In his memory, that sound of the drums beating slow time for the dead president is still carrying across the Potomac and up into the sloping meadows of Arlington National Cemetery.
Many will be asked this week where they were when President Kennedy was assassinated. Michael McGrath thinks more of where he was when JFK was lowered into the ground.
He was standing right beside the president’s grave, standing stock still, his eyes fixed on the scene, drawing every detail into a young mind that had yet to reach twenty.
Many don’t know, and many have forgotten, that 24 Irish soldiers comprised the front line honor guard at the hallowed spot where the young president was laid to rest on Nov. 25, 1963, three days after his death in Dallas. McGrath was one of those soldiers, a member of the Irish army cadet school’s guard of honor and rifle drill team.
In later years, McGrath, who lives in Charlestown, Co. Mayo, would perform numerous duties and missions, both for the Irish army’s air corps and for United Nations peacekeeping forces in the Middle East.
But there never would be a mission quite like this first one. Because there never could be.
The journey to Washington for McGrath and his comrades started with a journey to Ireland for President Kennedy.
A few months before his last day of life, Kennedy had made his never-to-be-forgotten visit to the land of his ancestors. One of the ceremonies attended by the American president was a wreath-laying ceremony at the 1916 memorial at Arbour Hill in Dublin during which the cadet school’s drill team went through its paces.
According to McGrath, Kennedy was so impressed that he requested a film of the drill.
“He wanted to use our drill with his own honor guard,” said McGrath, who would rise to the rank of commandant (major) in the Irish Army Air Corps and would, after his retirement from military service, take up the post of first manager of Knock international airport.
Kennedy was sent a film of the Irish drill. His enthusiasm for it was apparently conveyed to Jackie Kennedy.
“She made a request just a short while after the assassination for us to be at the funeral,” McGrath said. “It came out of the blue and was conveyed through the Irish embassy in Washington. She felt that her husband would have wanted it.
“It was highly unusual. The president’s own armed forces were moved aside to a certain extent to accommodate her wish. And she got her wish.”
Kennedy was assassinated on Friday, Nov. 22. The following evening, Michael McGrath and the other members of the rifle drill team were still contemplating a night’s sleep in their barracks at the Curragh.
It was about 11 p.m. McGrath and the rest of his unit were unexpectedly ordered to report to the Curragh military college’s Pearse lecture hall.
“We were all shocked by the president’s death but this was something that really left us astonished. So while we were saddened by what had happened, we also immediately realized that Ireland was about to be accorded the greatest of honors and that we would be representing our country,” McGrath explained.
The surprise of the moment was soon replaced by the urgent need to work out the logistics of the operation. First and foremost were the rifles used in the drill. They were Lee Enfields that had just been replaced by new FN models.
“All the old rifles were stored away and packed in grease,” McGrath said. “We had to quickly take them out of storage, clean them up and bring them back to the required operational state. And all this in the middle of the night.”
The rifles were put in order and the cadets managed to snatch a couple of hours of sleep.
Sunday morning had barely dawned when they were up again for Mass, a momentary breakfast, some quick rifle drilling and a bus trip to Dublin airport, where an Aer Lingus Boeing 707 was ready to fly President Eamon de Valera and the rest of the official Irish delegation to the funeral in Washington.
“None of us had passports, but we all had rifles and bullets,” McGrath said.
At the airport, the cadets formed a guard of honor for de Valera as he went on board the aircraft. De Valera shook McGrath’s hand during the presentation. Once the Irish president was on board, the cadets, led by their officers, piled on after him. So far as McGrath can recall, none of them had ever even flown before.
McGrath fell into a seat beside his close friend and fellow cadet Martin Coughlin. He remembers the emotions of the moment.
“We were sad, anxious and elated,” he said. “We were representing out country, flying across the ocean with our president in order to mourn and salute America’s president.”
The plane landed at Idlewild in New York, the airport that would soon be named after JFK. The Irish party didn’t need passports. They were met on the tarmac by U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk.
The plane refueled and flew to Dulles airport outside Washington. The Irish cadets were driven to Fort Myer in Virginia, just minutes drive from Arlington National Cemetery. It was now Sunday afternoon.
The young Irish soldiers bedded down as best they could for the night. They were tired and jetlagged but sleep was to prove elusive that might.
First thing Monday morning, the cadets were roused for a full dress rehearsal at the graveside.
“I remember they were still digging the president’s grave,” McGrath said. “There was a gravedigger in the hole. I could see the top of his shovel coming out of the grave as he dug. We were ordered into our positions by an American general, at least three-star. We realized then that our position was to be right in front of the grave.”
After going through their drill, McGrath and his fellow cadets were bussed back to Fort Myer for breakfast. They were back at Arlington and in position by 1:30 that afternoon.
“The press were there and the cameras were rolling so we all had to be in position,” McGrath said. “Because of that we couldn’t stand at ease. We stood like statues for almost three hours.”
McGrath was tall, a shade over 6-foot-3. As a result, he was placed at one end of the line in the second row. He was only a few feet from President Kennedy’s final resting place.
As the afternoon — which he remembers as being cold and largely windless — wore on, McGrath became conscious of the sound of drums leading the caisson carrying the dead president.
“The drums were coming closer and closer and later I could hear the horses’ hooves,” he said.
The arrival of the procession at the grave was the moment for the cadets to commence their drill.
McGrath describes the scene: “I remember thinking, here we go, we’re on. How we performed the drill was of immense importance to us, here more than ever before. It was an old traditional funeral drill, the Queen Ann Drill, and it can’t be done with modern rifles.
“It is very precise, snappy and visually precise, both in sight and sound. You hear the clash of the hand hitting the rifle sling.
“There was a moment when we all turned our heads left. I was looking straight into the eyes of Jackie Kennedy. It was heart wrenching.
“The drill then reached the point where we reversed arms and lowered our heads. It was the most solemn part, the salute to the dead.”
The drill had passed off perfectly. All the orders had been given in Irish by Lieutenant Frank Colclough. At this point, the cadets raised their rifles in the air and fired three volleys over the President Kennedy’s grave.
The role of the Irish cadets at the graveside is not obvious in many of the films being shown repeatedly this week on TV.
McGrath himself is seen in a photograph taken by the Associated Press and included in a commemorative book entitled “The Torch Is Passed.” The cadet seen in front of McGrath is Leo Quinlan.
“Waiting by the grave and listening to the drums seemed like an eternity at the time,” McGrath said last week from his Mayo home. “I can still hear those drums now. For me, and I think for the rest of us, they epitomized the overwhelming sadness of that day.
“We were all emotionally charged up, but we had to keep it all in. We had to be at 100 percent because we owed it to the president, and our country.
“We were deeply honored. It was the most significant event of our lives and the one thing we all go back to whenever we meet. I will never forget that day, every minute of it.”
McGrath has never been back to Arlington, though he has traveled to the U.S. in the intervening years.
He has newspaper clippings, copies of photographs and a memorial card for President Kennedy presented to the Irish cadets.
But more than all these, Michael McGrath has extraordinary memories of a high moment in 20th century history, witnessed by millions on television, but only a chosen few at the place where the world said goodbye to John F. Kennedy.
“I am immensely proud to have been there,” he said.
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