~ 720th Military Police Battalion Reunion Association History Project ~
President Johnson's Funeral Security Detail
22-25 January 1973
It was January 1973, and I was a Sergeant in the 410th MP Company at Ft. Hood, Texas. I was asleep when the duty sergeant came through the barracks announcing “ALERT,” Everybody up! We’d had a practice alert shortly before and assumed it was another drill. Most were pissed at being awakened. My fellow soldiers and I speculated about what was happening before we were told this time it was real, former President Johnson was dead. I recall being puzzled when we learned it was a real alert but not concerned like some of the younger men.
Actually, I took part in the President’s burial, not his funeral. Our entire company traveled to Austin, Texas in convoy, to provide security for the public viewing of his casket and his internment at his ranch along the Perdenales River. After traveling in jeeps and 2 ½ ton trucks, we bivouacked in a National Guard Armory. We had all brought our dress Class A uniforms, side arms with five rounds, and White hats and gloves (MP Caps). They selected only a few to stand guard duty at the University of Texas Library where Johnson lay in state. The shift structure was odd, although I can’t remember exactly what it was. I was not one of the chosen. Those of us not standing guard were bored crazy. I don’t remember the armory even having a television, so we just sat around talking or playing cards. We slept on the basketball court or the floor.
Five sergeants, including me, went to our First Sergeant and begged to be allowed out of the armory. One in our group was familiar with Austin. We were told with a wink that IF we went out of a certain door we would NOT be seen. We flagged down a cab, and took off for a sports bar near the University of Texas.
Bad idea! The plan was to drink a couple of pitchers of Pearl beer, then head back to Armory. Only a few civilians were in the bar that late sunny afternoon. I didn’t realize that one of the men had a pint of bourbon and had poured it into the first pitcher. After drinking a couple of glasses, I had a real buzz.
We had worn our full uniform to the bar. In the bathroom, I was sufficiently drunk to be leaning against the wall when a University of Texas student came in hassling me about being a soldier, asking with a sneer if I had killed anyone. He made the very original remark that I was a paid killer, a baby-killer. The kid pissed me off so I swung at his head. He jerked back, and I slammed my fist completely through the wall into the bar. All hell broke loose when the frightened instigator ran out of the bathroom at the same time my fist magically appeared through the wall. I walked out to find my friends had all the occupants of the place lined up against a wall. Overturned tables and chairs littered the floor, along with a broken bottle or two. It was like an old Western movie. I don’t remember anyone actually landing a punch, however. The bartender was yelling about calling the cops and our paying the damages.
Moments later, many, many cops came pouring through both the front and back doors. Hustling us out of the bar quickly, they told us to get the hell out of there. To calm the bartender we each threw a $20 on the bar as we left.
Back at the armory I ate something and crawled into my sleeping bag. About 4:00 AM as I recall, we mustered outside in a freezing drizzle. It was pitch dark and really cold, only one or two degrees above freezing. I stood at the right of my squad, still pretty tipsy, and the sergeant behind me helped me stand upright.
I climbed into the passenger seat of a jeep, rank having its privileges, and fell asleep. I woke some time later as we rolled to a stop in a parking lot, the sky still dark. It belonged to the information building for the Texas State Park across the river from the Johnson Ranch. My squad, out of sheer luck, was assigned to guard the parking lot and building. Inside the building I discovered a large pot of fresh coffee, and I rotated my squad out of the cold so they could get coffee and use the facilities. A lot of civilians filled the small building, newsmen as I recall. They milled around ignoring us and talking on the small bank of payphones against one wall. Finally, I sobered up. Then I saw a squad of the 3rd Infantry, known as the ‘Old Guard,’ that was to provide escort and Honor Guard for the president. They were all shiny, taps on their heels and sides so they clicked loudly when they ‘popped’ their heels together.
To direct the influx of traffic, many MPs were dropped in pairs or individually at rural road intersections, all dressed in full Class A uniforms with heavy wool overcoat, white cap and gloves, leather Sam Brown pistol belts and a .45. Most were left out until well after dark with no food, water or bathroom facilities. They had to stand outside for between twelve and fourteen hours, and were justifiably angry. I later heard stories that some had even begged food or drink from passerby’s.
Even though we were in a rural area, cars and people were everywhere. Traffic was backed up for miles in every direction, and cars had pulled to both sides of all the roads. Sometime in the afternoon, Army cooks allowed my squad and some other MPs to pass through a tent covered buffet line. In addition to the Army food, civilians donated casseroles, cakes and pies, and nothing was left uneaten.
Later they took some of us, along with MPs from another company, across the river and dropped us at locations along the single lane blacktop road tracing along the river and then through LBJ Ranch. PVT Snow and I were dropped off in front of the guesthouse, outside the entrance through the brick wall that surrounded the LBJ house. TV cameras were mounted along the wall and in the trees lining the riverbank, and I couldn’t resist waving. Our orders were to prevent anyone from driving into the compound, and traffic was only supposed to flow out of the entrance. We didn’t have much to do. A kid on a bicycle rode up later and we chased him off. Then an Army sedan pulled up with a Major General in the back seat. When I explained that he could not enter, he ordered his driver to turn around.
