Marching through history

When President John F. Kennedy was shot on Nov. 22, 1963, the nation was shocked. They mourned his untimely passing during a state funeral on Nov. 25, 1963 where a million people lined the streets of the procession and millions more watched on television.

Kennedy’s family, national leaders, foreign dignitaries and a military formation walked in the procession. Among the military marchers was Dick Anderson of Webster City.

News of the President being shot reached Anderson as he was attending the weekly graduation of Coast Guard basic training in Cape May, New Jersey. The guardsmen were passing in review at the basic training depot. Anderson was in his 10th week of training and was a guidon to signify his unit, the India Company, placing him in the front-right of his marching unit because he had ROTC training at Drake University. Anderson said about 80 people were in his unit.

After their weekly review, their commandant approached the podium. Anderson said it was unusual to for him to speak to them there. The commandant said he was told the President had been shot in Dallas, Texas.

“It was kind of a pall that went over the crowd in a hush,” Anderson said.

Not having anymore information, Anderson and his fellow guardsmen were left to wonder what had happened. Who did it? Why? Would the military become involved if the shooter was foreign? Anderson was left to ponder those questions as he continued his duties.

Normally after review, Anderson and his company would have time off unless they had a class. However, they had to take down the obstacle course that day. It was not a choice job. Of course, it was tough work, but Anderson said the people who ran it were a little sadistic. They’d make a guardsman drop for a hundred pushups if they were talking or not getting their job done.

“That changed,” Anderson said. “That afternoon, we went about and we took down the obstacle course. It was as quiet as it could ever be. People just did their job, we didn’t even talk. There were tears.”

That evening, word came to Anderson that a group might be going to march in the funeral cortege. Later that night, he found out his group would be going. They were close to graduation and those who had graduated had already been sent off to other assignments. Anderson and his group prepared their class one uniforms, shined their shoes and took off to Curtis Bay, Maryland.

In that waterfront Baltimore neighborhood, Anderson and his group prepared for the march in a Coast Guard installation. Being a guidon, he was in the front of the reserve group with two officers standing next to him. Some in his group went on to be in the honor guard at the Capitol to stand as Kennedy was lying in state. Anderson didn’t make the honor guard, as he was not six feet tall.

As Monday morning came, Anderson and his group, along with many others, came to the Capital. There were three marching units, according to Anderson The first contained the Marine band, the National Color Guard, a marching unit consisting of cadets from the Air Force, Coast Guard, Navy and U.S. Military academies and a ceremonial Army platoon unit. The second unit consisted of regulars of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard.

“It was in that order, at that point in time, because it was the order they were established,” Anderson said.

The third unit consisted of reserve members, where Anderson was. He was in front of the caisson that carried Kennedy’s body and the caparisoned horse, a ceremonial riderless horse named “Black Jack.” Kennedy’s family and cortege followed. In all, Anderson said he thinks there were several thousand members of the military marching in the procession. He said there were such a vast number of people, he couldn’t see them all from where he was at.

Anderson and the procession marched from the Capitol to the White House where the family came into the cortege. Then, he marched to St. Matthew’s Cathedral for the funeral service. Anderson remained in parade rest outside during the service.

“I’ve been told there was over a million people that lined the streets. What was so eerie about it was that you could only really hear the drum cadence. You didn’t hear a lot of talk. You didn’t hear any yelling or anything like that. It was as somber an event as you could see,” Anderson said.

After the service, they marched back toward the White House, around the Lincoln Memorial, over Memorial Bridge, and onto Arlington Cemetery. His group did not go into the cemetery, although an Irish Honor Guard with bagpipes and many dignitaries did.

While in parade rest near the cemetery, Anderson happened to see his cousin who worked for the Navy. She and her fiance walked by. He couldn’t say a word but couldn’t believe he happened to see her.

“Of all those people walking by, of a million people going through there, I saw her,” Anderson said.

That happenstance was one of the better moments on that cold, sunny day. Anderson recalls people weeping coming from the Capitol, and relives that in pictures he’s seen of the funeral procession.

“The family was well loved,” Anderson said. “Some people say (Kennedy) didn’t do much, but he didn’t really have a chance to do much with what happened.”

In all, Anderson said he marched five or six miles in what he called bone-chilling weather. However, he said he barely felt it with the adrenaline going through him from marching. He was then taken back to Cape May, but it was strange to return. Anderson, like many other Americans, was glued to the events that followed. He recalls watching Lee Harvey Oswald being shot on live television.

“You wanted to gather up all the information you could, but around the base when you got back, it was still very top in your mind. You went through your duties, your classes, marching and all that,” Anderson said.

The experience was not something Anderson would have wanted to happen. However, in retrospect, he said it was a unique opportunity to be part of a historic event. He’s never seen himself in videos or photographs of the procession, but being there was still memorable for Anderson. Even with the untimely passing of Kennedy, Anderson said his message of, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” lives on.

“Those words are known,” Anderson said.