Nov. 22, 1963

11.22.13

What Became of JFK’s Gravedigger?

A famous Jimmy Breslin column drew attention to Clifton Pollard, a WWII vet who buried the president on two occasions at Arlington National. Now they both rest there.

The backhoe operator who dug not one, but two graves for John F. Kennedy is now himself buried a few hundred feet from the slain president.

Clifton Pollard’s digging of the first grave for Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery was memorably described by Jimmy Breslin in his famous “gravedigger” column. Breslin noted that Pollard earned $3.01 an hour and came in on his day off and considered the task an honor.

When the time neared for the funeral, a soldier ordered Pollard away from the area, saying it was too crowded. Pollard returned later and joined two other cemetery workers in covering the coffin by hand, shovelful by shovelful of the dirt he had dug up that morning. He came back that evening.

“After everyone left, and paid my respects,” he later told a reporter.

On another evening four years later, he was summoned back to the grave, where a daughter and a son of John F. Kennedy’s who had died at birth had since been reburied alongside their father. They now were all to be moved to the new permanent memorial 20 feet away. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy looked on as Pollard began to disinter the president with the backhoe.

''I felt bad,” Pollard later said. “I felt like I was disturbing the president.”

The work commenced in gathering darkness at 6:18 p.m. Sen. Edward Kennedy arrived with Richard Cardinal Cushing at 7:07 p.m. The area was ringed by troops to keep away onlookers and their commander marveled Pollard’s skill, noting he was able to bring the backhoe’s scoop within an inch of the coffin without scratching the lid.  The crane operator proved to be equally skilled as he raised the burial vaults of the son and then the daughter and finally the president, swinging them over to their new resting place.

“Artists,” the commander was heard to say.

By 8:40 p.m., the work was done. Robert Kennedy came over and shook Pollard’s workingman’s hand.

“I’m proud of you,” Kennedy told him.

Fifteen months later, Robert Kennedy was assassinated and buried a few strides from his brother. Pollard was spared digging that grave, but kept digging graves, usually nine or 10 a day, more during the height of the Vietnam War. He would often pause by the Kennedy memorial before heading home to his wife, Hattie Pollard.

In 1980, Pollard suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. He retired and sat at home in his home on one of Washington’s more modest streets with a box of mementos that included a clipping of the famed gravedigger column. He had hanging on the wall by the television a commendation from the Army for his service to the president on that November day in 1963.

Pollard had gone straight from serving in the Army in World War II to spending more than three decades digging graves in Arlington with quiet care and unwavering dignity.

Pollard also had on display the text of Kennedy’s inaugural address and its call to “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your county.” Pollard had gone straight from serving in the Army in World War II to spending more than three decades digging graves in Arlington with quiet care and unwavering dignity. He had demonstrated that person can give full measure to America’s greatness by imparting nobility to a humble task.

And he had already made sure that he and his wife would be buried in Section 31, just a short ways from the Kennedy memorial.   

“We’ll be there, near the president,” he told a reporter.

Twenty-nine years after he dug President Kennedy’s grave, Pollard himself became in need of one. He was 70 years old when he died. He was indeed buried in Section 31, in Grave 728 to be precise. A white tombstone identical to thousands surrounding it was inscribed:

            Clifton

            Leon

            Pollard

            PFC

            US Army

            World War II

      `    Jun 16, 1921   

`          Apr 5, 1992

His wife lived until Nov. 26, 2010, dying at the age of 90.  She was buried beside him. Officials at Arlington said Wednesday that they were unable to say exactly who had dug the gravedigger’s grave.

Video screenshot

Look back at one of the most iconic photos in American history, when JFK Jr. saluted at his father's funeral.