MOBILE, Ala. (AP) – Pfc. Arthur Carlson planned to use his day off to wash clothes.
Headed to that laundromat that November day, Carlson, saw a group of people gathered around a car and heard the news over the radio: President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas.
“My day off was over and I reported for duty,” Carlson said.
Then 19, Carlson belonged to The Old Guard, the elite unit of soldiers who keep eternal vigil over the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery as part of their service with the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, the oldest active Infantry Regiment in the Army with roots tracing back to 1794.
Carlson had been with the unit for about six months and had no idea he would soon be guiding Black Jack, the 16-year-old quarter horse named in honor of Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, as the riderless horse in the ceremony to lay to rest the fallen president.
Carlson also had no idea the kind of fight Black Jack would give him.
“He’d always been a calm horse. He knew his job and he did it. No problem,” he said.
The Sunday after the assassination, the day Lee Harvey Oswald was shot, Carlson and Black Jack followed the coffin to where Kennedy would lie in state. A metal gate resting against the wall of a tunnel they passed through came crashing to the ground.
“It made a hellacious noise,” Carlson said. “Black Jack got spooked, he stayed wild for two days and then he was back to normal.”
On Monday, as they followed the caisson with Kennedy’s coffin to Arlington, Carlson had to keep control of a terrified horse. Prior to the military, Carlson said his only experience with horses was seeing them in the movies.
“I knew it was important and I had better do it right,” Carlson said in a interview from his home in Mobile.
In the extensive news coverage of that day’s events, Black Jack’s extensive movements did not go unnoticed.
“The black, riderless horse that symbolized the lost leader in the funeral procession of President Kennedy today seemed spirited and difficult to handle,” The New York Times reported.
Of the many tributes that day, the report continued, “Perhaps the most poignant touch of all was the sight of the huge steed, not quite black, more of a dark chestnut, spiritedly trailing the horse-drawn caisson and its coffin of the deceased president.”
After the ceremonies, back at the stables, the telephone rang. Jackie Kennedy was requesting the tack – the gear for the horse that day – be delivered to the White House.
“I put on a clean uniform … and gathered up the tack, cleaned but not polished, and a car came to pick me up,” Carlson said.
Arriving at the White House, the lights had been dimmed and the mood somber, Carlson said. “I gave everything to a colonel. She (the first lady) wasn’t seeing anyone.”
The horse’s saddle and blanket, and the boots and saber the horse carried in honor of the president, remain part of the Kennedy Library’s permanent collection.
Black Jack died in 1976 having taken part in state funerals for five-star Gen. Douglas MacArthur in April of 1964 and the services of two other former presidents, Herbert Hoover in late 1964 and Lyndon B. Johnson in 1973.