New Castle News

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November 22, 2013

Remembering Kennedy: Lawrence County man stood silent watch over the body of a slain president

NEW CASTLE — Like most of his generation, Thomas Franus remembers the moment he heard about John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

He also vividly recalls what he did amid the chaos and confusion that filled the next few days as the nation mourned the death of its beloved leader.

He guarded the president’s body.

The Wampum man and 1957 graduate of Lincoln High School was a member of the Army Honor Guard that spent Saturday, Nov. 23, 1963, at the White House, rotating shifts in silent watch over the casket containing the fallen commander -in-chief.

On Nov. 22, 1963, Franus was just three weeks away from being discharged.

“I was outside training new people at Fort Myer (Virginia)” he said. “The captain came out and ordered us inside. We were put in lockdown.”

Then they were told Kennedy had been shot.

“It was such a shock and everybody was devastated,” he said. “It was pretty much silent,”

A short time later came news that the wounds were fatal.

“I’m Catholic and I was always a strong supporter of Kennedy,” Franus said.

Hours after the tragedy in Dallas, JFK’s body was returned to Washington. Franus and other members of his unit reported to a funeral home in the Georgetown section of Washington. “We were sent there because that’s where the body was supposed to be,” Franus said.

But later it was learned that JFK’s remains had gone instead to Bethesda Naval hospital, where an autopsy was performed.

They returned to the barracks.

“It was total chaos,” Franus said. “As soon as we got back to the barracks, we were ordered go to the White House, where JFK’s body had been taken.” He remained there for 20 hours, rotating duty in the East Room.

ON DUTY

It was one hour on and four hours off until the next shift. In between, Franus munched on crackers and tried to sleep while sitting in a chair in what was known as JFK’s television room. He changed clothes after each hour of duty and spent much of the time polishing his shoes and brass, as each soldier was responsible for a meticulous appearance.

“They would take pictures of us in uniform and inspect the pictures to make sure everything was just right. If anything looked wrong, you would hear about it.”

The Army Honor Guard had been using a silent count in members’ heads to enter, present arms and exit. It was all initiated by a click of the heels. Franus and his Honor Guard members taught those who came from the other branches.

Franus said the president’s casket was opened when Jackie came into the room with JFK’s brothers, Robert and Ted, and brother-in-law Peter Lawford. “They opened the top part and stood there for a while, whispering to one another,” he said. Franus noted a Catholic bishop also entered.

Franus remained on duty at the White House until the casket was moved to the Capitol for public viewing. There, the Green Berets took over guarding the casket in respect to the president who had christened them.

Franus was part of the procession to Arlington National Cemetery from the Capitol. He is pictured in the center page spread of a book titled “The Torch is passed.” Franus is standing at attention as the president’s casket is carried into the church at Arlington. Just a few yards away are Jacqueline and the two Kennedy children, Caroline and John Jr.

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