Vets share story of Old Guard’s most-public hour

It was an unseasonably warm and sunny November 27, 1998, and Monty Wagner stood on a hillside in Arlington National Cemetery. An electrical contractor from Miami, Florida, Wagner had chosen this spot — the grave of John F. Kennedy — as the place to meet up with his daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren, who live in the Washington metro area.

It had not dawned on him that it was almost 35 years to the day since he had helped bring Kennedy to that hallowed ground. The story of the Kennedy funeral is very much an Old Guard story, and Wagner is one of its keepers.

On a similarly sunny November 25 in 1963, Wagner was wearing the dress uniform of a specialist in the 3rd U.S. Infantry (The Old Guard), standing at attention on Arlington Memorial Bridge as Kennedy's casket rolled by atop an Old Guard caisson. Preceding the caisson was flag-bearer Sergeant 1st Class Pete Holder, platoon sergeant in The Old Guard's Honor Guard Company.

Holder lives in North Carolina now, far removed from that moment in history. Like Wagner, though, he can still feel the gravity of that day and the events which led up to it.

“The afternoon Kennedy was shot [November 22, 1963], we were at first notified he wasn't dead. I had the drill team at the time on the [Fort Myer] drill field,” Holder recalled. At 12:30 p.m. in Dallas, Texas, Kennedy had been mortally wounded by an assassin's bullets as his motorcade rolled past the Texas School Book Depository.

“It was maybe an hour or two after that when we heard he was dead,” Holder said.

Meanwhile, Captain Kenneth Pond was at work in his Fort Myer office, attending his duties as The Old Guard's adjutant. “The S3 came to my office about the time the assassination came on the air and said, ‘The president's been shot,'” said Pond, who retired from the Army as a colonel in 1987 and is now executive director of the American Battle Monuments Commission.

“At that time you become aware of a number of things,” Pond continued. “One, the Military District of Washington is the responsible planning agency for state funerals — the Army being the senior service — and The Old Guard is the chief executor of that plan,” he said.

Holder had a similar realization. “We knew what our job was from that point on. We were all in shock of course, sad and somewhat angry, but we began to go through the stages of preparing for a state funeral.”

Jack Daniel was a staff sergeant and squad leader in the Honor Guard Company and remembers the moment well. “As soon as we got the word … we got all the joint armed forces over there and we started practicing in the old gymnasium.”

Across the Potomac, Wagner was in Co. A barracks on Fort McNair when his company was called to muster outside. “We were out on the parade field, and they read us a proclamation and told us what we would have to do,” he said.

Pond said getting accurate information was a challenge from the start. “The general public would be astounded at how much of the state funeral was planned from the information we got from television,” he said.

“Walter Cronkite confirmed the death of the president, and then the next thing you know, we're told that the plane's taking off for Washington,” Pond said.

He then arranged for a helicopter to take the joint casket team to Andrews Air Force Base to meet the plane.

Holder realized he was non-commissioned officer in charge of the funeral, since he was sergeant of First Platoon, which handled the Guard of Honor, the color section and the Drill Team, he said.

“They sent us to Gawler's funeral home on Wisconsin Avenue, but we were sent there as a decoy — which we didn't know — around 6 p.m. … It was the Guard of Honor and the casket-bearer teams.

“All the press was going crazy, and while we were doing all that of course they were flying [Kennedy's body] back from Dallas. When the convoy came down Wisconsin Avenue, it kept going and went right to Bethesda Naval Hospital.

“It was quite a show, because it threw the press off,” Holder said. “I took my team and went back to the White House, and we waited for his arrival, which was at 10 minutes to four the following morning.”

Pond said that immediately after sending the joint casket team to Andrews, The Old Guard senior staff began working on logistics. “We had the plan of the state funeral, but the White House at the same time was determining some of the specifics. As an example, it was not far into the time when we learned that there would be an eternal flame; Mrs. Kennedy had done this,” he said.

“The commanders and principal staff officers essentially did not go to bed from the time of the shooting until the funeral, which was four days. We'd plan all night and execute all day,” Pond explained.

Amid the preparations and the turmoil, the soldiers were somber, Daniel said. “It's hard to explain, just kind of a sadness fell over you for the whole period,” he said.

Wagner said that he felt the loss somewhat more personally as an Old Guard soldier. “We were his own; we were the best. We were basically his personal honor guard. To lose your commander in chief that way–” he said, trailing off.

For Pond, “there was a sense of, ‘How could this happen in the United States of America?'”

According to Daniel, “There was also anxiety anticipating what particular part each of us was going to play in the coming days.”

“It was almost as if you gathered the troops together and said, ‘We must go into battle,'” Pond explained. “We felt every emotion that you would feel if you were going to war except the fear,” said Pond, who later earned the Vietnam Service Medal with six Battle Stars and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Gold Star.

Pond went to the White House when the casket arrived there to assist with operations and continue planning.

The casket was placed in the East Room, which saw many visitors overnight, Pond recalled. “People would come and kneel at the casket and say their prayers. Of course, this is for the highest level of our government and foreign nations, and was sort of a private, personal thing,” Pond added.

“The entire time the casket is displayed, a joint-service casket team stays with it,” he explained.

Pond said that on the morning of Nov. 24, the casket was moved to the Capitol to lie in state.

