Last Salute: Civil and Military Funeral, 1921-1969
General of the Armies John J. Pershing
15-19 July 1948
General of the Armies John J. Pershing, then the nation's highest ranking
military official, died on 15 July 1948, at the age of eighty-seven,
at the Army's Walter Reed General Hospital, Washington, D.C. He had
been a patient there since 6 May 1941, residing in a small wing set
aside for him.
A plan to honor General Pershing with a State Funeral had been written
ten years earlier when he seemed near death. After his recovery, the
plan was closely guarded and over the decade following was substantially
revised to incorporate changes directed by the Army Chief of Staff with
the consent of F. Warren Pershing, the general's son. The version finally
used was prepared in 1945 (and classified Top Secret), but it included
some changes made later.
The plan met the preferences of General Pershing. Years before his death
he had expressed a wish to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery
and had selected a small hill in a southeastern section of the cemetery
as his gravesite. The ground sloped away from this site to a level plot
containing the graves of hundreds of men whom he had commanded in World
War I. A military man for sixty-six years, General Pershing had insisted
upon a purely military funeral. Accordingly, the plan restricted organizational
participation in the ceremonies to the active Army, Navy, Marine Corps,
and Air Force. The National Guard, the Organized Reserve Corps, and
patriotic organizations were to be represented only in the audience
invited to attend the funeral service.
The ceremonies were scheduled for 17-19 July. For twenty-four hours
the general's body was to lie in the chapel at Walter Reed General Hospital,
to be visited only by relatives, close friends, members of the hospital
staff, and long-time fellow patients. For another twenty-four hours
the body was to lie in state in the rotunda of the Capitol, where the
public would be admitted. During the afternoon of the third day, General
Pershing's body was to be escorted by a procession from the Capitol
to Arlington National Cemetery for honors at the Tomb of the Unknown
Soldier, funeral service in the Memorial Amphitheater, and last rites
at the gravesite.
Following protocol established in the funeral plan, the commanding general
of Walter Reed General Hospital, Maj. Gen. George C. Beach, was to announce
General Pershing's death first to President Harry S. Truman who would
make the public proclamation. When General Pershing died at 0350 on
15 July, President Truman was en route by train to Washington from Philadelphia.
General Beach was at Washington's Union Station when the President's
train arrived at 0515 and notified the President's secretary.
At 0830 President Truman announced General Pershing's death from the
White House in a statement paying tribute to the general. The Department
of State later in the day issued the President's proclamation of a period
of national mourning in which it was ordered that the national flag
be displayed at half-staff "upon all public buildings and at all
forts and military posts and naval stations, and on all vessels of the
United States" until funeral services had been held.
According to the order of notification, General Beach meanwhile sent
word of General Pershing's death to the Army Chief of Staff, General
Omar N. Bradley. Word, in turn, reached Headquarters, Military District
of Washington, the executive agency designated to conduct the funeral,
and the agencies of the Department of the Army staff responsible for
specific details of the arrangements. (Table 3) The commander
of the Military District of Washington, Maj. Gen. Hobart R. Gay, acting
as the direct representative of the President, coordinated arrangements
for the ceremonies from an operations center established in the Pentagon
early on 15 July. One of General Gay's first acts was to request the
use of the rotunda of the Capitol for the lying in state ceremony. Such
a request ordinarily results in an act of Congress, but in this instance,
since Congress was in adjournment, the Speaker of the House, Joseph
W. Martin, Jr., and the president pro tempore of the Senate, Arthur
H. Vandenberg, gave joint consent. In an early administrative step,
General Gay downgraded the highly classified funeral plan after
TABLE 3-RESPONSIBLE ARMY AGENCIES,
CEREMONIES FOR GENERAL OF
THE ARMIES JOHN J. PERSHING
|Headquarters, Military District of Washington.
||Executive handling of all funeral arrangements and
|Secretary of the General Staff..........
||Assistance to the Pershing family, General Staff heads,
Chief of Staff, Secretary of the Army, Secretary of Defense, members
of Congress, and the President in their participation in the ceremonies.
|Director of Personnel and Administration (delegated
to The Adjutant General).
||Processing of all invitations, announcements, and
orders pertaining to General Pershing's death and the funeral ceremonies.
|Director of Organization and Training. .
||Selection and movement of ceremonial troop units stationed
outside the Washington area.
|Chief of Chaplains....................
||Arrangement of religious services.
