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A Kennedy Honor Guard Reflects on this Day 50 Years Later



Today marked the 50th anniversary of the tragic day that, according to many, was when this country lost its innocence, and John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated on a sunny afternoon in Dallas, Texas.  Photos, movies, films and articles chronicling that day and the days that followed, as the country mourned the loss of its president, are all being replayed as remembrances and ceremonies mark this anniversary.

The Pulse was privileged to spend some time with Carl Maxwell, a man who held a front row seat on the days that followed the tragic assassination.

Maxwell, who now lives north of Howe, Okla., grew up in Scott County, Ark. and graduated in 1961 from Waldron High School. He joined the Army in 1962, completed Basic Training at Fort Polk, and Military Police training in Georgia but later transferred to infantry. He said he knew the odds were high that he would be deployed to Korea and so when the opportunity to volunteer to be a member of Honor Guard became available, he took it.  Never dreaming, at the time, that he would participate in a presidential funeral detail.

He said he first learned the news as his company was doing their annual firearms training and one of his military brothers had a transistor radio on the bus that President Kennedy had been shot. “I was shocked, of course, just like everyone else.”

As he combed through newspaper clippings of the events that followed, especially of the mass, procession, and burial, he could point to members of his battalion that are forever memorialized in photos and books, serving that day.

Maxwell said he remembers lining with other guards and police, hand in hand to provide a barrier, the day Kennedy lie in state in the maxwell-2-kennedyCapitol Rotunda and said by mid-morning, over 500,000 thousand people had been funneled through to view Kennedy’s coffin.

Later that same day, Maxwell would be responsible for opening the limo doors for arriving dignitaries. He said he remembers well opening the door for Robert Kennedy and “his eyes were all blood shot from dealing with his grief.” He said he remembers Dean Rusk, Kennedy’s Secretary of State, and with one of the Secret Service vehicles, he said he was struck when he saw piles of machine guns laying in the seats.

During the mass, Maxwell was stationed just outside St. Matthew’s Cathedral, with his back to it. He said they were never suppose to look anywhere but forward but said he was well aware that history was being made and said he couldn’t refuse the temptation to glance as guests were arriving. He remembers seeing Charles De Gualle, Prince Philip, Emperor Haile Selassie and all of his medals, Harry Truman, Billy Graham, Dwight Eisenhower, and many other heads of state.

As he thumbed through a book, The Torch is Passed, a photo of Ms. Kennedy standing at the Eternal Flame, he points to his commander, and says “That’s Lieutenant Bird.”

Maxwell served as one of the four guards at the Kennedy graveside for the months that followed, saying he gratefully served on that detail and considered it a privilege. In his scrapbook, he has a dried rose from Kennedy’s grave that he still has as a keepsake.

Kennedy’s was probably the most memorable service that Maxwell served as Honor Guard during his time in D.C.  But said he also remembers well “Death Valley,” as it became known, as he pointed to a photograph an area of Arlington National Cemetery that he said was empty when he first began his duties as Honor Guard and as the Vietnam War raged on, he said he steadily watched it fill in with the iconic white tombstones.

Many feel a personal connection to this day, remembering where they were when they heard the news, but for Carl Maxwell, the connection goes much deeper as the pages of his family album contain personal photos of a day that he will never forget.