Although we could not see the burial service, we heard the Army escort clicking heels and the other sounds of the ceremony. Then the twenty-one-gun salute with cannons fired away. I counted the rounds, and there were two pauses but only nineteen blasts. I later learned that someone screwed up big time. They only brought twenty-one blank rounds--two misfired, and they had no replacements so President Johnson got a nineteen-gun salute.
Then the convoy of VIPs finally departed, it was a long line of huge Black Lincoln and Cadillac limos. I saw Gregory Peck, Anita Bryant and I think I saw Vice President Agnew. President Nixon didn’t come. Some VIP limos had a flag, sometimes two, flying above the headlights, ambassadors mostly I was told later. I recognized flags from Canada, Great Britain, France and West Germany - all in big shiny, black limos. Then a rusty, dull brown older Chevrolet sedan with the flag of Mexico perched atop the hood appeared followed by more black limos. I fought to keep the smile off my face as I saluted each car that passed.
After the parade went by, there was a long pause, then a large limo followed by a van-like vehicle. They stopped in front of the guesthouse while we stood on the opposite side of the single lane blacktop. People, including small children, came out of the limo. One, a little boy maybe four years old ran around the car and came across the road to me, bouncing, smiling and chatting away. I don’t remember what he was saying but I glanced up into the staring eyes of two Secret Service agents with their hands under their coats. It turned out that he was LBJ’s grandson. The women getting out of the car were his daughters, Lucy and Linda, so I moved very deliberately and shooed the little boy back to his mother. The Secret Service agents never took their eyes off me. It was spooky.
We remained in front of the guesthouse as the sun set. It got colder and the drizzle returned. Eventually a Deuce-and-a-half with the back covered in canvas appeared out of the entrance and came to a stop, the MPs in the back beckoning us to climb inside. The truck had bench seats on both sides of the interior, and was full of troops so I squatted down in the center, hanging on behind the tailgate. The truck moved off slowly then turned as it traveled down a short slope. Headlights of a car following us lit the roadway, and I could see flowing water. Our truck was driving over a low-water crossing bridge, a large slab of concrete set a few inches below the water level. The driver, never having been on it before, was unfamiliar with its layout and about a third of the way across he dropped the left front wheel off the edge of the slab. The truck lurched, and then slowly tipped over onto its side into the Perdenales River. I clearly remember thinking that I should take a breath because we were falling into the river, and when I opened my mouth water rushed in. I slid beneath the bench while other troops fell atop me, yelling. Then I felt a boot on my chest--someone was standing on me. I beat on the ankle with my fist trying to move it. I had no idea how deep the water was, and I recall thinking about shooting his foot with my pistol. Suddenly I could stand, and found the water was only waist deep, maybe a little less, but it was very cold.
Behind me someone inside the truck was shouting, ‘DON’T PANIC-Don’t Panic,’ and at the same time he was battering men aside to get out of the truck. I stayed inside searching for anyone else who might have been shoved underwater. I recall white hats floating in the water, drifting out of sight in the darkness. I walked out of the truck swearing, yanking off my gloves and throwing them into the water. I had lost my glasses, and didn’t have a spare pair. This had been something I always feared in ‘Nam, and while stationed there I carried two extra pair with me at all times. Then for a while I searched the river bottom, not knowing if everyone had gotten out. I noticed that the truck, now horizontal, was still running and idling smoothly.
A Texas Highway Patrolman called me out of the water, offering a warm seat in the back of his cruiser parked on the other bank. Climbing onto the bridge slab I noted my pistol was still in my holster. I found PVT Snow, and we gladly jumped, dripping wet, into the warm patrol car. I was thankful that wool holds body heat even when wet. The Patrolman took us back to our company area. When the First Sergeant saw us he laughed, asking if I had fallen in the river. When I told him the whole truckload of MPs had gone into the river, he jumped up quickly and began counting heads to determine if anyone was missing. I was sent to a warm-up tent where I saw the truck driver. One of his hands had swollen to the size of a catcher’s mitt. All the bones in it were broken when another soldier stepped on it while climbing on the steering wheel to get out of the truck cab.
There were more adventures in getting everyone from the truck back to Fort Hood. The powers that be couldn’t quite figure out what to do with us. We were shuttled from a warm chartered bus to a cold Army bus. I recall our group of soggy soldiers being chewed out by some young 2LT that complained that we were getting his bus seats wet. I remember yelling back at him that we were wet because a truck had dropped us in the river, and with that he quickly disappeared. We had no extra clothes but were given Army blankets to stay warm. I have no memory of the trip back to Fort Hood, except that we went straight there without a convoy. When we returned I got some extra time off, and was excused from any duty dealing with cleaning up and packing up stuff we had taken to Austin. The next day I learned that two men were hurt badly in the accident, the driver with the broken hand and another man with a broken back. Both eventually recovered fully, although so as far as I know nothing official was ever done. At least I didn’t have to write a report or to go to a court of inquiry. I had spent a tour in ‘Nam where I was shot at, mortared and came under rocket attack, only to return stateside where I was almost killed at a Presidential funeral. I could picture the headlines in my mind. If that river had been a foot or more deeper the truck would have rolled completely over and trapped us inside. All of us would have drowned.
SGT Glover “Gary” F. Gerold, 410th MP Company, 720th MP Battalion,III Corps, 5th Army, Fort Hood, Texas, May 1972-December 1973.
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