N ov. 22, 1963, is a day that will live on forever as one of tragedy in Dallas, Texas. It was around straight-up noon when the presidential motorcade was making its way to the Dallas Trade Mart where John F. Kennedy was to deliver an address to those assembled for a luncheon. As the big dark-blue Lincoln parade car turned off of North Houston Street and onto Elm heading for the Stemmons Freeway, several shots rang out, and in a few seconds, Camelot was dead.
Over the years, there has been much written and fielded about the assassination of the president, some starting almost before the echoes of those shots had vanished. However, what happened in the next two hours has been well recorded, and this is where our story begins. At a recent sale conducted by the World Wide Group in Houston, Texas, a 1964 Cadillac Miller-Meteor combination car, one of the most historically significant funeral coaches in the world, went on the auction block.
Finished in its original Cotillion White and looking just as it did back in November of 1963, this 1964 Cadillac Miller-Meteor combination car still bears the same license plate it wore when transporting President Kennedy’s body back to Air Force One.
Despite a bid of $900,000, it was a no sale. However, during its preview, I was honored to meet the man who was representing this unique vehicle, one who had been in Dallas on the fateful day and in a position to witness some of the very pivotal events of that afternoon.
Donald McElroy was, at the time, a 24-year-old young man who had been employed by the O’Neil Funeral Home since 1959. He had been trained in mortuary skills and had been employed in all aspects of the industry.
Back in the early 1960s, as was common in many parts of the country, local funeral homes also operated the area’s ambulance service. McElroy worked in both the funeral side of the business and, when necessary, also drove an ambulance.
Donald McElroy has been in the funeral business in the Dallas area since 1959, and was, in a small role, a part of history on Nov. 22, 1963.
O’Neil was one of the most reputable companies in Dallas, and as a result of their reputation, they had earned ambulance contracts for both the county and city of Dallas. Their fleet consisted of about a dozen units, including several Cadillacs, a few Pontiacs and for body removal, or “first-call” duties, even a couple of Ford station wagons converted for the needed tasks.
“I had been assigned to one of the ambulance crews on that day,” McElroy recalled, “we were originally assigned to standby along the motorcade route in case of an emergency or medical aid was needed. Around 11 a.m., our unit got a call, and we left the area, picked up the patient and transported them to the emergency room at Parkland Hospital. After we dropped off the patient, we stayed around the hospital preparing the ambulance for another call, when all of a sudden the police radio in our unit came alive.
“We could hear quite a few excited voices, and word came that the president was heading towards Parkland hospital,” McElroy remembered. “It seemed like just a few moments later that we could hear sirens approaching as the big Lincoln swung into view with what first looked like a heap of people in the back.”
Within a couple of minutes, a flurry of activity took place right in front of McElroy’s eyes. History, in all its gruesome details, was unfolding.
“The president’s car came roaring into the ambulance bay, and Secret Service agents were shouting and screaming for stretchers.” McElroy recounted, “The staff was somewhat stunned by all the excitement and a little too slow to react, so one agent grabbed two stretchers. I watched as another agent placed his jacket over the president’s head and chest as they took Kennedy out of the car and placed him on a stretcher; some were trying to hold his head still. Mrs. Kennedy was helped out of the car, and the second stretcher was brought up for Governor Connelly.”
In just a matter of moments, the activity moved inside, with the president rolled into the hospital followed by many of the agents. McElroy contacted his dispatcher and was told to hold his position at the hospital. During this time, he watched as some of the agents came out of the hospital and started to put the top on the presidential car. He couldn’t remember the exact sequence of events, but the big Lincoln was driven away from the hospital entrance shortly after the top was raised.
Within a few minutes, it was clear the shots to Kennedy had been fatal, and Secret Service agents turned to hospital administrators and asked for the location of the nearest funeral home, which happened to be O’Neil. A call was placed to the home, and they ordered the most expensive casket and the best funeral coach in the fleet to be brought to the hospital.
Soon, a heavy bronze casket ‘ weighing several hundred pounds ‘ was placed in the back of the then brand-new 1964 Miller-Meteor combination ambulance/hearse and taken to Parkland Hospital. Staff members of O’Neil Funeral Home were not permitted to attend to the preparation of President Kennedy’s body, which was taking place as the official announcement of his death was being made around 1:30 that afternoon. Just before 2 p.m., the bier with the casket was rolled out to the gleaming-white Cadillac and loaded into the back.
