The moment steadied a shaken nation. As the military pallbearers faltered carrying President John F. Kennedy's half-ton casket, the first lieutenant in command stepped forward and took hold with his fingers to keep it from crashing to the ground.
That man was Sam Bird, who had graduated from The Citadel only two years earlier.
“Talking to people (about the assassination), you hear stories like, 'I was watching on TV,' ” said Bobby Crouch of Mount Pleasant, also a graduate of The Citadel, who as a second lieutenant marched the caisson to Arlington National Cemetery with the Army's elite Old Guard. “Sam was the guy who walked behind the casket.”
Bird, tagged in the Army as “Straight Arrow,” met the casket at the plane when it landed in Washington, D.C., and left it only once before the burial concluded three days later. He took hold of the casket repeatedly when his team staggered under its weight moving it to and from the White House, to the Capitol building and then the cathedral.
In one last symbolic act that reassured the nation, he commanded “About face!” as his team stepped away from the burial. They turned and gave a final, unscripted salute.
Bird, coincidentally a Republican, remembered it this way: “We had been with him so long (during the burial process) and loved him so much that we just wanted to do it.”
The recollection comes from the book “So Proudly He Served,” a tribute to Bird written in cooperation with his family. As a captain in Vietnam in 1967, he was shot in the head by a sniper — ironically enough, on his birthday. A torturous recovery left him confined to a wheelchair. He died of complications in 1984; he was 53 years old.
“His name is etched in the Vietnam Wall in Washington,” said Crouch, who called Bird “the real hero.” He should be recognized by The Citadel, Crouch said.
Bird and various members of his team accompanied the body through every step of the funeral process.
Bird watched the autopsy.
“It was quite a shock to see the president,” Bird remembered in the book, “to see his naked body torn down by gunshot, his autopsy, then the restoration of a crushed individual, disfigured and dead, back to the image we knew him as — John Fitzgerald Kennedy.”
The night before the burial, unaware that a carriage had been assigned to take some of the weight off the struggling pallbearers, he and the team repeatedly rehearsed marching the steps to the tomb carrying a standard casket filled with sand.
A week after the burial, on Thanksgiving Day, Bird was on duty at the gravesite when Jacqueline Kennedy unexpectedly approached. She wanted to thank him.
Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.
A horse-drawn caisson bearing the body of President John F. Kennedy heads from the White House (background) to the Capitol for him to lie in state on Nov. 24, 1963.×
The Citadel graduate Sam Bird (center) was the first lieutenant who took hold of President Kennedy’s casket when his guard faltered coming out of St. Matthews Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 25, 1963. Jackie Kennedy, Jean Kennedy Smith, Eunice Shriver, Cardinal Cushing and other mourners are visible in the background.×