The assassination of President John F. Kennedy will forever be a pivotal event in the lives of those that were old enough to comprehend the events of that tragic day. Like the attack on Pearl Harbor was for an earlier generation and the attacks of 9/11 to the current generation, everyone knew where they were when they received the news that President Kennedy had been killed. The Tomb Guards were certainly no exception.
Like every president since Warren Harding, the President of the United States lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day at least once during their administration. Veteran’s Day 1963 was no different. President Kennedy arrived at the cemetery along with his young three year-old son John, Jr. Of course Kennedy was surrounded by the normal entourage of high-ranking military officials as he made his way up the walkway and through a cordon of state and territorial flags enroute to the Tomb. Once he was positioned on the plaza, President Kennedy received the wreath from SFC Allen Eldredge as it was placed between the crypts of the World War II and Korean War Unknowns. After the playing of Taps, Kennedy made his way to the Memorial Amphitheater to deliver his Veteran’s Day address. Once the ceremonies were completed, the rest of day was business as usual for SSG Morris Moore and the rest of 3rd Relief, although it was very busy given that it was a day to honor all Veterans.
Even in an age before instant information news traveled quickly concerning the events in Dallas. November 22nd began at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as it had for years before as SGT Davenport and the members of 2nd Relief reported for duty early in the morning. The morning passed without incident when news arrived shortly after 1pm that Kennedy had been assassinated. The log book for that day records the events:
Richard Azzaro was walking the mat at the time the news reached the quarters. According to Azzaro, “I was driven to my knees when I heard that he had been killed. I was coming off the mat and I was confronted with the news as I came through the door to the guard quarters.” As a young man of 18 years of age, Azzaro was filled with grief. Shortly after the news had sunk in, Azzaro walked into the catacombs under the Memorial Amphitheater and sobbed. “He was my hero…and I did not want anyone to see me that way. We were walking short and I had to pull myself together.”
Word of Kennedy’s assassination struck at the heart and soul of many Americans. Kennedy epitomized the “passing of the torch” from the World War II generation to this younger, more vibrant generation of young Americans. Azzaro said that Kennedy’s inaugural message proposed a challenge to his generation to place their country before themselves, and “to virtually all of us, those words throbbed in our heads, and was our compass.”
Azzaro found himself back on the mat on Monday, November 25th, the day of Kennedy’s funeral, and he was walking the mat when the procession entered Arlington. He recalls that “there were no visitors on the plaza. I was alone as I carried out my duties as a Sentinel…I began to again feel the emotions rise up and I had to make a very real effort to maintain the steady execution of my walk and my manual of arms. ” He remembers hearing the flyovers as tributes were paid to the fallen commander in chief. He recalls especially that “the flyovers of the bombers and Air Force One were incredible. Everything shook and vibrated. It shook me down to my core and it took everything that I had within me and every bit of training to keep from falling apart. I was approaching the South end of the mat when they finished their fly-by. After finishing my facing movements, 21 second count, and manual of arms, from right to left, and just as my right hand positioned on my right leg, Air Force One came in, right over the burial site. It was so low, that I saw its entire run through the trees on the North end of the plaza and stairs.”
After his walk was finished, Azzaro exited the plaza after the guard change and made his way down to the quarters. “I proceeded off the plaza and down into the guard quarters where everyone on duty was watching the burial service on our TV. I arrived downstairs just as the Guns began their salute and I thought how odd and unique it was to see the Guns on TV, hear them through the door of the guard quarters, and also feel the ground underneath shake.”
For many of us of this generation, the events of that day are found in grainy, black and white photographs or even in wobbly movie clips. When we see these, we do not feel the emotion of those that lived through it. To Richard Azzaro, it was all too real. “It has been 50 years since that day and as I look back, with a more perfect understanding of that moment and what the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier means to the American people.”
by Kevin Welker
Special thanks to Richard Azzaro for sharing his memories