McElroy had gone over to the waiting hearse and was talking with his fellow employees about what was happening when the Secret Service agents approached them and asked the O’Neil employees to help load and secure the casket in the car. McElroy was actually one of the pall-bearers that helped load the president’s body into the coach.
“We were told that the car would be driven to Love Field by the Secret Service,” McElroy explained. “Mrs. Kennedy said she wanted to ride in the back of the hearse with the casket. Being a combination car, there were two attendant seats by the right rear door. We had to re-adjust the casket, moving it to the left, so we could raise up the seat backs.”
This is the interior where President Kennedy’s casket was placed for the ride from Parkland Hospital to Air Force One. The two raised attendant seats where were Mrs. Kennedy and a goverment doctor sat.
Two Secret Service agents got into the front seat of the car with a nurse from the hospital between them, while Mrs. Kennedy was helped into the forward-facing attendant’s seat. One of the other Secret Service agents also climbed into the rear of the coach, and a third person, who McElroy believes may have been a government doctor, took up the rear-facing attendant seat.
Once loaded up, the white Cadillac left Parkland Hospital for a short 10-minute drive to Love Field where preparations were being made to fly back to Washington, D.C. The plane had been moved to a remote area of the airport out of public view for security and privacy reasons. Secret Service agents were reported to have had a struggle with the heavy bronze casket while taking it up the passenger stairs of the airplane, as no cargo-loading equipment could be secured.
Once the casket was secured on the plane, United States District Court Judge Sarah T. Hughes was brought on board the plane and, in the crowded presidential stateroom, administered the oath of office to Lyndon B. Johnson, flanked by his wife Lady Bird and Mrs. Kennedy. Shortly afterwards, Air Force One left for the capital.
“We didn’t know where our coach was,” McElroy recalled, “It took us five or six hours to locate the car, which had been parked in a corner of a remote hangar at the airport.”
Upon arrival at Andrews Air Force Base, the casket was unloaded and placed into the back of a waiting U.S. Navy 1963 Pontiac Superior Model 207 “High-Top” ambulance and driven to Bethesda Naval Hospital. After the autopsy, Kennedy’s body was placed in a new, heavy mahogany casket and transported to the White House in the early morning hours of Nov. 23, 1963.
According to a number of accounts, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the late president’s brother, ordered the original bronze casket from O’Neil Funeral Home be destroyed, and an even stranger request came when the younger Kennedy was reported to have also ordered the Navy ambulance used to transport the president ‘ first from the airport to the hospital, and then from the hospital to the White House ‘ also be destroyed, though we have not found any verifiable evidence of this.
After O’Neil Funeral Home retrieved the Cadillac, it was placed in their regular fleet and used until the company went out of business. It was then acquired by another funeral home and kept in regular service up into the early 1970s, when the owner placed it in storage with just 48,000 miles on the odometer. McElroy remained an employee of O’Neil until the end and then followed the coach to the other funeral home.
Still active in the industry in the Dallas area today, he has also kept tabs of this historic hearse and is a close friend of the consignor.
As a bit of irony, two days after O’Neil had been summoned to Parkland Hospital to help transport President Kennedy’s remains to Love Field, they were summoned by the Dallas Police Dept. to transport Lee Harvey Oswald from the Central Jail Facility ‘ after he had been mortally wounded by Jack Ruby ‘ to the same hospital where Kennedy had been taken. The first vehicle available to respond to this call wasn’t a Cadillac, or even a Pontiac ambulance, but one of the service cars, a 1962 Ford Ranch Wagon.
After the initial shock of the assassination had worn off, O’Neil sent a bill to the U.S. government for the cost of the bronze casket. Quite expensive for the day, it was $3,995. At first, the government did not want to pay, nor would it return the casket. Some bad press came from this, and when the payment was finally made, for a sum quite a bit less than the cost of the casket, the funeral home was told to take it or leave it.
Some of life’s most momentous events are never planned and could never be imagined. McElroy had been in the right place at the right time to witness one of the most tragic events in our country’s history, and in a small way, was a part of it by helping to load the casket into the hearse that carried our slain president’s body back home on the first leg of his last trip.