Fifty years ago this day, President John F. Kennedy celebrated Veterans Day at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. It was his last holiday before his fatal trip to Dallas at the end of the month.
The official ceremony at Arlington was brief. JFK placed a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknowns, the marble sarcophagus with associated graves that honors unidentified dead from World War I, World War II, Korea, and now Vietnam.
According to a tape of the ceremony posted at the always-interesting Presidential History Geeks website, Kennedy marched on foot to the tomb with other officials and members of the color guard. The small assembled crowd murmured as he approached. At least one youngster blurted out, “There he is!”
JFK then walked forward toward the sarcophagus with a large ceremonial wreath on a stand. A color guard member helped carry it, while walking backward.
After placing the wreath in position, JFK stepped back and stood at attention while a bugler played “Taps.” Then he marched away as quickly as he had come.
A few administration and military officials gave brief comments at a following ceremony. Kennedy was not among them. However, he had earlier issued the requisite presidential proclamation designating Nov. 11 as a legal holiday.
“This day has an important dual significance in that it gives each one of us an opportunity both to honor the dedicated men and women of all races and religious beliefs who have honorably served in our armed forces in time of war, and to reemphasize our determination to achieve world peace with patience, perseverance, and courage,” Kennedy said in the proclamation.
The setting of the Tomb of the Unknowns may have impressed JFK. While there, he turned to Rep. Hale Boggs and said, "This is one of the really beautiful places on earth. I could stay here forever," according to historian Thurston Clarke, author of "JFK's Last Hundred Days."
Kennedy did participate in another holiday-related act before his assassination. Thanksgiving was late in 1963, set for Nov. 28. But a few days after Veterans Day, on Nov. 18, he publicly pardoned a Thanksgiving turkey outside the Oval Office.
“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them,” JFK said in his Thanksgiving proclamation, which was issued prior to his death.
Kennedy did not live to see Thanksgiving that year, of course. He was gunned down in Dallas on Friday, Nov. 22.
Then he returned to Arlington National Cemetery. It was two weeks to the day after his Veterans Day appearance there. On Nov. 25, Kennedy was buried beneath the Custis-Lee Mansion, on a long slope that overlooks Washington and beyond.
Veterans stayed with him to the end. After the crowds had streamed away, a lone Special Forces solider, Sgt. Maj. Frank Ruddy, approached the grave. It was JFK who had revoked an order banning such soldiers from wearing their distinctive green berets. Now, Ruddy removed his beret and laid it on the Kennedy grave.
“He gave us the beret, and we thought it fitting to give one back to him,” Ruddy later said.