When the news reached Marine Corps Base Quantico that President Kennedy had been assassinated, Jim Rutherford waited nervously in his barracks for orders. Fears were high that the United States would go to war, and Rutherford expected to be shipped out.
But the orders he received were much different from what he expected.
He was told to don his dress blues. He was to serve in an honor guard for the late president’s funeral.
Rutherford, a Massillon native who now lives in Barberton, said he was one of 36 Marines selected for the duty. He joined representatives from all the military branches in standing at attention along Pennsylvania Avenue as the president’s casket was borne from the White House to the Capitol to lie in state, and again a day later when it returned to the White House in the first leg of the funeral procession.
Rutherford, who spent four years on active duty with the Marines and two inactive, was 21 at the time of Kennedy’s death. He was a lance corporal, an officer cadet instructor stationed at Quantico, Va., near Washington.
He remembers the announcement of Kennedy’s death coming over the public address system in his barracks and the Marines being told to get ready, with all their equipment on.
“[We were] ready to go out the door and into the trucks and out to the airport,” he said.
As they waited, one of his superiors came through and started naming people who were to serve in an honor guard for the funeral. It was a logical assignment, Rutherford said, since part of the duty of the Marines at Quantico was to serve in parades when dignitaries came to Washington.
Rutherford heard his name called.
He doesn’t know why he was chosen, but he considers it an honor to have had the opportunity to serve one final time for a president he admired.
Rutherford had enlisted in 1960 with his childhood buddy, Joe Rovira, with whom he used to play war games as a kid. Two years after enlisting, they found themselves on separate boats off the coast of Cuba, part of a flotilla that was prepared to invade the island if the Cuban missile crisis came to a head.
For 16 hours, the American boats circled in the Atlantic, the Marines in his craft so seasick that Rutherford doubts they could have fought effectively if they’d invaded. They could see Soviet ships on the other side of the island. He said he feared for his own life and those of his friends, including Rovira.
Kennedy’s resolution of the crisis cemented Rutherford’s support of his commander-in-chief.
“It just made me more proud of him, the way he handled that situation,” he said.
So he was moved by the opportunity to be involved in one final show of respect.
Mix of emotions
He remembers being excited by the assignment, “but I was more scared, because I figured we were going to war. And sad, because he was a great president.”
Rutherford stood on the street in front of the White House, a hushed throng of spectators behind him. Remaining at attention for such a long time was exhausting, he said, “but we were used to it.”
He couldn’t turn his head, but he followed the procession with his eyes as far as he could as it passed. He remembers Jacqueline Kennedy in a car, dignitaries walking and the flag-draped casket rolling by slowly on a horse-drawn caisson. The image of the casket is “just tattooed into my memory,” he said.
He didn’t carry a loaded weapon. The military members weren’t there for protection, he said. They were there to show respect.
After all, he said, “he was our boss.”
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or firstname.lastname@example.org.