The Last Salute: Civil and Military Funeral, 1921-1969


General of the Armies John J. Pershing
State Funeral
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



Headquarters, Military District of Washington. Executive handling of all funeral arrangements and ceremonies.
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.




1st Battalion, 504th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 82d Airborne Division. 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 proclamation.


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 Chapel, Washington, D.C.

Diagram 2. Guard of honor, Walter Reed General Hospital Chapel,
Washington, DC


Diagram 3. Departure ceremony, Walter Reed General Hospital Chapel.

Diagram 3. Departure ceremony, Walter Reed General Hospital Chapel.

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 was canceled.

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 Regiment.

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

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


Photo: Casket  arrives at east steps of the capitol.

Honor guard keeps vigil in the rotunda, below.

Photo: Honor guard keeps vigil in the rotunda.


Photo: Casket is carried from  the capitol through the cordon of honorary pallbearers.

CASKET IS CARRIED FROM THE CAPITOL through the cordon of honorary pallbearers, above.
Procession to Arlington National Cemetery, below.

Photo: Procession to Arlington National Cemetery.


Diagram 5. Formation of procession at the Capitol and on Constitution Avenue. Click on image to view larger scale diagram.

Diagram 5. Formation of procession at the Capitol and on Constitution Avenue.


Diagram 6. Order of march, full procession, Capitol to Arlington National Cemetery. Click on image to view larger scale diagram.

Diagram 6. Order of march, full procession, Capitol to Arlington National Cemetery.


Photo: Procession Approaches The Cemetery.

Ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, below.

Photo: Ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier


Photo: Service in memorial amphitheater.

Firing party delivers three volleys, below.

Photo: Firing party delivers three volleys.


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 started.

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. Click on image to view larger scale diagram.

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 cemetery.

Diagram 8. Formation at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Diagram 8. Formation at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier


Diagram 9. Formation for the burial service.

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.


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