dignitaries to depart after the burial ceremony. He said they waited for about 35-45 minutes for everyone to leave. They then saluted the grave and marched off and went off to Fort Myer and dispersed.
Each member of the casket team received the Army Commendation Medal for their exemplary duty.
After the J.F.K. funeral, Gaudreau remained in the Air Force for another 16 years, including a one-year stint in Vietnam from 1972 to 1973. He retired as a senior staff sergeant.
Looking back on his experience that fateful November weekend, Gaudreau said, “During the time it was going on, I didn’t think much about it. It was a duty you were performing and something you practiced, but when you looked back, it was very significant to carry the casket of the President that has been assassinated in office. It was a big honor for me. I was the only Air Force representative on the casket team, so I felt a certain amount of extra pressure. Looking back, it was the most memorable duty I ever performed. It was the highlight of my military career.”