Skip to comments.Assigned a role in history (pallbearer for JFK)
Posted on 11/22/2003 6:02:24 AM PST by Born Conservative
Assigned a role in history
By BRENDA HARTMAN
Press Enterprise Writer
BLOOMSBURG When Richard Gaudreau walked into the information center at Arlington National Cemetery during a visit last year, he looked up and saw his own face.
There on the wall was a gigantic mural depicting the military honor guards who bore the casket of slain President John F. Kennedy. Gaudreau had been one of them.
Gaudreau, 67, Wonderview, said he's gotten used to seeing himself on television, in glossy magazine photos and black-and-white news clippings. He's got a stack of them himself, showing the funeral services for the young president who was killed 40 years ago today.
But the mural was a shock. He hadn't been back to Arlington in all these years.
"I was surprised," he said.
Gaudreau was a 27-year-old Air Force staff sergeant when he found himself pulled into the historic events unfolding after Kennedy was killed in 1963. He was one of eight men who became pallbearers for the president. Gaudreau, who is now graying at the temples, said it's sometimes hard for him to believe he was really part of it all.
His call to duty was a fluke, he said.
"When I reflect back on it, it was being in the right place at the right time," he said.
Gaudreau joined the U.S. Air Force in June of 1954, just days after graduating high school. His father had taken him to the Massachusetts steel factory where he worked. One look was enough to steer him onto a different career path.
"I thought, there's no way I'm going to do this the rest of my life," he said.
After serving a tour in Europe, Gaudreau returned to an Air Force base in Washington where he was given the choice of joining the base police or the honor guard. He opted for the steady work week of an honor guard. That was 1958.
"It seemed like a better work assignment," he said.
He was in an office on the base on Nov. 22 when he heard the radio bulletin that Kennedy had been shot.
"It was a little while later we heard he had died," Gaudreau said.
His boss told him to get together a team of men and head to Andrews Air Force Base, where Kennedy's body was being flown. The other branches of the military had also sent honor guards.
While waiting for the plane, an Army lieutenant walked up to his group and asked who was in charge. When Gaudreau stepped forward, the officer said: "Let's go."
"And that's how I ended up in it," he said.
It turned out the lieutenant was forming a joint-military honor guard, representing each branch of the service for Kennedy's funeral services. But Gaudreau didn't have time to think about that or Kennedy's death, which had left the country in shock and mourning.
"The one thought going through your mind is you're the only Air Force guy on this team please don't mess it up."
'It was so heavy'
When Air Force One landed that Friday night, Gaudreau helped the Secret Service take the casket off the plane with Jackie Kennedy in her blood-stained pink dress and the president's brother Bobby only a few feet away. The moment was captured in a now famous Life Magazine photo.
He went with the casket to Bethesda Naval Hospital, where the autopsy was performed.
"I remember the pinstriped suit, white shirt and tie" carried in for the president, Gaudreau said.
Around 4:30 a.m. Saturday, the pallbearers carried the casket into the East Room of the White House, where Gaudreau and the others stood stonefaced while the family received visitors for a private viewing.
"We'd been up since 6 o'clock Friday morning, and we were going on 24 hours without stopping," Gaudreau recalled.
He said the bronze casket chosen for Kennedy weighed more than 800 pounds. Two additional men had to be added to the original six to manage it.
"We struggled carrying the thing because it was so heavy," he said.
The men got their first break when the military death watch took over for the evening, he said.
Fear of Capitol steps
Later that day, they began practicing in earnest for the funeral services on Sunday and Monday.
Gaudreau said the honor guard was to carry the casket into the Capitol Rotunda where the slain president would lie in state. He and the others were worried about keeping it level as they climbed the 40 steep, narrow steps to the Capitol.
Gaudreau said they went to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which had a similar set of stairs, to practice. Because the casket they were using was too light, they recruited a guard to play the body and provide extra weight.
"It was kind of comical," he said.
But when the time came, the team performed without incident.
The sight and sounds of the crowd and the scent of flowers blanketing Arlington Cemetery are his strongest memories of Kennedy's funeral. The honor guard carried the casket from the Rotunda to the horse-drawn caisson that paraded to St. Matthew's Cathedral.
"I can remember the mass of people lining the streets," Gaudreau said. "You could hear them talking and crying out."
The Arlington "hillside was just covered with flowers, and you could smell them," he said.
Gaudreau said the honor guard's last duty was attending at the burial. Traditionally, they leave after the flag draping the casket is folded. But there were so many people, they couldn't leave.
"We stood there, and stood there and stood there," he said. "The lieutenant was waiting for all these people to leave. It seemed like it would never end."
'This is my duty'
Gaudreau said lot of things go through your mind when you're standing honor guard, especially the need to keep your toes wiggling so your legs won't get numb and cause you to collapse.
Mostly, you focus on the job at hand, he said.
"You think I'm going to do this duty," he said. "This is the shield you put on over yourself."
In the years that followed, Gaudreau said he's seen television clips and newspaper photos of himself during the funeral. He also has his collection of military photos. With the 40th anniversary of Kennedy's death, he's seen his younger self again bearing the weight of the president's casket.
"I've seen it a thousand times, and I'll see it another thousand times," he said.
Gaudreau, who retired from the military in 1979, said the passage of time hasn't diminished that moment in history for those who lived through it.
"It's still as big as it was because of all the mystique that goes with it," he said.
Gaudreau said people then knew that other presidents had been assassinated. But they couldn't imagine such a thing happening in 1963.
"Of course, it did," he said.
"For this country, this was a tragedy to have this president taken away from the people," he said.
Yes. The Liberal Democrats just love their Saint JFK. Trot him for every election.