Man who oversaw President Kennedy’s final salute visits Bird

by Keenan Entsminger

Fifty years ago last month, Randy Campbell became part of history when he was a part of the most historic funeral of the 20th century. L.C. Bird students and faculty experienced a first-person, eyewitness account of the burial of President John F. Kennedy, an event that left an indelible mark on our country.

Campbell, newly graduated from Virginia Military Institute (VMI) with a degree in civil engineering, was in the midst of his military service when he was recommended for a post at Arlington Cemetery.  

The 23-year-old Infantry second lieutenant reported for duty at Ft. Myer in December, 1962, as a Funeral Officer in the First Battalion Third Infantry – The Old Guard.  A few months later he was assigned to be the Officer in Charge of the Salute Battery (gun platoon).  Campbell and his men were assigned to the U. S. Capitol, the Pentagon, the White House and Arlington National Cemetery.  Their duties included offering cannon salutes to arriving and departing dignitaries and participating in funerals at Arlington.

According to Campbell, shortly after lunch on November 22,1963,  he was notified that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas.  Just a short time later, newscaster Walter Cronkite was on television announcing, “This is not confirmed, but the President is dead.”

When Mrs. Kennedy decided that the President’s final resting place would be Arlington Cemetery, Campbell was summoned to a meeting at the Pentagon to learn more about the funeral arrangements.  Many generals, admirals, high-ranking police and fire officials also attended the meeting.  The next day, he began carrying out his duties as a part of the funeral; his duties continued until the President was laid to rest in Arlington on November 25, 1963.

Campbell oversaw the firing of 230 rounds in conjunction with the funeral, including 21 rounds signaling the arrival of President Kennedy’s body at the Capitol to lie in state, 21 rounds announcing the departure to the church for the  actual funeral, and the 21 rounds fired at the cemetery.

Campbell explains, “It is interesting to note that during the time we did not have access to the modern methods of communication people have now – we only had a landline telephone – no cell phones, no smart phones – none of the high-tech communication methods that we take for granted today.  The protocol was for the first cannon to fire when the Officer in Charge at the gravesite for safety reasons.  We were completely out of sight of people at the gravesite.  I took my command over the landline phone from the officer at the gravesite.  As the officer at the gravesite raised his hand to salute, I gave the command to begin the 21-gun salute.  By all accounts, our timing was excellent.”

Randy graduated from Manchester High School and received a state cadetship supplemented by a football scholarship to attend VMI.  His recommendation came from then Senator Lloyd C. Bird.  Randy earned a Master’s degree from West Virginia University and completed advanced studies at Carnegie Mellon University.

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