Wichitan Sam Bird led military casket detail at Kennedy’s funeral

12/01/2013 2:50 PM

12/02/2013 6:53 AM

The 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination has come and gone. But in the midst of all the media coverage, there was one man whose name wasn’t mentioned.

A Wichitan named Sam Bird.

An Army lieutenant, he met the president’s body when it was flown from Dallas to Andrews Air Base, stood guard while the body was autopsied and then headed the casket detail for JFK’s funeral.

William Manchester would describe Bird in his book, “The Death of a President,” as a lean and sinewy Kansan, the type of youth “congressmen deeply praised each Fourth of July.”

“Lieutenant Sam Bird had drawn the casket team around him in a tight circle. ‘Bow your heads,’ he said. He closed his eyes. ‘Dear God,’ he prayed, ‘please give us strength to do this last thing for the President.’ ”

Bird was born Jan. 27, 1940. His family lived in Eastborough; his father was an attorney.

He went to school at Minneha Elementary School and that’s where he met his childhood sweetheart, Annette Blazier. They met in the band room — he played drums; she played trombone — according to an Eagle article published May 29, 1993.

He entered the Missouri Military Academy in 1953 where he became a drum major and company commander. He led the school band when it marched at President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1957 inauguration.

He graduated from the Citadel in June 1961. In November 1963, he was stationed at Fort Myer, the U.S. Army post adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery.

According to “So Proudly He Served,” the book written by his widow, Annette, Bird — along with eight other members of the Army casket team — boarded a helicopter for Andrews Air Base on Nov. 22. When they touched down, they met Air Force One along with the U.S. Marine, Navy and Coast Guard casket contingents.

Bird’s team helped unload the president’s casket and place it in an ambulance. They flew by helicopter to meet the ambulance at Bethesda Naval Hospital.

“Sam formed up the team of six to carry the casket into the inner hospital,” according to the book. “When the body was removed from the casket and taken into the autopsy room, the team assumed duties as part of the security detail.”

Bird witnessed the autopsy, his wife wrote, and he would later say of the experience:

“It was quite a shock to see the president; to see his naked body torn down by gunshot, disfigured and dead, back to the image that we knew him as — John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He was dressed back into a blue suit, in which most official photographs portray him, and a silk shirt with the initials JFK embroidered on the sleeves. They were fold-back (cuffed) sleeves.”

For his efforts, Bird later received the Army Commendation medal.

In 1966, he was assigned to serve in Vietnam. On Jan. 27, 1967, while serving his last day in the field — and the day of his 27th birthday — Bird received massive head injuries during a burst of enemy fire. A battlefield medic initially thought he was dead.

The wounds left him paralyzed and brain damaged. As he slowly recovered, Bird would receive two Bronze Stars, the Air Medal and the Purple Heart. He was promoted to major.

He came home to Wichita on June 14, 1968. And, although he would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, he married Annette Blazier on Sept. 9, 1972.

He died in his home on Oct. 18, 1984, in her arms.

He is buried at Maple Grove Cemetery.

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