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Lake City man's time as JFK pallbearer is etched in memories

11-21 George Bud Barnum Kennedy pallbearer ols.jpg
Fifty years ago, George Bud Barnum, of Lake City, served as a military pallbearer for President John F. Kennedy's funeral. Barnum helped carry the casket of the assassinated president during a long procession in Washington, D.C.

LAKE CITY — As the country began mourning the assassination of President John F. Kennedy 50 years ago today, George Barnum was focused on preparation, practice and precision.

The Lake City man was to help carry Kennedy's casket, a duty he did well from the moment Air Force One landed at Andrews Air Force Base to the final salute four days later that he and his fellow pallbearers snapped as they left Arlington National Cemetery when the slain president was finally laid to rest.

"At the time, you didn't think of all that was occurring because the eight of us were so busy doing our job, doing our best for the Commander in Chief," said Barnum, a retired Coast Guard chief warrant officer.

On this anniversary day, Barnum, a 1957 graduate of Lincoln High in Lake City, reflected on his role in the days that captured the country's attention.

His path to pallbearer of Kennedy's casket had much to do with timing and proximity.

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Honor guard

Barnum, then 24, was a yeoman second class in the Coast Guard working at its headquarters in Washington, D.C., just down the road from the White House. The Coast Guard didn't have an honor guard at that time but was part of an armed services contingent that had been practicing for a state funeral, rehearsing their roles in anticipation of former President Herbert Hoover's death.

The practice paid off, but not immediately for Hoover. Barnum was in the honor guard for Kennedy, then Gen. George MacArthur and then Hoover.

He jokes that, nowadays, he wouldn't have fit the bill for the Coast Guard's honor guard because they must all be 6-feet tall. He stands a few inches shorter.

But on that Friday, he had been home for a short time after Kennedy was declared dead. The Coast Guard person who was designated to be part of the honor guard was stuck in Washington in the flood of federal employees leaving early that day.

"So I got a call at home," Barnum said. "They knew I lived near Andrews and told me to get out there and meet the plane."

And that's how his next four days would be filled as a "body bearer," as they were called.

Carrying the casket

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The team met the plane, but plans changed when Kennedy's wife, Jackie, wanted to ride in the hearse with the casket. So the team rode in the helicopter to the naval hospital in Bethesda, Md.

"We were with the casket for much of the time those next four days whenever it moved," said Barnum, now 74.

The challenges that awaited the pallbearers were Kennedy's sizable mahogany casket that weighed close to 1,300 pounds, which was much more than a traditional casket. They'd be handling it with white gloves. Ahead of them waited a number of sites with steep and significant steps to traverse and then finally a lengthy march from St. Matthew's Cathedral to Arlington National Cemetery, a crisp folding of the U.S. flag and the lowering of the casket into the gravesite.

They quickly realized six pallbearers would not be sufficient and added two more, Barnum said.

Nothing was left to chance. They moved Kennedy's casket from the East Room in the White House to the Capitol to St. Matthew's and finally to Arlington. While others mourned, the men practiced.

"It was much heavier, so we had sand bags in our practice casket with two guys sitting on it," Barnum said.

They practiced steep stairs leading to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The night before the funeral, they practiced at the gravesite, sharpening their flag-folding precision.

"We were preparing to move the casket from the White House when someone stepped in and quickly told us Jack Ruby had shot (Lee Harvey) Oswald," he said. "We didn't have time to think much about it."

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Barnum describes the days as very focused with little sleep, and he rarely got home to see his wife and two children. At stops home, he picked up freshly ironed uniforms.

He remembers seeing Jackie break down once. It was after the casket had been placed in the East Room of the White House, and she knelt at it.

"She held it together so well, but it wasn't surprising for her to show how she felt at that moment," he said.

The march on Nov. 25 from the cathedral was quiet, with the silence pierced by occasional crying or wailing, Barnum said.

"When you get to the cemetery, there is still a short stretch of cobblestone roadway that blends to asphalt," Barnum said. "It went from noisy with the horse and caisson to quiet on the pavement. It just seemed the perfect way."

Today, the grandfather of four doesn't think a lot about his time in the historic event. He keeps a couple of mementos at his desk: a small flag with a plaque acknowledging his service on the honor guard and a thank you card signed by Jackie. His scrapbook has been toted to school by his grandkids over the years, and he received commendation medals from the Army and Coast Guard.

Afterward, a commander ordered Barnum to type out what he recalled from his four days.

"He told me I'd be glad I did later," Barnum said.

People have consulted his notes for various research and books over the years, and he is glad he did write it.

Barnum's not alone in the family lore. While Barnum saw Kennedy off to the end, his brother, Bruce, who also was in the Coast Guard, marched in Kennedy's inaugural parade in 1961.

Nowadays, he has time to enjoy retirement at the home he and his wife, Sally, built at Lake City. They moved back a year ago, occasionally enjoying a grumble about the Minnesota winter compared with their previous home in Virginia, but overall, they're enjoying life. Barnum jokes that he's not retired, he's just "between jobs."

And for four days in November, he had a job that needed to be done and done well.

"Looking back, you're proud you did it," he said.

Locals remember JFK

Newsman recalls the steady stream of news about JFK

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