Off Beat: Secret Service agent recalls story behind famous photo

Marine teaches John Jr. to salute president's passing

By Tom Vogt, Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter

Published:

 

Even after 54 years, some photos can stand on their own.

John and Jackie Kennedy in the limousine; the grieving widow; the funeral procession.

You don’t need to read a caption to know what happened.

Yet, another image in that series actually has quite a story behind it. It’s a story Clint Hill shared with a Vancouver audience four years ago.

He was one of the Secret Service agents in the Dallas motorcade on Nov. 22, 1963. Hill recounted those dramatic moments during a fundraising event for CDM Long-Term Care Services in 2013, the 50th anniversary of the assassination.

The photo Hill discussed was taken during the funeral on Nov. 25, when 3-year-old John Jr. raised his right hand and saluted his father’s flag-draped casket.

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

Just one 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 small 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 before Veterans Day, had to admire the Marine’s accomplishment.

“I’ll be damned. It took him 15 seconds.”

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.