As I watched President Reagan's funeral ceremonies and processions this last week, I began to pay particular attention to the fine job the various military pallbearers were doing. That casket was very heavy, and to keep in step and go up and down stairs at the same time was a feat in itself. I commend the young Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and Airmen for a job well done.
I speak of this task with some experience, as I once was pressed into pallbearer duty for a burial at sea while aboard the USS Kitty Hawk prior to coming aboard Collett. I was working in the Personnel Office when one of the "Lifers" on the base in Bremerton passed away requesting a burial at sea. We were the only ship going to sea at that time, and I was informed I had just "volunteered" for the job. I was one of eight "volunteers", and I can only speak to my particular circumstances, but I think it was pretty much the same for them. All the pallbearers in this case were sailors.
I had no experience with this aspect of a funeral, so it was all a learning experience for me. We were put under the tender tutelage of the Marine detachment, which made it all the more interesting. Items they drilled us on were proper use of leggings, folding the flag properly so no red was left showing, marching while carrying a platform the ship's carpenters had constructed to carry the body on, and so on. I have to say the Marines had no tolerance for any variance from their regimentation. Nasty bunch if you don't do things just their way! As I said earlier, it was definitely a learning experience, and one I won't ever forget.
We had to enter the hanger deck from the forward end toward the bow, and march about two thirds of the way to the rear to a starboard elevator, and out to the edge. Seems simple enough, but as it turned out the sea was rough on the day of the funeral, and even though it was not like being on Collett in rough seas, there still was a roll and pitch occurring even on a monster like the Kitty Hawk.
The sailor's body had been weighted with a goodly amount of lead, and sewn tightly into a canvas bag, all of which was loaded onto the platform we had to carry with the flag draped over the whole thing. We had practiced with the platform, but the additional weight of the body made the job a bit more difficult. Anyway, we managed to get down the hanger deck with some amount of decorum and out onto the elevator with no major mishaps.
Once out on the elevator, the ship had provided some sawhorses of sorts to set the platform on while the services were performed. At the point in the service that the Chaplain said the verse about committing the sailor to the sea, we were to raise the platform from the rear to allow the body to slide out from under the flag and off into the ocean. When we did this, as the body slid out, the weight came off the back of the platform while at the same time the ship rolled to starboard, and the sailor behind me lost his balance for a moment causing him to bump into me, which made me go forward and we almost sent the sailor in front of me into the sea with the body. Hopefully this was not terribly noticeable to the onlookers, and since nothing was said of it to us later, I guess it wasn't.
All this happened in a heartbeat, and it seemed like a really long time before the body splashed into the sea. It was sort of eerie in a way, and frankly, something I probably wouldn't want to "volunteer" for again, but as with a lot of things, I am glad I had the experience once. I had already been discharged from the Navy when the photo arrived at my home. I am not sure why the Navy sent it to me, or why it took them that long to get around to it, but that is the government for you.
I am the second from the front on the right side of the photo. Looks like only three of us on the right, and I appear to be the front man on the right, but I am not. Really! The front man didn't fall in, he is there. Probably still hanging on for his life. As you can see, we were doing a commendable job of folding the flag which was to be presented to the Widow.