PRESIDENT John F Kennedy was assassinated 50 years ago today. The day after the assassination, an invitation was sent to the 37th Cadet Class of the Irish Defence Forces by Kennedy’s widow, Jackie, to perform a drill at his funeral in Washington.
Within 48 hours, 26 Irish cadets stood a few metres from Kennedy’s grave, performing the drill, which had so enchanted him five months earlier at a wreath-laying ceremony at Arbour Hill cemetery during his famous Irish state visit.
The Queen Anne Drill, known as the Funeral Drill, takes about three minutes to execute. It was carried out for dead soldiers going back to the Confederate wars in the 1640s, but it would have been new to Americans, says James Sreenan, former Chief of Staff of the Irish Defence Forces, and one of the cadets who performed the graveside drill in Washington.
“It’s kind of a silent drill, and there’s nothing more powerful than silence. Most drills in any army are short, snappy movements, executed on the orders of somebody in charge. They’re about synchronicity and ‘bang, bang, bang’, whereas this funeral drill is a silent drill — without many executive orders — that is carried out very slowly. That makes it much more difficult — to synchronise slow movements is much more difficult than fast movements.”
The summons from Jackie Kennedy was a remarkable honour. No other foreign army has performed at the graveside of a US president. It came out of the blue. The cadets were enjoying a pass from their barracks in the Curragh, Co Kildare, when the request arrived from Washington.
Some — including Sreenan and Colonel Richard Heaslip (Rtd), father of Irish rugby star Jamie Heaslip — were at the local cinema watching Yul Brynner and Tony Curtis hamming it up in Taras Bulba. Others, such as Colonel Billy Nott (Rtd), from the Cross Douglas Rd in Cork city, were jiving at the Royal dancehall in Dublin.
“Donal Sweeney was the duty cadet at the time,” says Nott. “He rang the manager of the Royal and said, ‘Look, you’ll recognise them by their tight haircuts.’ It was ’63 and The Beatles were in but we had the crew cuts. The manager tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘I can’t tell you what it is, but it’s important to get back to the Curragh fast.’”
There were several logistical issues to sort out back at the army barracks. Only 26 cadets, from a class of 39, could travel. “Obviously, the other fellows left behind were crestfallen,” says Heaslip. Appropriate papers had to be organised in lieu of passports; only a few of the cadets had ever flown on a plane before.”
A lot of the cadets were skint, too. “Kennedy was assassinated on Nov 22,” explains Heaslip. “We were paid monthly so we were pretty strapped for cash. There was a very good shopkeeper on the Curragh called McGinn. He ran two shops which were very close to the Cadet School. He came up front and gave to any fellow who needed it a sub of £25, equivalent to a month’s salary.”
The army had just upgraded their rifles to a Belgian model, which had lots of protruding parts that made it unsuitable for the Funeral Drill. That night the cadets had to scrub grease from the old Lee Enfield No 4 rifles that had been taken out of service and stored away. “We had no idea how difficult it would be to de-grease them,” says Sreenan. Then they practised their drill for an hour before collapsing into bed in the early hours of the morning.
The next day, they boarded a flight at Dublin Airport, with President Éamon de Valera, bound for the United States. The demands of airport security were less stringent in those days. “Our rifles were stored under our seats,” says Heaslip. “We carried them on like normal luggage and shoved them under our feet for the flight.”
Nott remembers having time at the stopover at Shannon airport to make a phone call to his family to let them know he was on his way to Washington for JFK’s funeral.
When they arrived in the American capital, Dean Rusk, the US Secretary of State, came on board their plane to greet them. “He looked like a man who hadn’t slept for a week,” says Nott. “He probably hadn’t because he was next in line after the vice-president.”
The Irish teenagers were taken aback by the sight of so many big cars when they landed in Washington. They were billeted at Fort Myer, close to Arlington cemetery, the largest military graveyard in the US where Kennedy was to be laid to rest.
When the cadets assembled by the grave the following morning for a rehearsal, a JCB-type digger was digging Kennedy’s grave.
“At the Curragh, we were told that you’re going to carry out the drill at the graveside,” says Sreenan. “This term was being used ‘at the graveside’. At the same time, at the back of my mind, was the fact that all of the US Army will be involved in this funeral and what will ‘at the graveside’ mean? Will we be stuck in some corner? When we were brought up to the grave on the Monday morning, this officer came forward and said, ‘This will be your position.’ It was an absolute shock that we were standing right at the graveside.”
The cadets had to wait for about two hours until the funeral cortège arrived by the grave.
Sreenan noted that chairs were laid out for Jackie Kennedy and her brothers-in-law, Bobby and Ted Kennedy, but that they stayed standing throughout. Foreign statesmen such as Charles de Gaulle and Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia, were close by, but the cadets had no time for gawking.
“I have this photograph,” says Heaslip, “which is valued here in my home — and it makes me realise how close we were to the mourning party — but I was so committed to what I was doing that I didn’t see beyond that. We knew how important it was — to us, to the Irish Defence Forces and to the Irish State — to get it right. There were no second chances.”
The cadets returned to Ireland as conquering heroes. The Cadet Master Lieutenant Colonel Cyril Mattimoe had the PR savvy to send them home on leave on their first weekend back in Ireland, recommending that they travel home in their uniforms. “We had a certain notoriety up until Christmas,” says Heaslip. “We had an easy chat-up line when we went to dances in Dublin after it!”
A group of about 11 of the men who carried out the guard of honour, including Heaslip and Nott, will be in Washington on Monday to mark the 50th anniversary of JFK’s funeral. It will be an informal reunion of the cadets who will be forever known as “Kennedy’s class”.
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