HOWELL – The “Final Salute” is the story of a nation in mourning following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, and on the morning of Nov. 14 — 54 years after the tragic events in Dallas – that story was shared with an audience at the Howell Library.
U.S. Army Lt. Col. Carl V. Lillvik (retired), who spoke at the library, was a classmate and military acquaintance of 1st Lt. Samuel R. Bird, the Officer-in-Charge of the president’s casket bearing team.
Lillvik and Bird both graduated from The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina, Charleston, S.C., in June 1961.
Lillvik told captivated audience members details of the days that followed Kennedy’s assassination. His account of the events is an amalgam of firsthand accounts related to him by his military colleagues.
He related how a Secret Service agent was overheard asking a nurse at Parkland Memorial Hospital, “Where is the nearest white funeral home?”
“I mention this because you go back to the idea that the Secret Service agents were very close to him, they were part of the family,” Lillvik said.
He said the hospital did not have a hearse to transport Kennedy’s body.
“There was an argument because regulations say you do not move bodies around in the ambulance and there was an argument that went back and forth between Air Force One (the president’s plane) and the Navy about getting an ambulance to the hospital to pick him up,” Lillvik said.
He told the audience that Secret Service agents and U.S. Air Force General Godfrey T. McHugh (a military aide to Kennedy) said they did not want a military escort and said they would take care of everything because they believed it was their responsibility.
Bird, Lillvik’s classmate from The Citadel, was a member of the 3rd United States Infantry Regiment honor guard that conducts funerals at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Va.
When Kennedy was shot on that Friday afternoon, Bird was just finishing a military funeral.
“Sam had marched in the inaugural parade (in 1961) and it struck him very deeply. He wound up going to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Solider) at the cemetery to pray, he was so concerned about the president having been shot.
“After some time he went back to his area and just as he got there they started lowering the flag and notifying everyone the president had died,” Lillvik said.
Just as Bird found out Kennedy had died, his company commander informed him he would be the Officer-in-Charge to meet the president’s casket at Andrews Air Force Base.
Bird selected six of his men to be the pallbearers and they arrived at the base before Air Force One returned from Texas.
Lillvik described Bird’s thought process when he saw the casket and First Lady Jackie Kennedy standing behind it.
“The first thing Sam thinks about is when he sees (that) he is saluting the President of the United States is that there is no flag. You are talking about people who are at Arlington and honoring the dead, honoring people who have served and here you go, you have your commander in chief. It was a big affront to their protocol that there was no flag on the casket, ” Lillvik said.
Bird was unaware the Secret Service agents and McHugh were adamant about taking care of the casket. At one point, McHugh told Bird to “get out of the way.”
“There was not a lot of thought. The Secret Service agents grabbed hold of the casket and started moving it and that is not normally their job. The casket started swinging all over the place … the military guys grabbed a hold of it and put it into the ambulance,” Lillvik told the audience.
Lillvik said Bird and his men arrived at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Md., and stood guard from the time they arrived on Friday evening until Saturday morning, when the casket was moved again.
“Sam was in the autopsy room, but he was just off to the side. There were no records of him in the autopsy room until the Warren Commission came out and they started questioning people and (someone) said, ‘Oh, there was some lieutenant in there’ and they go back and yeah, it was Sam Bird,” Lillvik said.
Lillvik went on to tell the audience about the emotional and stressful experience Bird and his men had as pallbearers during Kennedy’s funeral; how hard it was to carry the 1,300-pound casket up and down stairs at certain points and later carrying the casket to the president’s grave site at Arlington National Cemetery.
Bird, who was a native of Wichita, Kansas, went on to serve in the Vietnam War. He was wounded on Jan. 27, 1967, his 27th birthday, and left paralyzed with brain damage. He died in 1984 as a result of those wounds. Bird is honored on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Councilwoman Evelyn O’Donnell, the Township Council’s liaison to the library, was in the audience for Lillvik’s presentation.
“(Howell branch manager) Beth Henderson outdid herself getting this gentleman (Lillvik) to come in. This was excellent and it is a shame more people could not come out and listen to the experiences he endured with these people. As a country we all suffered through this,” she said.
O’Donnell said she hopes Lillvik’s presentation can serve as “a catalyst for people to remember and to be a little kinder to each other.”