A Moment Worth Remembering: When Toddler JFK Jr. Saluted His Father’s Casket

July 31, 2019 Updated: August 2, 2019

To this day, historians rank John F. Kennedy as the most well-liked president in American history. He pulled the economy out of recession, created the Peace Corps, and took us to the moon, but most remember him because of the fateful day, Nov. 22, 1963, when he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. The country was suddenly yanked into a state of nationwide mourning. And when 3-year-old John Kennedy Jr. saluted his father’s casket, there was not a dry eye to be found practically anywhere in the U.S. capital.

Members of the Kennedy family at the funeral of assassinated president John F. Kennedy at Washington, D.C. From left: Senator Edward Kennedy, Caroline Kennedy, (aged 6), Jackie Kennedy (1929–1994), Attorney General Robert Kennedy and John Kennedy (1960–1999) (aged 3). (©Getty Images | Keystone)
Jackie Kennedy leaves the U.S. Capitol Building with her children John and Caroline after attending a ceremony for her late husband John F. Kennedy Nov. 24, 1963. (©Getty Images | National Archives)

John Fitzgerald “Jack” Kennedy was the second born of nine children to Joseph Patrick and Rose Kennedy. His father, Joseph, was a multi-millionaire ambassador to London, so “Jack” grew up amid elite society. He attended and graduated from Harvard University before joining the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1941, following his older brother’s footsteps.

Kennedy was given command of a patrol-torpedo boat in the South Pacific in 1943. In August that same year, a Japanese destroyer struck his craft and killed two of Jack’s men. He was able to get the rest of his crew to safety on an island and they were found a few days later. Jack’s older brother Joe Jr. wasn’t so lucky. He was killed in 1944 on a secret mission when his Navy airplane exploded.

It was now Jack’s duty to fulfill the destiny given to Joe Jr. by their father. He would become the first Roman Catholic president of the United States of America.

In this composite image a comparison has been made between former U.S. Presidential Candidates John F. Kennedy (L) and Richard Nixon. In 1960, John F. Kennedy won the presidential election to become the President of the United States. (©Getty Images | Keystone)

John F. Kennedy was elected to the 80th Congress in 1947 at the young age of 29. His young appearance and informal style attracted a lot of attention, and criticism, from the other members; but that didn’t stop him from being reelected to the House of Representatives twice, or from successfully running for the Senate in 1952.

When Jack ran for president in 1960, there was a difficult battle between him and Richard Nixon, who had been Vice President for two terms under Dwight D. Eisenhower. The debate held between the two was one of the first-ever televised debates and was watched by millions of viewers across the nation.

This debate was one of the most controversial at the time because those who had listened in on the radio thought that Nixon had won, whereas any who watched it agreed that Kennedy had. In this case, the young and energetic Kennedy benefited from his telegenic appearance and performance and was elected president by an extremely narrow margin of 120,000 votes out of 70 million votes cast.

John Kennedy Jr. playing in the Oval Office at the White House, Washington, D.C., Oct. 15, 1963. (©Getty Images)

John F. Kennedy successfully became the 35th president of the United States, the youngest man ever elected and the first Roman Catholic to take the office. His son JFK Jr. was born just a few days after the election results were announced.

Jack’s presidency was rife with setbacks as well as triumphs. He sent 1,400 CIA-trained Cuban exiles to Cuba with orders to inspire a rebellion to take communist leader Fidel Castro out of power. The mission failed, and nearly all the agents sent were either killed or captured. He also met with Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, to discuss the city of Berlin, which led the East German troops to divide the city by erecting the Berlin Wall.

June 25, 1963: President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) reviewing troops and weaponry from a stretch limousine during an inspection at Hanau in Germany. (©Getty Images | Keystone)

He made mistakes, but he did a lot of good, too. In 1963, a few months before he would be killed, Kennedy successfully got Khrushchev and Britain’s prime minister to sign a nuclear test ban treaty.

He created the Peace Corps, which sent young volunteers to underdeveloped countries all over the globe. The words he spoke in his inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” are one of the most famous and inspiring quotes to ever be said by an American president.

Shortly after 12:30 p.m. on Nov. 22, 1963, when Kennedy’s motorcade was passing through downtown Dallas, he was shot twice—once in the head and once in the neck. Despite medical personnel doing everything possible to save him, the 35th president was pronounced dead shortly thereafter.

The front page of the New York American Journal, announcing that President John Kennedy has been shot and is reportedly dead. (©Getty Images | Three Lions)
First page of the Daily Express, Number 19746, Saturday Nov. 23, 1963, with title ‘Kennedy Assassinated: A sniper’s bullet,’ photo taken June 7, 1968. (©Getty Images | Evening Standard)
Cliff Michelmore pointing to the path of gun shots that killed President John F. Kennedy on a model reconstruction of the Dealey Plaza, Dallas, in the USA. (©Getty Images | Fox Photos)

It was a tragedy that no one could have expected. Our most-beloved president was cruelly taken from us at such a young age, and he never had the chance to finish many of the things he had set out to do.

Three days after his death, millions of mourning citizens watched as John F. Kennedy was given the greatest goodbye one could ask for. As Kennedy was carried through the doors of St. Matthew’s Cathedral, his young son, John Jr., who had turned 3 that day, saluted his father’s casket and said goodbye for the last time.

We all said goodbye with him.

John F. Kennedy Jr. wipes his eyes near his mother, Jacqueline Kennedy (L), at the funeral of his father, U.S. President John F. Kennedy, Nov. 26, 1963, in Washington, D.C. A plane piloted by John F. Kennedy Jr. was missing July 17, 1999, after departing from a small airport near New York City en route to Martha’s Vineyard, MA. (©Getty Images | STAFF)
The casket containing the body of John F. Kennedy leaves the White House Nov. 25, 1963. (©Getty Images | National Archive)
The funeral procession of President John F. Kennedy goes into Arlington Cemetery in Washington. On Nov. 22, 1963, Kennedy was killed by an assassin’s bullets as his motorcade wound through Dallas, Texas. Kennedy was the youngest man elected president; he was the youngest to die. (©Getty Images | National Archive)