I led the Caparisoned Horse throughout the State Funeral for President John F. Kennedy in November 1963. Black Jack (named for General 'Black Jack' Pershing) was the last horse with an Army serial number. He had come from the Remount Station at Fort Reno and had 2CV-56 branded on the left side of his neck, and US branded on his left flank. He had very small hooves, and no one was allowed to ride him.
Chief Warrant Officer John McKinney, the leader of the Caisson Platoon picked the White Horse Section for the caisson, and named Black Jack and me for the JFK funeral. My usual replacement would ride Swing with the caisson. Black Jack was taller than Shorty, with an even temperament. Shorty was an evil kicker who did not deal well with loud noises. Last year I got a phone call fiom the first man who walked Black Jack in funerals. He said that Black Jack was wild when he arrived at Caisson Platoon. It took six months to settle him enough to use him in funerals, and he still would dance a lot. We knew nothing about this.
My first part in the Funeral was to follow the caisson as it carried the casket from the White House to the Capitol Building, to lie in state. To reach the White House, Black Jack and I followed the caisson from the stable at Fort Myer, through Arlington National Cemetery, across Memorial Bridge, to the courtyard inside the Treasury Building. We waited there for a time, resting and checking everything again. I think it was then we heard that Lee Harvey Oswald had been killed, and wondered what was happening to our country.
Black Jack was calm. It was the proverbial calm before the storm. When told to move out we exited through a narrow street-level tunnel, barely large enough for the horses and caisson. A large steel grate was leaning against a wall inside the tunnel, and the hub of the right rear wheel of the caisson hooked it and started dragging it along the cobblestone paving and the stone wall. The noise inside the tunnel was huge, and Black Jack went wild. He stayed agitated for the next three days, for the entire Funeral. Our usual position was behind the caisson, and facing it. At the White House, instead of standing steady, Black Jack constantly threw his head and danced around me. After about 10 seconds people stopped crowding us and gave us space. We carried the president's body from the White House to the Capitol. Then we moved out and walked back to the stable. When we got there, the few men who had stayed to take care of the other horses said that all the TV people had talked constantly about Black Jack and the soldier with him. The horse had the public's attention.
We took care of the horses and tack, and then watched tapes of the first day on the TV set in the CQ room. It was a chance to critique everything we had done, look for opportunities for improvement. We hoped that Black Jack would settle down before the next part of the funeral.
After the president had lain in state, we went back to the Capitol. Black Jack continued to act up. We moved the president's body to Saint Matthew's Cathedral for the fimeral service. I saw Charles DeGaulle and Haile Salassie, men who influenced history, among the mourners, and also Mrs. Kennedy and Prince Phillip of England. I have never seen a crowd so still and silent. We heard later that when Prince Phillip was designated to represent England, he was told there was no need to hurry - it would take at least 2 weeks to plan and execute such a funeral.
The route was lined with soldiers on both sides standing at parade rest. As the caisson neared they would come to attention. I felt sorry for men having to stand so still for so long. One man who had that duty said that he felt something in his hand behind his back, and a woman whispered 'It's a sugar cube. Put it in your mouth and suck it when you get the chance.' From the corner of his eye he saw a female major going to each soldier.
At the cathedral people again decided not to crowd Black Jack and me. I tried to stand at parade rest holding his bridle - at least one of us should behave in proper military fashion. At one point he was pawing the pavement and struck my right shoe. I was afraid some toes might be broken. Later I found that the shoe was ruined, but no bones were broken. The shoe had to be replaced.
Police officers were doing crowd control. Two of them were quietly chatting up a couple of young women, and then their lieutenant came over and spoke to them in a deadly whisper, and they were silent.
After the fimeral service, we headed toward Arlington National Cemetery. Black Jack continued to dance and throw his head strongly. I was getting desperately tired, especially my right arm, but knew that if that horse got away from me I would be walking guard around a radar station in Greenland before the week was out.
At one point bagpipes played. I had trouble getting the beat, but once I learned to march with the music it gave me a burst of energy. That is music to fight by. Then the pipes went silent, and the energy burst faded. By Memorial Bridge I was so tired I had to make a choice - good posture or keep step with the drumbeat. I chose keeping in step. At the gravesite, Black Jack and I would normally move to the front wheel of the caisson opposite the grave, and face the casket as it was carried fi-om caisson to grave. This time we could not do that because the crowd was so thick, and Black Jack was back on home territory and too tired to make room for us.
As we stood behind the caisson the Air Force did a Missing Man flyover, and then Air Force One flew over alone. It was almost over, and I allowed myself to choke up. Then the firing party fired three volleys and Taps was played. The bugler broke on one note of Taps - we assumed he got choked up, too.
We pushed our way through the crowd, and went back through the cemetery to our stable. We took care of our horses and tack, and it was almost over. We got a phone call that Mrs. Kennedy wanted the tack from Black Jack. I put on a fresh uniform and borrowed some shoes, and took all of his tack - cleaned but not polished - to the White House and gave it to a colonel."
For More Information:Caisson Horses-1/3 Battalion HHC Caisson Platoon