TABLE 4-PARTICIPATING UNITS, CEREMONIES
OF THE ARMIES JOHN J. PERSHING
|1st Battalion, 504th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 82d
||Fort Bragg, North Carolina
|3d Infantry Regiment.................
||Fort Myer, Virginia
|3d Mechanized Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron.
||Fort Meade, Maryland
|410th Engineer Construction Battalion..
||Fort Belvoir, Virginia
|456th Field Artillery Battalion, 82d Airborne Division.
||Fort Bragg, North Carolina
|1 Battalion, cadets...................
||U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York
|2 Squadrons, Air Force troops.........
||Boiling Field, Washington, DC
|1 Company, bluejackets...............
||Potomac River Naval Command, Washington, DC
|1 Company, marines..................
||Marine Barracks, Washington, DC
|US Army Band.....................
||Fort Myer, Virginia
|US Army Ground Forces Band........
||Fort Meade, Maryland
|356th Army Band....................
||Fort Belvoir, Virginia
|1 Squadron, Air Force planes..........
the President announced General Pershing's death and authorized
the extraction of information from it for release to the press.
All military units that were to participate in the funeral were alerted
by noon on 15 July; through the afternoon, officers representing units
that were to act as escort in the funeral procession joined Military
District of Washington officials in conference on details and procedures.
Of the units with distant home stations, two battalions from Fort Bragg,
North Carolina, were scheduled to move in convoy on 17 and 18 July into
temporary quarters at Fort Belvoir; Virginia; a battalion of cadets
of the US Military Academy, coming directly from summer field maneuvers,
was to proceed by train from West Point to Washington early on 19 July,
the day of the funeral. (Table 4)
Alongside the Military District of Washington operations center in the
Pentagon, The Adjutant General opened a center on 15 July to process
invitations, announcements, and orders, all of which already existed
in draft form. He issued general orders announcing General Pershing's
death to the Army and specifying that the flag be displayed at half-staff
for thirty days "at the headquarters of all military commands and
vessels" under the control of the Department of the Army. Later,
because special arrangements to accommodate the Army's longer period
of mourning were lacking, the flags at several buildings in the Washington,
DC, area occupied by the Army but administered by the Public Buildings
Administration were raised to full staff immediately after General Pershing's
funeral, as prescribed for government buildings in the Presidential
By evening of 15 July, The Adjutant General's center had dispatched
all necessary telegrams and letters of notification of death and had
forwarded credentials to some 3,000 persons invited to attend the funeral.
(Since the number of guests approximated the seating capacity of the
Memorial Amphitheater, the public could not be admitted to the funeral
service.) Among those who received invitations were the honorary pallbearers
(officers and dignitaries) and honorary body
Diagram 2. Guard of honor, Walter Reed General Hospital
Diagram 3. Departure ceremony, Walter Reed General Hospital
bearers (enlisted men), among them Sgt. Alvin C. York
of World War I fame. The center's staff over the nest three days was
fully occupied in handling the responses to these communications.
Virtually all other preliminary arrangements, administrative
and ceremonial, were completed on 16 July. Among changes to the basic
funeral plan that had to be considered, some of them made near the last
moment, was President Truman's decision not to deliver a eulogy previously
scheduled for the funeral service. He also canceled the 21-gun salute
that otherwise would have accompanied his arrival at and departure from
Arlington National Cemetery. The honor in this instance, he considered,
would constitute an interruption of the funeral rites.
Secretary of Defense James V. Forrestal changed his plans to participate
in the ceremonies, electing to attend only the funeral service in the
Memorial Amphitheater. He delegated his role in the ceremonies to Secretary
of the Army Kenneth C. Royall.
A proposal that a six-star insignia be affixed to General Pershing's
uniform was dropped in favor of the four stars the general had always
worn. Finally, at the request of the Pershing family, a plan to display
the general's medals during the lying in state period at the Capitol
General Pershing's body was placed in the Walter Reed General Hospital
chapel at noon on 17 July. The Ceremonial Company, 3d Infantry Regiment,
furnished an honor guard, as well as a chapel guard to guide persons
paying their respects. (Diagram 2) Hospital staff members and
patients were admitted to the chapel from 1300 to 1900. All other hours
of the period, ending at 1300 on 18 July, were reserved for the Pershing
family and close friends.
At the closing hour General Gay, as escort commander, took charge of
General Pershing's body at the chapel for movement in the procession
to the Capitol for the formal lying in state. (Diagram 3) The
356th Army Band from Fort Belvoir, Virginia, played a hymn as body bearers
(four Army, two Air Force, one Navy, one Marine Corps) moved the casket
to a coach. The cortege of coach and family cars escorted by a scout
car detachment from the 3d Armored Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron,
Fort Meade, Maryland, and Metropolitan Police proceeded at normal speed
via 16th Street, Massachusetts Avenue, and New Jersey Avenue, reaching
the East Plaza about 1330.
