It was the afternoon of Sunday, November 24, 1963. Colonel Clayton B. Lyle, a 1937 graduate of Texas A&M, was watching television in his living room in Washington, D.C. He had recently returned from an assignment in Europe to find the capital in bedlam. Two days before, President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas.
Tired and saddened because of the tragic event that had happened in his native Texas, Lyle was trying to relax when the telephone rang. The caller was Lieutenant General Walter K. Wilson, Jr., chief of U. S. Army Engineers, and Lyle’s boss.
"We’ve got a problem," his commander began. "We have to have an eternal flame to mark the President’s grave by eight o’clock tomorrow morning. You’ve got the job."
The request had come directly from the First Lady. It was long after the funeral, however, before Lyle learned how the idea had originated. The story appeared in Death of a President, William Manchester’s account of the assassination.
According to Manchester, Mrs. Kennedy, along with the new President and Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson, had accompanied her husband’s body to the Capitol rotunda earlier that morning. It was to lie in state there until the next day when a state funeral was scheduled. Mrs. Kennedy, who was helping plan the service, told Manchester, a family friend, that the idea of an eternal flame "just came into my head."
On an earlier triumphant trip the Kennedys had made to Paris, Mrs. Kennedy had seen such a flame at the memorial to the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triompe. Apparently on impulse, she decided she wanted a similar device to remind the world that her husband also had given his life for his country.
To Colonel Lyle, born in Greenville and a 1931
graduate of Denison High School, the assignment was both a high honor and
a shock. As an Army Engineer, with 27 years of service in Europe, Guam,
and Korea, he had been handed many difficult tasks. He had directed the
construction of fixed and floating bridges, concrete and asphalt roads,
buildings, utilities, launching complexes, radar stations, and other facilities.
Never, however, had he been
asked to create a memorial.
"This was the first time we had to do anything like this," he says. "I just thought up the idea and made a few sketches."
There was no time to carefully design and plan such a device. He and his staff had to make do from scratch. Scrounging Washington’s electrical shops, they found a "luau lamp" normally used to illuminate garden parties. They tested it by dousing it with water, blasting it with air, and trying everything they could think of to kill the flame. It continued to burn.
Meanwhile, Lyle’s crew of officers and men at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, made a base for the lamp by welding metal strips into a support frame. With the lamp and its base a reality, finding fuel posed a problem. It was a Sunday and propane gas suppliers were closed. After dozens of telephone calls, personnel at Fort Myer, Virginia, which adjoins Arlington National Cemetery, finally reached a company that could furnish the propane.
Working around the clock, Fort Myer officers and men laid a one-inch line down the hillside to deliver gas to the burial site. Thirty hours and a sleepless night after General Wilson’s call, the project was complete. Now the only concern of Lyle and his crew was whether or not the flame would light when Mrs. Kennedy ignited it at the conclusion of the service.
Colonel Lyle and a fellow officer stood on the hillside above the grave and watched.
"We had tested how long it took the gas to get down the line once it was turned on," he recalls. "At the right moment, we signaled a man at the tank to turn it on. It worked."
As millions watched on television, Mrs. Kennedy took a burning taper from her military escort. When she touched the lamp, the flame leaped up just as Lyle had hoped, and believed, it would.
Colonel Lyle has always regretted that the eternal flame he designed and built was necessarily a makeshift project that would have to be replaced with a permanent device later. His original lasted for more than a year, however, with only one interruption. That happened about a month after the funeral when he got a phone call from General Wilson.
"You didn’t test it for one thing—holy water!" his boss told him.
It seems that a Catholic school group came to visit the grave. Instead of sprinkling the consecrated water, they poured it directly on the flame. It went out. Fortunately, one of the guards at the grave was a smoker. He used his cigarette lighter to get it restarted.
The gadget that Colonel Lyle and his crew built no longer provides the flame over John Kennedy’s grave. In March, 1965, Kennedy’s body was removed and re-interred in a permanent site in Arlington Cemetery. Lyle’s lamp was replaced along with the propane canisters. Now the eternal flame is fueled from an underground line of natural gas.
Colonel Lyle retired from the Army in 1967, came home to Texas and joined the Dallas Department of Public Works as assistant director for engineering. When a new Building Services Department was created in 1971, he became the deputy director.
In that position, he was responsible for the design, construction and security of all city buildings. He also directed the renovation and construction of new facilities at Love Field and Red Bird Airports.
Still active, Lyle retired from his second career with the city of Dallas in 1976. He and his wife, Laverne, still live in Big D. He sometimes wonders what happened to the original eternal flame he and his engineers built to mark the Kennedy grave.
It’s a question that concerns the U.S. Army Engineers, too. For years, Colonel Lyle believed that the old lamp was displayed at the Army Engineer Museum at Fort Belvoir. Later he was told that it had been put in storage. However, other sources say the original eternal-flame torch disappeared during the period when the more modern version was being installed.
Colonel Lyle says that inquiries to the collection of Engineer mementos at the museum at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, and to the John F. Kennedy Museum and Library in Boston have failed to locate it.
His Army service in Europe and Asia brought him many commendations, and his medals, photographs and tributes line the walls of his home. However, it was the overnight creation of a burning memorial to a fallen President that Colonel Clayton Lyle rates as the most memorable achievement of his career.
"I got more publicity out of the eternal flame than anything else that I ever did," Lyle says. "I considered it an honor to be a part of it, but I’d rather not have had to do it."
A story from A Treasury of Texas Tales By Jack Maguire