Saline Man Recounts Being Swept Into History 50 Years Ago

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 11/21/2013 - 15:25

Swept into History

"It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to." –Bilbo Baggins

“You never think anything about it and you know your name went in and boom here comes that Friday afternoon,” said George Perrault of Saline, “and the next thing I knew the military police come over and took us out of the office and off we went.”

Perrault, a career Navy man, had been stationed in Washington D.C. after years of shipboard duty. Since General MacArthur and President Hoover were both old and in ill health the Navy decided to reinforce their ceremonial guard, which was used for state funerals. By chance Perrault was chosen.

On Nov. 22, 1963 he became part of history. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and Perrault was whisked off to guard duty.

Arriving at the ceremonial guard barracks at Anacostia, Perrault had a crash course in funeral duty. The men practiced with a trashcan for a coffin and broom or mop handles to represent rifles.

Perrault was then transported to Gawler’s Funeral Home, just down the road from Bethesda Naval Hospital where the president’s body had been taken. Soon he was taken to the White House, to serve on the president’s deathwatch.

After passing through the White House basement, which had the appearance of a fallout shelter, Perrault and other ceremonial guards arrived in the presidential theater, a small oblong room where the president could view films with guests.

“I sat on his bed,” Perrault said. “JFK had a real bad back and there was a twin bed there. It was made out of plywood.”

At the White House

When the president’s body arrived at the White House around 4:30 a.m., soldiers lined the path from outside through the hallways and into a private room. Perrault was third in line at the door. He watched as the casket came past followed by Jacqueline Kennedy.

“You couldn’t help but glance down and see her infamous pink suit,” Perrault said, “because she had never changed that, with blood on her legs and blood on that suit.”

Family members met in that private room and it is rumored that Jacqueline Kennedy opened the casket to place her wedding ring inside.

The body was then taken to the East Room where U.S. government officials paid their respects. Perrault was among those who took 30-minute shifts standing guard around the coffin. All five branches of the service were represented.

The president’s body was soon moved to the Capitol Rotunda where it would lie in state. The coffin was placed upon a catafalque, the same platform had held Abraham Lincoln’s coffin about 99 years previous.

First Watch in the Rotunda

Perrault had first watch in the rotunda. He was there when Lyndon Johnson laid a wreath at the head of the coffin. He was there when the president’s wife and daughter knelt beside it. He was there when a photographer snapped an image that was featured in both National Geographic and Life magazines.

“It was very quiet, very quiet, you could hear a pin drop,” Perrault said.

“There was such a lineup. They were going to close it down at midnight or something but the lineup was 22 blocks long, of people who wanted to get in there, so they kept it open all night long.”

When Perrault was finally able to call his wife Lois to explain where he had been, she told him that Lee Harvey Oswald had been shot. “Who in the hell is Oswald?” Perrault responded. He had been cut off from all news while being in the center of it.

Perrault and his wife are traveling to Dallas to be present for the fiftieth anniversary commemoration of the Kennedy assassination. He plans to visit the Sixth Floor Museum housed on the sixth floor of the old Texas Schoolbook Depository from whence the fatal shots (or one of them) came.

Bob Conradi's picture
Bob Conradi Is a retired pharmaceutical scientist who has redefined himself as a photographer and journalist. He has lived in Michigan for 36 years and in the Saline area for 10. He enjoys researching and learning about new ideas. Reach him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @RobertConradi.