In formation to receive General Pershing's casket at the Capitol were
the three service secretaries, the Army Chief of Staff and Deputy Chief
of Staff, the vice chairman of the American Battle Monuments Commission,
and a joint committee from Congress. (Diagram 4) This group joined
the Pershing family and General Gay in escorting General Pershing's
casket into the rotunda. The Army Band, attired for the occasion in
gray uniforms which had been chosen for the band by General Pershing
when he was Chief of Staff, played as the procession moved up the Capitol
steps through a cordon of troops from the Ceremonial Company, 3d Infantry
The casket was placed on the Lincoln catafalque in the exact center
of the rotunda, the foot of the casket toward the east door through
which the public would enter. The first relief of an honor guard from
the Ceremonial Company took post
Diagram 4. Reception ceremony at the Capitol
immediately. Thereafter a succession of reliefs, each
composed of one officer and four men, took post at half-hour intervals
to maintain constant vigil throughout the lying in state period. From
1500 until 1900 on 18 July and again from 0900 until noon on 19 July,
the public passed by the open casket in single file and left by the
entrance on the west side of the rotunda. Hundreds of person had to
be turned away at the closing hour, as preparations began for the procession
to Arlington National Cemetery.
Troop units and other participating groups assembled by
1250 to form the procession; a receiving formation took position on
the East Plaza, the remainder formed in march order on Constitution
Avenue. (Diagram 5) The Army Band
CASKET ARRIVES AT EAST STEPS OF THE CAPITOL, above.
Honor guard keeps vigil in the rotunda, below.
CASKET IS CARRIED FROM THE CAPITOL through the cordon
of honorary pallbearers, above.
Procession to Arlington National Cemetery, below.
Diagram 5. Formation of procession at the Capitol and
on Constitution Avenue.
Diagram 6. Order of march, full procession, Capitol
to Arlington National Cemetery.
PROCESSION APPROACHES THE CEMETERY, above.
Ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, below.
SERVICE IN MEMORIAL AMPHITHEATER, above.
Firing party delivers three volleys, below.
rendered honors as General Pershing's casket was borne from the rotunda
at 1300 through a cordon of honorary pallbearers and honorary body bearers
to a caisson at the foot of the east steps.
At the close of the plaza ceremony, the march units on Constitution Avenue
moved forward at a reduced cadence until the cortege and other formations
on the plaza had joined the column. (Diagram 6) The mile-long procession
then moved at normal cadence toward Arlington National Cemetery via Constitution
Avenue, 23d Street, Memorial Bridge, and Memorial Drive. A squadron of
Air Force planes appeared overhead and 300,000 spectators lined the route
of march despite a heavy shower of rain that fell soon after the procession
On reaching Memorial Gate of the cemetery, troop units not scheduled for
further participation in the ceremonies kept near the head of the column;
those scheduled for further participation only at the gravesite, who were
next in column, left the procession and proceeded to their assigned dismissal
point or next station. (Diagram 7) The remainder of the procession
moved into the cemetery via Roosevelt and Wilson Avenues to the Tomb of
the Unknown Soldier. As the procession moved, the saluting battery of
the Ceremonial Company, 3d Infantry, in position nearby the route of march,
fired nineteen minute guns.
The ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was brief. (Diagram
8) Salutes and musical honors were rendered as the casket was moved
from the caisson to a catafalque on the plaza. A silence of one minute
was observed. General
Diagram 7. Procedure upon arrival of procession at Memorial Gate.
Pershing's casket was then borne into the apse of the Memorial Amphitheater
for the funeral service. Maj. Gen. Luther D. Miller, the Army Chief of
Chaplains, assisted by the Very Reverend John W. Suter, D.D., dean of
Washington Cathedral, conducted an Episcopal funeral service. At its conclusion,
the procession reformed on and below the plaza of the Tomb of the Unknown
Soldier for the march to the gravesite. President Truman then left the
Diagram 8. Formation at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Diagram 9. Formation for the burial service.
The procession moved to the grave via Roosevelt, Porter, McPherson,
and Grant Avenues, a large part of the audience from the
theater following. (See Diagram 7.) At the graveside Chaplain
Miller and the Reverend Dr. Suter offered brief prayers. The 3d Infantry
battery, having repositioned its cannon near the gravesite during the
ceremony at the amphitheater, fired a 19-gun salute.
(Diagram 9) The traditional three volleys by a firing party
and the sounding of taps ended the final honors for the general at the
rise of ground soon to be known as Pershing Hill.