Off Beat: Marine colonel played pivotal role in iconic salute by JFK's son

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It might be the most famous salute ever, and it was delivered by a little boy.

Fifty years ago, Clint Hill didn't know how well that moment was going to turn out, he told a Vancouver audience recently.

Hill was a Secret Service agent assigned to Jackie Kennedy's security detail. He was in the Dallas motorcade on Nov. 22, 1963, when John F. Kennedy was shot.

Hill recounted those dramatic moments during his recent Vancouver appearance with Lisa McCubbin, co-author of "Five Days in November." They headlined a fundraising event for CDM Long-Term Care Services, a local nonprofit.

A lot happened behind the scenes during those five days, but the entire nation watched the funeral on Nov. 25, 50 years ago today. The unforgettable image came when 3-year-old John-John raised his right hand and saluted his father's flag-draped casket.

Couldn't get it right

That moment actually could be traced back to an event two weeks earlier, Hill said. With the president due for a Veterans Day visit to Arlington National Cemetery, the first lady had a request. She wanted her son to learn to salute so John Jr. could participate in the Nov. 11 ceremony.

"No problem," Hill said.

Well, there was a problem.

"He'd only do it with his left hand," Hill recalled. After two weeks of practice, something clicked: John Jr. saluted with his right hand.

Two weeks later, the setting was the president's funeral Mass. The boy was getting rambunctious, so a Secret Service agent found a little room where they could practice saluting.

"He was back to doing it with his left hand," Hill told the crowd at the Hilton Vancouver Washington.

That's when a Marine colonel who'd been watching them walked in to help. Standing ramrod straight, the colonel demonstrated as he told the boy: "THIS is how you salute!"

... And a bit later, that's what John-John did.

Hill said the Secret Service agents, who'd been working on this well ahead of Veterans Day, had to admire what the Marine accomplished: "I'll be damned. It took him 15 seconds."

— Tom Vogt


Off Beat lets members of The Columbian news team step back from our newspaper beats to write the story behind the story, fill in the story or just tell a story.