Just about every person over the age of forty-five can tell you where they were, how they felt and what they did upon hearing the news of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy forty years ago this week. For Air Force members stationed with the 11th Air Base Group at Bolling Air Force Base, the afternoon of Friday, November 22, 1963 was sunny and bright. No doubt, the thoughts in many minds were of the Thanksgiving holiday less than a week away and the beginning of the shopping season leading to Christmas.
Captain Harry H. Meuser, conductor of The USAF Band, had just flown into Andrews Air Force Base with the band that morning. Meuser had that summer been appointed conductor of the band and had been involved with extensive tours throughout the United States. A return home before Thanksgiving was going to be a welcome relief. Sergeant John Bosworth, drummer, was with The USAF Pipe Band in New Orleans for weekend performances. The band had arrived the day before and toured Bourbon Street and now the men were relaxing in Navy barracks, preparing for an evening show. The Pipe Band, which was a favorite with President Kennedy, had performed many times at the White House and had recently been guests of the President when The Black Watch had performed November 13 at the Executive Mansion. In the orderly room of The USAF Honor Guard at Bolling, SSgt. Richard Gaudreau, NCOIC (Non Commissioned Officer in Charge) of ceremonial coordination, was doing paperwork. The schedule for the day was unusually light. There were no ceremonies for the honor guard. No funerals at Arlington meant troops could spend the day training and performing other tasks not associated with ceremonial duty. Plus, there were shoes to be shined and uniforms to press. Many bandsmen and honor guard troops had been released. It was, after all, a beautiful day and a chance to get started on some pre-holiday shopping.
At 1340 EST the news from Dallas, Texas flashed around the world, forever changing our history. Capt. Meuser recalled, “We were on the bus when someone came running up to say the President had been shot.” Many band members had driven to Andrews in their own cars and had already departed for a long weekend. Back at Bolling, Gaudreau was listening to the radio when the words “Bulletin, Bulletin, Bulletin,” came over the airwaves. The orderly rooms of The USAF Band and Honor Guard sprang to life. Capt. Albert J. Zuber, commander of the honor guard, ordered an immediate squadron recall, and MSgt. Hunnicutt and SSgt. Gaudreau began making phone calls. Leaves were canceled and plans to meet Air Force One began. The band was ordered to stand by.
In New Orleans, Pipe Major Sandy Jones received a call from Washington ordering The Pipe Band’s immediate return to Bolling. Bosworth and the other stunned members of the band packed and headed for transport.
Gaudreau assembled an Air Force casket team to meet Air Force One as the plane bearing the President’s remains winged back to Washington. Gaudreau says that when they arrived at Andrews, they found that other services had also sent teams to carry the President’s casket. “Everything was very confused, no one knew what was happening.” MDW (Military District of Washington) took charge of the casket team, having the OIC (Officer in Charge), Army 1st Lt. Samuel Bird, assemble a six man joint service team to carry the coffin. SSgt. Gaudreau was chosen to represent the Air Force. “It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time.” The casket team was expanded to eight members the next day when the President’s coffin was found to be very heavy. Because of the weight of the coffin and the ceremony that would have the team carry it up the thirty-six steps of the Capitol on Sunday, on Saturday night Lt. Bird had the team carry a dummy coffin up and down the steps at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery. They even persuaded one of the Tomb Guards to sit in the coffin for added weight as they practiced carrying the coffin evenly up and down the steps in order to achieve perfection. Gaudreau later wrote: “Thinking back, I still remember that Friday as a madhouse of mass confusion. Only when the young lieutenant Sam Bird took charge did things fall into place. I am only glad that I could make my small personal contribution to giving our President a fitting farewell.”
The joint service casket team carrying Kennedy’s coffin into the White House in the early morning hours of Saturday, November 23. Sgt. Richard Gaudreau is in the center on the right (near) side of the coffin. Lt. Sam Bird is at the back of the coffin, actually helping to carry the weight of the heavy casket. Â Later that day the casket team was expanded from six members to eight members.
The Pipe Band arrived back in Washington and returned to Bolling, landing just ahead of the plane carrying cabinet members who were on the way to Japan for a summit meeting when they received the news of the President’s death. Because of the President’s fondness for pipe music, The Pipe Band was invited to play at the interment ceremony which had been set for Monday, November 25 at Arlington. Letitia (“Tish”) Baldridge, White House Social Secretary and friend of Mrs. Kennedy, was in contact with Capt. Meuser about the music the bands would play on the funeral procession. At the Captain’s suggestion, one of the pieces chosen was Chopin’s “Funeral March.”
During the long weekend, while the band rehearsed and practiced marching, The USAF Honor Guard provided troops for the various ceremonies. Fifteen men were used for the security cordon at the White House, eleven were in the White House honor guard cordon, two were on the death watch, fourteen were used at the Capitol as honor guard cordon, and forty were used as a cordon at Arlington. A flight consisting of twenty-seven troops with one OIC would march in the parade and participate in the graveside ceremonies as part of a joint service formation. One of the guards accompanying the body was A3C Kenneth L. Freeman. SSgt. Dewey Hicks stood the first watch when the casket was brought to the Capitol Rotunda, a scene viewed by millions on television.
