Kingsport man stood guard over JFK's casket 50 years ago - WRBL

Kingsport man stood guard over JFK's casket 50 years ago

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KINGSPORT, TN (WJHL) -

Most anyone who was alive 50 years ago when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated can tell you exactly where they were when they heard the news.

For Jim McClellan of Kingsport, the news meant a somber duty assignment. McClellan and 19 other men would stand guard over the body of one of the nation's most beloved leaders once it returned to the nation's capitol.

McClellan was 26 years old, stationed at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., and a member of the Air Force Honor Guard.

He was washing his car when he heard the news come across the radio.

"After a few minutes it came across the loud speaker on the base," says McClellan, "all of us were to report back."

He was at the White House when JFK's family arrived with his casket.

"When Jackie and Robert came in with the casket, Jackie still had blood on her dress," he recalls, "I heard Jackie say something to Robert, then Robert said the casket will stay closed."

For the next three days, McClellan got very little sleep, as the guards worked 15 to 30 minute shifts, at the footsteps of history.

"You couldn't blink... if you blinked, you didn't have another shift," McClellan says, "you could let the tears fall down, but you couldn't wipe them... I had tears all the time."

He was on duty for perhaps the most poignant moment of that somber week, when 3-year-old John F. Kennedy, Jr. saluted his slain father's casket.

"It was probably the saddest part of that funeral," McClellan recalls, "the Navy guy that stood across from me, the tears coming out of his eyes looked like a water faucet, and all of us had tears in our eyes."

McClellan left the Honor Guard shortly afterward, and later served a tour of duty in Vietnam.

He returned to the Honor Guard a few years later, but said it was never the same for him.

"I didn't enjoy it," he says, "It was different, everything had changed."

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