Buried at Sea: The Casket That Carried JFK

Watched by widowed First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, the slain JFK's casket is carried aboard Air Force One for its flight from Dallas to Washington DC
Watched by widowed First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, the slain JFK's casket is carried aboard Air Force One for its flight from Dallas to Washington DC

by Ray Setterfield

February 18, 1966 — The casket used to carry the body of assassinated President John F. Kennedy from Dallas to Washington was, on this day, parachuted into oblivion.

The story of the coffin is remarkable. It was ordered from Dallas undertaker Vernon O’Neal by Secret Service agent Clint Hill when futile attempts at Parkland Hospital to save the slain President were finally abandoned. Hill is the man who leapt onto the back of Kennedy’s limousine after the fatal shots were fired.

At Parkland the body of JFK was placed in the coffin and the Secret Service entourage began to wheel it from the hospital for a flight to Washington. There are conflicting reports of what happened next. According to one account the agents were stopped by Dr Earl Rose, the Dallas County Medical Examiner who physically barred their way and insisted that the body could not be removed because, by law, an autopsy had to be performed in Dallas.

The agents and Kennedy aides pleaded and argued with Rose, but he would not budge. As tempers began to fray, Justice of the Peace Theron Ward was sent for to overrule Rose. But he refused and, siding with the Medical Examiner, he said: “It’s just another homicide as far as I’m concerned.”

Still reeling with shock, disbelief, anger and incredulity at what had happened an hour or so earlier, this was the final straw for Kennedy’s men. Kenny O’Donnell, a close aide of the fallen President, lost his temper and was reported to have shouted: “Go f--- yourself. We’re leaving. Get the hell out of the way!”

With the Secret Service men threatening fisticuffs and apparently ready to draw their guns, Rose, Ward and some Dallas policemen were shoved aside as the President’s coffin, used almost as a battering ram, was hustled out of the hospital.

However, agent Clint Hill remembers the incident differently. In later testimony he makes no reference to a dramatic encounter and says that the Dallas official reluctantly agreed that the slain President's body could be taken provided that he was accompanied by a qualified medical person until the time of an autopsy in Washington. With that assurance the body was then removed from the hospital.

Bloodstained because of the magnitude of JFK’s head wounds and damaged in transit, the solid bronze casket was stored in a secure Washington warehouse after the Kennedy family declined to use it for JFK’s interment.

Later, there were reports that Vernon O’Neal had received an offer of $100,000 for the coffin so that it could be put on display as a relic of the assassination. But it no longer belonged to him and on 18th February, 1966, at the Kennedy family’s request, it was disposed of by the Air Force. They filled the casket with sandbags, encased it in a solid pine box, then drilled over 40 holes into the structure. It was bound with metal banding tape and finally fitted with parachutes.

This astonishing load was taken aboard a C130 transport plane, which flew about 100 miles across the Atlantic Ocean to a selected point 9,000 feet deep and away from shipping lanes. At 10am the casket was pushed out of the C130’s tail hatch and after the parachutes softened its landing on the water it immediately sank. The C130 circled the area for 20 minutes to make sure nothing resurfaced.

It didn’t, and to the relief of the Kennedys, the final physical reminder of that dreadful day in Dallas was gone forever.

Published: April 24, 2016
Updated: August 22, 2021

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