Clare stood beside President Kennedy on the Shannon Airport runway as he said his farewell to Ireland – less than five months later Clare stood next to his grave in Arlington Cemetery as the world said goodbye, thanks to 37th Cadet class, writes Joe Ó Muircheartaigh.
FERGUS Marshall was at the cinema with a few of his fellow students – he can’t remember what he was watching, only that he never did get to see the end credits roll.
Instead, all he can remember is that duty called, as it did for Limerick-born Eoin Moloney who spent much of his youth in Feakle. Both were 19 and had just moved into the senior class at the Cadet School in The Curragh and now the most important assignment of their military career beckoned.
Their story started at Arbour Hill on June 28, when President Kennedy laid a wreath in honour of the executed leaders of 1916. The cadets had a lead role in the ceremony that Kennedy later called the highlight of his Irish tour.
Less than five months later the cadets would again be catapulted onto centre stage – in this case the world stage as the world paid its respects to the slain president.
It all had its genesis in a personal request made by Jackie Kennedy in the hours after President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. “I must have those Irish cadets at his funeral,” she said.
“The sequence of events was that Kennedy was given a guard of honour by the 36th Cadet class at Arbour Hill in June – at that time they were the senior class and we were the junior class,” reveals Fergus Marshall.
“The cadets impressed President Kennedy so much that after the visit he made a request for a film of them performing the drill, because he wanted to show it to the US authorities,” says Eoin Moloney.
“But the way things were working in RTÉ the cameras were on President Kennedy all the time and nobody focused the camera on the drill the Cadets were doing so a new film of the drill had to be made and that’s where our cadet class came into the story.
“The senior class who had performed the drill in June were commissioned and became officers so when the request came we were now the senior class so we to do the drill and that film went off to the States.
“It was an old British Army drill, lying on arms reverse where you put the muzzle of the rifle down onto your toe and you bring your hands in one at a time, very slow,” adds Moloney.
“It’s was called the Queen Anne drill, a funeral drill that’s very dignified and very slow and the Americans have nothing like that,” reveals Marshall. “Their drills are very short and snappy. When he asked for the film I wonder was it his intention to incorporate it in an American funeral drill for Arlington, which is a military cemetery,” he adds.
So began the journey of the 37th Cadet class from Arbour Hill to Arlington. On the Saturday night they were in The Curragh camp cinema, the following morning they were in Dublin Airport and America bound.
“There was an announcement over the public address at the cinema,” recalls Marshall, “and someone stood up and said would all the cadets report back to quarters, report back to the cadet lines.
“We immediately went to the armory – the weapons we had were the Lee Enfield rifles and we had just finished using those and had been issued with the new Steyr rifle. The Lee Enfield rifles had been put into heavy grease and mothballs and put away. We had to withdraw them from stores. We cleaned them up and that took an hour or so and we went and drilled,” he remembers.
“The lights were on in The Curragh at 12 at night,” remembers Moloney, “and we were due to fly out to Washington the following day. We all fell in, as the saying goes, and we were doing this drill, over and over and they picked the 26. The question was were you going to make the 26.”
“We hadn’t even got passports,” remembers Marshall. “Years later there were lots of planes going over Rineanna,” says Moloney, “but I’d say very few of us had ever been in an airplane and very few of us had every been out of the country. That’s the way it was in 1963.”
The first leg of the journey brought them to Shannon before flying on to Gander and onwards to Washington where they arrived on Sunday.
“What I remember about the journey,” says Moloney, “is that when we landed in Washington, the Secretary of State, Dean Rusk came on board to welcome us and to tell us that Jack Ruby had shot Oswald. It was unreality of everything that was happening. It was incredible,” he adds.
“We stayed with Kennedy’s ‘Old Guard’ regiment at Fort Myer in Virginia – they’re first battalion of the third infantry and they made us feel very welcome,” remembers Marshall.
“Fort Myer is right up against Arlington Cemetery and the following morning we went to take up our position at the grave. I would say that we were in position two to three hours before the funeral arrived,” says Moloney.
“We were down in a hollow and there were thousands of people corralled straight up in front of us looking down the grave and all behind us was Washington,” he adds.
“The cortege was coming from St Matthew’s Cathedral and came across the Potomac River to Arlington Cemetery,” reveals Marshall, “and by the time the cortege arrived at the graveside we had been standing for about two and a half to three hours in the one position.
“I remember that because we were nearly frozen in position. We were in riding breeches, long leggings and they had to be tight across your calves. We were standing at ease but that’s a position in which you don’t move either.”
“As it crossed the river we could hear this muffled drum beat coming closer and closer with all these world leaders following behind it,” remembers Moloney. “There was so much background noise,” recalls Marshall. “From the time the cortege left the church we could hear the band and the drums. Water carries sound and you could hear the noises of the drums and then you couldn’t.
It was very stressful waiting. Then when the cortege got to the cemetery and was marching through the trees the sound was getting louder and louder. There was fly-pass. Seventy-five jet planes flew over. That made a hell of a noise and then Air Force One flew over on its own. Certainly I was thinking ‘how the hell are we going to hear the orders when they are given’.”
“We had our backs to the whole thing, remembers Moloney, “and the next thing we were literally looking into the grave with all the American troops falling in behind us. The cortege came along and an American bearer party passed in front of us and put the coffin down. Then Jackie and Robert Kennedy and Teddy Kennedy followed,” he adds.
“I remember seeing Jackie Kennedy and Robert Kennedy in my peripheral vision and it was very moving,” recalls Marshall, “but my abiding memory was wondering how it was going to go, wondering were we going to be 100 per cent with the drill.
“I certainly felt it and I was saying to myself ‘I hope my feet move when I tell them to move’. There was a lull then and the orders were given in Irish by Lieutenant Frank Colclough who was in charge of the guard of honour. The drill was only a few minutes and it went perfectly.”