Arlington National Cemetery Prelude to Assassination

Arlington National Cemetery

Part 3

Chapter 1: Prelude to Assassination, Aftermath

Photos and Material by Dan Brodt

(All photos are copyrighted unless otherwise noted. Permission must be had to use any photos that are not documented)

(Page design and editing by Bob Baldwin)

The National Park Service has the task of preserving the grounds, structures and monuments at Arlington. It is a long and sometimes tedious day for the personnel tasked with this job.

On a late March 1963 evening, NPS Ranger and college student, Paul Fuqua, settled in for his evening shift. The silence was shattered by a voice yelling "the President is coming, The President is coming!" Fuqua stood, turned the corner and came face-to-face with President John F. Kennedy.

President John F. Kennedy

President Kennedy was beaming a smile and asked Fuqua if he might look around. The Park Ranger responded that he would be happy to show him around the mansion and the grounds. As the shadows of an abnormally nice late March evening grew longer, the President gazed across the landscape, over the Memorial Bridge and into Washington town and remarked "I could stay here forever!"[1]

JFK, Naval Officer

A terrible premonition by the President? I doubt it but eight months later in November, President Kennedy would be buried just below the hill he then stood and remarked upon. The discussion, fast forwarded to not of a tour, but a discussion by the Kennedy family members on where the slain President would be buried. Arlington was the chosen place.

Arlington Supervisor, John C. Metzler,

John C. Metzler

reviewed in his mind the sites that would properly honor the assassinated Presidents internment. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, being a naval hero, might best lay near Dewey Circle and Admiral Peary or on the high ground of the USS Maine Memorial. Metzler decided that a plot of ground just down the hill from Arlington House overlooking the Nation's Capitol was it. There was a small dispute as to whether the President should be buried on the National Park Service grounds surrounding the mansion or on the Department of the Army grounds just down the hill. Being that Robert F. Kennedy, the slain President's brother, was the Attorney General, the Department of the Army ground was where President John F. Kennedy could rest in peace.

Robert F. Kennedy

As the complex arrangements for the funeral proceeded, the State viewing in the Rotunda and the caisson procession to Arlington congealed into a plan. The Old Guard prepared all that was warranted for the magnitude of this funeral procession. John Metzler summoned his best grave digger, Clifton Pollard, and they commenced to sculpt the resting place with surgical precision.

 

ARLINGTON, VA - JULY 30: FILE, Long-time Arlington gravediggers Clifton L. Poland and Sylvester Smith (right) alongside the backhoe used for digging grave sites at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia on July 30, 1980. A view from the end result of the gravedigger's work. (Photo by Gary A. Cameron/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

 

Mrs. Kennedy, who viewed a memorial flame on a visit to Paris, wanted an eternal flame installed at her husband's grave. The request gave Superintendent Metzler grave concern about the time limit needed to procure and install the flame. Finally a contractor from Rockville, Maryland created an interim design until a more permanent one could be devised and placed.

Eternal Flame

"For the first time in its history, the whole nation watched a President's funeral as it took place, the flag draped caisson rattling through silent brooding streets,

Caisson Carrying JFK

the solemn ranks of warriors marching in strict columns, Black Jack, the rider less steed,

Black Jack

skipping sideways up the White House drive, Mrs. Kennedy standing tall and perfectly composed, striding out the drive for St. Matthew's Cathedral with Robert and Teddy Kennedy alongside."[2] The funeral cortege slowly moved through the streets of Washington toward Arlington. At precisely two forty pm, Kennedy's caisson stopped at the cemetery as Air Force pipers launched into "Mist Covered Mountain." As the casket was laid by the grave, squadrons of F105 fighter jets streaked over the hills in the missing man formation, followed by Kennedy's low flying Boeing 707-Air Force One which dipped its wings in a final salute.

JFK's Boeing 707

A perfectly executed three-round volley and a missed-note Taps lingered over the cemetery. When the crowds left and the light was failing, Metzler and his workmen slid the casket into the ground, sealed the vault and covered it with the good earth of Arlington. A sense of satisfaction overcame Metzler. He did his job and he did it well! But this lone burial of a slain President started a change visited upon Arlington that had not been seen since the national cemetery's inception. Kennedy's burial prompted a tenfold increase in burial requests. Arlington now planned for a columbaria to hold the cremated remains of the dead to preserve space for in ground burials.

Columbaria

 

President Kennedy's death marked the end of one era and the beginning of another at Arlington. The haze of the Vietnam legacy rose on the horizon.

I am sorry that the assassination of President Kennedy's brother, Robert F. Kennedy, Attorney General of the United States, on June 6, 1968 is left to a lone image of a simple white cross to the left of his brother and at the foothill below Arlington House.

[1] Interview Nov. 1960, Robert M. Poole

[2] Michael J. McNamara in Farewell To The President, 12:6; Louie W. Odom in Farewell to the President, 14:3; Manchester, 560.

 

Next: Part three, Chapter 2 The Viet Nam Unknown

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