Wayne Cannon: How the Kennedy casket ended up off Ocean City

U.S. Secret Service agents and Kennedy staff members load the body of President Kennedy, inside the O’Neal casket, onto Air Force One, on Nov. 22, 1963.

When the 35th President was assassinated in Dallas in 1963, there were two caskets that would hold his body. One was a polished bronze casket used to carry his body from Parkland Hospital to Love Field and placed on Air Force One for the trip back to Washington. The other casket was made of hand rubbed mahogany and this is the casket that he would be buried in at Arlington National Cemetery. This story is about the first one.

Dateline: Dallas, Texas — Nov. 22, 1963

It was about 1 p.m. when a man called Vernon B. O’Neal of O’Neal’s Funeral Home and asked for the best casket that O’Neal had available. The man on the phone needed the coffin quickly, but O’Neal had a problem. Of the 18 people who worked at O’Neals’ Funeral Home, 17 of them were out to lunch. After all, it was a beautiful Friday for November in Texas.

O’Neal picked out his very best coffin from his storeroom, a Handley Britannia casket from the Elgin Casket Co. that weighed over 400 pounds and cost $3,995; there was no way he could lift it into his Cadillac hearse by himself.

He waited until three or four of his employees returned from lunch and when he had it loaded, he rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital on the most important delivery of his career.

The man on the phone who had ordered the casket, Clint Hill, was a U.S. Secret Service agent and less than a hour earlier he had climbed on to the back of a moving limousine to get to the subject he was charged to protect. He was unsuccessful.

The casket that he ordered was for the President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Note: The O’Neal casket was the one we would see being loaded onto Air Force One that sad day on our TV sets and it was the one that we would see being unloaded and placed in a hearse at Andrews Air Force Base later that evening. Mrs. Kennedy and the Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, would travel with the casket to the Bethesda Naval Hospital, where JFK’s body would have an autopsy.

The reason that a second casket was needed, is because the O’Neal casket was damaged two different ways. Back at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, Vernon O’Neal would place plastic sheets in the coffin and he would wrap the President’s shattered head in seven layers of plastic, but when they opened the casket at Bethesda, there was blood leakage that stained the silk lining.

Also, Secret Service agents loading the casket onto Air Force One at Love Field damaged the casket when they forced it out of the hearse.

They did not realize that it was attached to the floor of the hearse and they yanked it too hard and part of the handle came loose.

Dallas officials wanted to do the autopsy there as it was their law when someone was killed, but the Kennedy men and the Secret Service ignored the Dallas officials, forced their way out of the hospital and sped to Love Field, and quickly tried to get the casket on board Air Force One. In their haste to get the casket on board, they broke the handle.

Vernon O’Neal requested that the casket be given back to him because, “It would be good for my business.” One report that I read stated that O’Neal was offered $100,000 for the casket and the hearse that drove JFK’s body from Parkland Hospital to Love Field.

Morbid curiosity is one of the reasons the Kennedy family wanted to dispose of the coffin.

A C-130 Hercules airplane.

February 1966

Cut to Washington D.C., February 1966. It was the Kennedy family that insisted that the O’Neal casket used to carry President Kennedy’s body from Dallas to Washington be dumped into the ocean.

“What I would like to have done is take it to sea,” Robert Kennedy, the president’s brother and the Attorney General of the United States, told an official of the General Services Administration on that February.

About two weeks later, on Feb. 18, 1966,, an Air Force van picked up the casket at the National Archives building in downtown Washington. To make sure that it would sink, the casket was loaded with three 80-pound bags of sand. Numerous holes were drilled into the coffin and a pine box that encased it. It was bound with metal banding tape and rigged with parachutes to break the impact of hitting the water.

At 8:38 a.m., a C-130, piloted by Air Force Maj. Leo W. Tubay, carrying the casket left Andrews Air Force Base and flew off the Maryland-Delaware coast.

The plane descended to 500 feet and at 10 a.m., the tail hatch of the plane was opened and the 660-pound load was pushed out. The parachutes opened shortly before impact and the entire rigged load remained intact and sank sharply, clearly and immediately after the soft impact.

The C-130 circled the drop for some 20 minutes at 500 feet to ensure the nothing returned to the surface. The drop point, in 9,000 feet of water beyond the Continental Shelf, was chosen because it was away from regularly traveled air and shipping lanes and would not be disturbed by trawling and other sea-bottom activities.

Once it was established that everything was OK, Maj. Tubay headed the C-130 toward Washington and landed at Andrews Air Force at 11:30 a.m.

Mission Completed.

In his wonderful book, “Unforgettable Treasures — People, Places, and Culture of the Eastern Shore, Salisbury Independent contributor Brice Stump, in one of his stories titled “President Kennedy’s casket dumped Into ocean off OC resort,” includes a quote from Ocean City Charter Boat Capt. Jack Bunting that lets us know about where the casket was dropped.

“It’s really just about 130 miles east of Fenwick Island,” Bunting told Stump.

The casket is resting in a weapons dump that our military uses to dump old equipment and materials and they dot the ocean floor.

Wayne Cannon, a Delmar native, has enjoyed a career as a disc jockey and ad sales representative for several local radio stations. He lives in West Ocean City.

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