Accompanying the casket as it moved on a caisson from the White House to the Capitol on Sunday was a joint service drum corps. In the eighteen-man corps were members of The USAF Band’s Drum and Bugle Corps, Sergeants Harold Ludwig and Rodney Goodheart, and Airmen Bill Mojica and Jim Dinkins. To this day the sound of their drums playing the somber muffled beat is still etched in many memories.
Monday, November 25 turned out to be a bright, sunny, but very cold day. The Pipe Band reported to Arlington in the early morning for a run-through of the graveside ceremonies to take place later that day. “We rehearsed in our full outfits,” (kilts with the special Billy Mitchell tartans designed for the band) recalled Bosworth, “and it was cold as hell.” After their dry run, The Pipe Band moved to an area near the Old Amphitheater to run through the music and marching one more time to ensure perfection. Meanwhile, the President’s remains were moved from the Capitol to St. Matthew’s for the funeral mass. Once again, SSgt. Gaudreau and the seven other members of the casket team flawlessly took their precious cargo to the waiting caisson. They moved down the steps of the Capitol to the strains of the hymn “O God of Loveliness.” The USAF Band joined in the procession to the church playing the Chopin “Funeral March,” “Vigor in Arduis” (Hymn to the Holy Name), and, as author William Manchester related, “the most famous of them all and the most dolorous – and, at the end, the redeeming “America the Beautiful.”
The procession stopped briefly at the White House, then continued on to the church. At 1:30 p.m., the funeral procession left St. Matthew’s and began the several mile trip to Arlington. The march took over an hour. From their position on the hill in front of the Custis-Lee Mansion, The Pipe Band had the perfect view to watch the magnificent, solemn pageantry of a state funeral unfold. Bosworth related that they were waiting in position for about an hour and a half and could see each unit as it approached the gates to Arlington. The U.S. Marine Band led the procession, followed by troops from each branch of the service, including The USAF Band whose playing of Chopin’s “Funeral March” would become a memorable event of that day. The caisson was pulled by six matched white horses and flanked by the eight enlisted casket bearers including Gaudreau, the national colors, the presidential flag, and the caparisoned horse, “Black Jack.” Behind the military escort stretched a long line of limousines and cars carrying the mourners.
Leaving St. Matthew’s on Monday afternoon, November 25
The USAF Pipe Band at the funeral
Shortly before 3 p.m., the Kennedy family, accompanied by ninety-two heads of state, prime ministers, and United States officials, gathered by the grave site as The U.S. Marine Band struck up “Ruffles and Flourishes” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The casket was borne to the grave accompanied by the strains of “Mist Covered Mountains,” played by The USAF Pipe Band, who slowly marched by the grave and onto the street led by Drum Major Seamus (Jim) Neary. Overhead, fifty jet fighters flew in formation followed by Air Force One, piloted by USAF Col. James Swindal. SSgt. Gaudreau had a moment of panic, fearing that the bearers would allow the casket to slide into the open grave. A corps of Irish cadets executed a silent drill as Cardinal Richard Cushing began the traditional Catholic commitment rites with, “O God, through whose mercy the souls of the faithful find rest, be pleased to bless this grave.” The sky above was bright and clear on that crisp autumn day, as the solemn ceremony quickly came to its conclusion. “I am the resurrection and the life…” Cardinal Cushing finished the burial rites and led all in “The Lord’s Prayer,” then stepped back as the military honors began. Gaudreau and the other casket team members held the flag tight over the casket. He worried about passing out, but after the twenty-one gun salute, the traditional three rifle volleys, and Taps, the team perfectly folded the flag into the triangle reminiscent of the cocked hat from the American Revolution. The folded flag was presented to Mrs. Kennedy and the funeral party departed. Only then did Lt. Bird march the casket bearers away, pausing once to render one last hand salute to his Commander in Chief.
The USAF Band, Pipe Band, and Honor Guard returned to Bolling that evening with the knowledge that they had contributed to a momentous event that would forever be remembered. In the Friday November 29, 1963 issue of the Bolling Beam newspaper, Col. Frank E. Marek (Commander of Bolling AFB), thanked the Air Police, Ceremonial Unit, USAF Bandsmen, Transportation Division, Billeting Section, Food Service Personnel, and volunteers from various tenant units for their superior performance during the four days of the funeral.
Captain Harry Meuser retired from The USAF Band in 1964 and taught for many years as well as performing as a bassoonist. John Bosworth retired from The USAF Band in 1984 as a Senior Master Sergeant and is still quite active as a percussionist. The drum he used in the Kennedy funeral was on display at Arlington National Cemetery for three years. Richard Gaudreau retired from the Air Force in 1979 as a Senior Master Sergeant. He performs funeral duties with his local VFW in Bloomsburg, PA, a service which he says he is proud to perform. His polished shoes are on display at The USAF Honor Guard building at Bolling AFB. Lt. Sam Bird was severely wounded in Vietnam and died in 1984.
This article appeared in the Bolling Beam newspaper, Friday, November 28, 2003. Special thanks to Harry Meuser, Richard Gaudreau, John Bosworth, Seamus Neary, Harry Gleeson, and Harold Copenhaver for contributing their personal reminiscences of that historic weekend.