JFK's personal connection to Army's Green Berets

(CBS News) FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- There is no more famous or poignant image in American history than John F. Kennedy, Jr. on his third birthday saluting his father as JFK was about to be laid to rest. But there was another salute to the slain president that day from men in uniform who considered Kennedy their Godfather.

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President John F. Kennedy visited Fort Bragg, N.C., in 1961.
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All the armed services took part in the funeral procession, but none felt a greater loyalty to their fallen commander-in-chief than the Army's Green Berets.  

Just two years before, the young president had endorsed the beret and the Special Forces who wore it. Tom Gaffney was there that day in 1961 when JFK visited Fort Bragg, N.C.

“That's why Special Forces people have such a strong admiration for President Kennedy,” said Gaffney.

Gaffney was a sergeant in the Army Special Forces and part of the demonstration the president had come to see -- everything from the far-fetched down to the nitty-gritty.

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Tom Gaffney
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“My A-team was given the mission of putting on a mock ambush for him,” said Gaffney.

Gaffney had already been on a secret mission in Laos, training local tribesmen to fight as anti-communist guerrillas -- unconventional warfare which merited unconventional head gear.

“We would love to have something to identify us as being different from the rest of the Army,” said Gaffney.

The Army disapproved of the beret as too European looking, not masculine enough. But after Brigadier General William Yarborough told the president Special Forces wanted them, JFK issued a statement that "the green beret will be a mark if distinction in the trying times ahead."

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Green berets stayed with the casket all the way to the grave and remained on guard until after the Kennedy family had left.
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And by the time of his death, Special Forces had doubled in size.

“When he recognized Special Forces, he recognized that we needed them, and the Army said, "Whoa,  let's go," said Gaffney.

Then, on November 22, 1963, Gaffney was sent on a new mission.

“The colonel came down and he said, ‘You, you, you and you,’ and he started picking people out. He said Jacqueline Kennedy has requested Special Forces people in the honor guard,” said Gaffney.

Gaffney was one of 21 chosen to stand guard over the casket in 30-minute shifts.

Green Berets stayed with the casket all the way to the grave and remained on guard after the Kennedy family had left.  Then, in an act that symbolized all JFK had done for Special Forces, one of them left his beret right next to the eternal flame.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.

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