“About 11 a.m. there was a private service for him in the Capitol.

“On that day I was given the responsibility of taking care of the Kennedy family and getting the president [Lyndon Baines Johnson] out to lay a wreath,” he said.

When Jacqueline Kennedy arrived, Pond said, she asked him to remove the slain president's son, “John-John,” who was just one day shy of his third birthday.

“And then she stopped me and told me, ‘No, let's see how long he can last, and we will remove him if he gets restless.'

“Well, during [Speaker of the House John W.] McCormack's eulogy, John-John began to fly airplanes [soaring his hand through the air]. I looked at Mrs. Kennedy, and she looked at me and acknowledged for me to take him.

“I started out with him and I had a startling thing happen. Realizing I had the son of the slain president, I was not going to give him up to someone I didn't know. But the Secret Service was not going to let me go anywhere with him. Fortuitously, as I took about four steps, I clearly recognized a Secret Service agent that I knew and turned John-John over to him,” ending the standoff.

Pond vividly remembers the demeanors of the Kennedy family members that morning. “Mrs. Kennedy was very, very quiet and stable. … The saddest thing I witnessed was Bobby Kennedy, whose expression never changed, but there was a pool of water — literally a pool of water — at his feet. He never took a handkerchief to his face, but the tears just continually streamed down,” Pond said.

After the private ceremony, the public was allowed to pay respects in the Capitol Rotunda. Mourners came through all day and all night, Pond said. The joint-service casket team stood watch the entire time.

On the morning of November 25, John F. Kennedy's casket was moved to St. Matthew's Cathedral, where the funeral service was held.

“The procession had thousands of people. It had the joint staff, commanded by an Army officer, and behind that was each of the service academies, with a large marching element from [each]. Then we had all of the presidential honor guards and then other reserve elements,” Pond said.

“There were two joint staffs: one was overall command of the parade, and the next joint staff was the overall command of the active services. I was the Army representative on the joint staff that commanded the parade,” he explained.

When the procession reached St. Matthew's Cathedral, the casket team bore the fallen president to the front of the church. “They stepped back, and the cardinal conducted the high mass. We all remained outside,” Pond said.

“We stood there for the hour or so that it took for the mass, and then the casket was ceremonially brought out of the church, and that is where John-John did the famous salute of his father,” the picture of which has become for some the defining image of that day.

Holder was carrying the colors at that moment, and had noticed John-John standing with his mother. “I turned the color team right straight into him, and I saw when he started to salute” he explained.

The vast procession then left for Arlington National Cemetery. “Every 10 yards there was a service member on each side of the street that rippled to attention and presented arms as the president's remains passed. There were large numbers of people along the street crying. … It was a very emotional time for the country,” Pond said.

Wagner was one of the soldiers lining the route. “Everybody's heart was heavy, even the ones in the security cordon. … But you have to become kind of hardened to a situation like that — you can't really show any emotion.”

“From a professional point of view,” Pond said, “it's like the tragedy of combat: you can't stop and have time for emotion, you have to do what you have to do.

“I believe that much of the emotion and the sadness came later to those professionals who had the ominous task and great honor of paying their last respects to the president through running the state funeral,” he said.

“When we got to the cemetery, the ceremonial troops from the commander on back turned, while the caissons, the casket and the riderless horse continued into Arlington, where Mr. Jack Metzler Sr., then superintendent of Arlington, took charge,” Pond said.

According to Daniel, the day of events was “probably the longest ceremony on record for the Honor Guard.” He recalls that it took over eight hours from start to finish.

Holder said many of the Old Guard soldiers had hardly slept in the four days from the assassination to the burial. He recalled that the physical and emotional strain peaked on the day of the funeral.

“I had an Army cap on that was cutting into my forehead, but when I was standing there and they brought the casket by, and I realized that the president of the United States was in there and that he had been assassinated by this animal, the pressure or something built up and I had to relieve myself from duty for a moment and take off my cap.”

According to Pond, “It was a tremendous, pressure-packed, ‘do not make a mistake, if you've ever done anything right in your life do it now' situation. And it was for the president; it wasn't so people would see us.”

But people did see. “I don't think any of us dreamed that we would receive the accolades that were received from around the world,” Pond said.

“I never thought about the press or TV cameras. … From a personal point of view, none of that occurred to me; from a professional point of view, I knew that if I made the slightest mistake, the entire world would know it,” Pond said.

“I look back for mistakes or embarrassments or things done poorly, and they don't come to mind. And they would, I can assure you,” Pond said.

Pond thinks the Old Guard has maintained the same exceptional standards throughout the years. “The current Presidential Honor Guard is easily as good and probably better than we were. And it's no accident. It's a group of great Americans working hard to do their job. I'm sure they take as much pride in it as we did. It shows when I watch them.”

Although the tragedy of the event was ponderous, Holder said he is glad to have been involved. “It was a great honor and I've been blessed by it. There's nobody else that carried the flag for President Kennedy's funeral.”

Pond described a paradoxical mix of feelings among the soldiers involved. “The totality of the emotions were emotions that I had never experienced before or since. One of immense sadness that we lost our president, one of immense pride that I was privileged to be one who represented America in helping say farewell to him.”

Wagner concurred. “To me it's probably one of the greatest honors that I've ever had — just being in the unit, in fact — and that has never really left me.”

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