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Somber duty: Kingsport man recalls standing watch over JFK's body

November 20th, 2013 11:06 am by Marci Gore

Somber duty: Kingsport man recalls standing watch over JFK's body

Jim McClellan (second from left), a graduate of Ketron High School, was part of the U.S. Air Force Honor Guard in Washington, D.C., during the 1960s. He was one of 20 men in the military honor guard who stood watch over the body of President JFK. (contrib

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the Kingsport Times-News on Nov. 18, 2012. It's being republished to commemorate Friday's 50th anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination. 

Jim McClellan was part of the United States Air Force Honor Guard in Washington, D.C., during the 1960s, an assignment that gave him the opportunity to met heads of state and other dignitaries who arrived at Andrews Air Force Base and the former Washington National Airport.

But a few somber days in late November 1963 make up the most memorable moment not only of the 1960s but his 20 years in the military.

McClellan was one of 20 men in the military honor guard who stood watch over the body of President John F. Kennedy.

Today, McClellan, who is 75 and retired from SunTrust Bank, lives in Kingsport with his wife, Wendy. Jim and Wendy, who are both graduates of Ketron High School, celebrated their 50th anniversary earlier this year. The couple has one son, Robbie, a daughter, Donna Quillin, and six grandchildren.

McClellan says he was chosen for the Honor Guard because he met the height and weight requirements

“You had to be 5 feet 10 inches to 6 feet tall and couldn’t weigh over 160 pounds. I was always chosen for joint colors because I was skinny,” he said, laughing.

But Wendy McClellan says her husband’s size was not the only reason he was selected for the Honor Guard. She says he took great pride in his appearance and was often lauded on how sharp he looked in his uniform — even garnering a compliment from President Kennedy once during a ceremony.

McClellan said he always kept his shoes shined — so much so that one time he was even accused of wearing patent leather shoes.

McClellan had been a member of the United States Air Force Honor Guard in Washington, D.C., for about three years when President Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963.

What initially set that day apart from any other, McClellan says, was that he was off and that the president was in Dallas, Texas.

“The president was out of town. Normally, when he was out of town, the Honor Guard didn’t have to work unless we had funerals at Arlington,” he said.

“I was at the car wash, and I had the radio on while I was washing my car. The news came over the radio that the president had been shot and for all active military to report back to base immediately. I stopped cleaning my car and reported back to the office. They told us to get ready to go. They’d be flying the president’s body into Andrews. We were all dressed and went to Andrews. When they brought the body in, we escorted it to the mortuary.”

McClellan, along with 19 other servicemen from each branch of the military — there were four from the Army, four from the Navy, four from the Marines, four from the Coast Guard and in addition to McClellan, three others from the Air Force — who were given the honor of standing watch over the body of their nation’s president. Each of these men rotated out every few minutes during the course of the next three days.

After an autopsy was performed, the president’s body was returned to the White House during the early morning hours of Saturday and was taken to the East Room where the remains were set upon the same catafalque used at President Abraham Lincoln’s funeral.

McClellan was there in the East Room and recalls seeing President Kennedy’s brother, Robert, and Mrs. Kennedy, who was still wearing the pink suit she had been wearing the day before when her husband was shot, look at the president’s body.

“Jackie still had blood on her dress. They had opened the casket and I heard Robert say, ‘The casket will stay shut.’ I couldn’t see [the president]. But I could hear what Robert was telling Jackie,” McClellan said.

Later that day, various officials and heads of state were received and filed in to view the flag-draped casket that held the body of President Kennedy. The public was not admitted during this time.

However, the following day, on Sunday, Nov. 24, the president’s body was taken to the Capitol Rotunda. Here, McClellan watched as more than 250,000 mourners walked past the casket.

“We stood at stiff attention, not blinking our eyes or moving a muscle. We pulled body watch for about 30 minutes at a time — 15 minutes at a time when the public was going through. We would get relieved for about an hour and a half and then have to return. We did this for 24 hours a day from the day he was killed until the funeral. We didn’t get too much rest, just cat naps. The most sleep I had at one time during that weekend was maybe four hours,” said McClellan.

McClellan personally witnessed some of the most iconic and emotional moments of our nation’s history.

“I was there when Mrs. Kennedy and the two children came in. I saw the famous salute by Little John. The Navy guy across from me had tears dripping off his chin. He couldn’t wipe or blink his eyes. I think we all had tears at this point, but his were just streaming down his face,” he said. “I remember standing there thinking ‘How could this happen?’ I felt so sorry for the kids, especially at the ages they were.”

McClellan says, at the time, he had no idea what a significant moment in our nation’s history he was witnessing. But now, nearly 50 years later, he feels a sense of pride for having served his country in this way.

“I just never really thought much about it. [The Honor Guard was] so used to being a part of funerals. We averaged three funerals a day, especially after Vietnam started. We had funerals of the veterans of World War I and World War II. We were just doing what we did every day. At the time I guess I just didn’t realize what an honor it was,” he said.

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