New Castle News

November 22, 2013

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

David Burcham
New Castle News

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.



MILITARY BACKGROUND

A member of 1stBattalion based in Fort Myer, Va., Franus was drafted into the infantry in 1960.

His orders were to take him to Germany, and he was excited about the chance to visit another country. “I came from a poor family and had never been anywhere,” he said.

But advice from the company commander changed his mind. “He said the Honor Guard had selected me and it would be the opportunity of a lifetime,” Franus said. “Why they picked me, I don’t know. You couldn’t have any blemish on your record, so I guess I didn’t.”

When he reported for Honor Guard training, Franus learned that only three of the 24 candidates would remain. He made the cut.

Franus was raised in a house where hard work was expected and talking back was not permitted. That upbringing served him well in the military.



AT THE WHITE HOUSE

Franus was often present when dignitaries visited the White House .

“Kennedy and other world leaders would walk in front and we would follow,” Franus said.

The list included presidents, prime ministers, defense ministers and chancellors of Ethiopia, Ecuador, Brazil, Honduras, Venezuela, Germany, Somalia, England, Luxembourg, India, Italy, Japan, Chile, Egypt, Turkey, Afghanistan and France.

One time the first lady walked up to Franus and two of his group as they were waiting to take part in a ceremony.

“It was sprinkling, but she asked if we could take off our rain cap covers from our uniforms,” Franus said. “She didn’t think they looked nice.”

When he left the service, Franus returned to Lawrence County and worked at Babcock and Wilcox steel.

As a member of the Honor Guard, there were other highlights for Franus. He took part in wreath-laying ceremonies at the Tomb of Unknown Soldier and was part of the drill team that appeared on the Mitch Miller and Jimmy Dean television shows.

Franus and his wife of 47 years, the former Lillian Babich of Wampum, were married in 1966. They have two children, John, 38, and Stephanie, 36. Thomas and Lillian honeymooned in Washington and visited JFK’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery.

As the country looks back on that day in Dallas 50 years ago, it will be personal for Franus.

“It’s a time we mark in American history,” said Franus, who turned 75 earlier this month. “The older I get, the more I realize what an honor to have done what I did.”

(Email: d_burcham@ncnewsonline.com)