In the heartfelt drop of a hat, Francis J. Ruddy Jr. said a historic thank you and goodbye.
The North Scranton native’s farewell gesture occurred 60 years ago Saturday, on Nov. 25, 1963, the day the nation buried President John F. Kennedy.
Overcome by emotion, Ruddy, an Army Green Beret who specialized in planning missions in great detail, reacted impulsively.
Moments after the assassinated president’s casket descended into the hallowed ground of Arlington National Cemetery, Ruddy, part of the Green Beret attachment assigned to the funeral, removed his beret.
He placed it on the grave.
The gesture was “completely spontaneous, not premeditated,” Ruddy told a New York Times reporter 14 months later.
“It was pretty much a reflex,” Ruddy said. “I stood there with a feeling of complete helplessness. I felt we lost a truly great person.”
By then, Ruddy had seen a lot of death.
Born in 1924, he grew up poor, the son of Francis J. Ruddy Sr. and his wife, Belinda, in the city’s High Works neighborhood. After leaving Scranton Technical High School, Ruddy fought in World War II.
In 1945, he earned a Bronze Star for gallantry in France as an Army paratrooper. He left the Army, but reenlisted two years later and fought in the Korean War. In 1952, his division chose him as outstanding soldier. In 1957, as a Special Forces soldier, he served as one of the first American military advisers in South Vietnam, training mountain people to form militias to counter the Viet Cong, the enemy North Vietnamese military.
He was so far away, so isolated, when his mother died in February 1958, he found out three months later.
In a 1962 visit home to Scranton, Ruddy told his brother, Jerry, what he felt after learning their mother died, according to a story in The Scranton Times.
“He said, ‘Death to me is not what it is to you. I’ve seen so many men (die), scraped a little hole thrown them in. It doesn’t mean anything,’” Ruddy told his brother.
Link to Kennedys
A year later, on that November day 60 years ago, Francis J. Ruddy Jr. clearly felt differently about death.
He felt the nation’s loss and the loss of a friend.
Long before the funeral, unknown to his own family, Ruddy grew close to the Kennedys, the country’s most famous political family and later its most tragic.
The connection had its roots in the Green Berets.
The U.S. Army Special Forces, known commonly as the Green Berets, started in 1952. It’s unclear exactly when Ruddy joined, but by 1957 he was secretly in Vietnam. President Dwight Eisenhower sent about 700 military personnel into South Vietnam as part of an effort known as the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, formed in 1955 to prevent the spread of communism from North Vietnam, according to a post on the John F. Kennedy presidential library website.
Kennedy, inaugurated president in January 1961, turned into the Green Berets’ biggest champion. He visited Fort Bragg in North Carolina in October 1961 and ordered the Special Forces to begin wearing berets. Presumably, Kennedy and Ruddy met there.
Over the next two years, Green Berets paid a few visits to Hickory Hill, Kennedy’s “satellite White House” in McLean, Va., presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. wrote in his 2018 book, “American Values: Lessons I Learned from My Family.”
“My favorite days were when (Sgt.) Major Francis Ruddy’s Green Berets brought small units of the elite Army special force to Hickory Hill,” RFK Jr. wrote. “They fired grappling hooks onto our roof, and rappelled down our home’s five-story north face, wearing camouflage fatigues and black greasepaint.”
After her husband’s assassination, the Kennedy family asked the Green Berets to join the honor guard at his funeral because of their “special bond with the slain president,” according to the History Channel.
“During Mass, I snuck glances at those warriors standing at attention with the hulking giant (Sgt.) Maj. Francis Ruddy, whom all of us children knew well, behind the coffin and along the wall,” Robert F. Kennedy Jr. wrote in his book. “Some of Ruddy’s men had teary eyes.”
The funeral happened on John F. Kennedy Jr.’s third birthday and the family coped after the burial “as best we could,” Kennedy wrote.
Then, Robert F. Kennedy Sr. drove first lady Jacqueline Kennedy back to Arlington National Cemetery at midnight “where they found Major Ruddy’s beret on the pine boughs upon Jack’s grave,” he wrote.
“He gave the beret to us,” Ruddy told The Associated Press days after the funeral. “We considered it appropriate that it be given back to him.”
The beret remains on display at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.
In January 1968, Robert F. Kennedy Sr., by then a U.S. senator representing New York, visited Fort Braggf. A Raleigh, North Carolina News and Observer story referred to Ruddy as a personal friend of Sen. Kennedy.
Only five months later, three days after the June 4, 1968, assassination of Sen. Kennedy, the Kennedy family asked Ruddy to accompany Ethel Kennedy, RFK Sr.’s wife, to a memorial Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. A photograph shows them holding hands before entering.
Few visits home
Ruddy apparently spent less time with his own family than with the Kennedys. His 1962 visit home was one of only three, his brother, Jerry, could remember, according to an April 1988 Scranton Times story.
“There’s no doubt about it,” said Mary Kay Ruddy, 63, Jerry Ruddy’s daughter, in a recent interview.
Family members surmise the secret nature of Francis Ruddy’s work led to the distance from his family, Ruddy said.
His 1962 visit included a peek into the Green Berets’ secrecy. His luggage included a double-locked briefcase, according to the Scranton Times story.
Ruddy said her uncle and his wife, Rilla, visited and he had the briefcase handcuffed to his wrist. Her uncle asked if the family had a bedroom with a door that locked. They didn’t, so Francis Ruddy hid the briefcase in a bedroom closet and pushed the bed in front of the closet door, she said.
“I just remember he was very impressive,” Ruddy said. “Like a very impressive figure. And we were all waiting to see Uncle Fran. And he brought his wife and they had a big German shepherd named Sheba. And I thought he (Francis Ruddy) looked like my dad.”
Ruddy did three tours of duty in Vietnam, returning to the U.S. in 1972, but never saw his Scranton family again. He was stationed in Brooklyn, N.Y., until 1975, which Jerry Ruddy never knew.
Francis Ruddy died of cancer in February 1985 at age 60. Family members attributed the cancer to exposure to Agent Orange, the herbicide the military sprayed widely in Vietnam to control vegetation and prevent the enemy from hiding.
A tradition survives him.
For years, Ruddy and/or other Green Berets returned to John F. Kennedy’s grave and ceremonially left a beret. The tradition lasted until 1989, said Jared Tracy, deputy command historian at the U.S. Army Special Operations Command at Fort Liberty, N.C., formerly Fort Bragg.
The military reestablished the ceremony in 2011, and it has continued every November since with the latest reenactment on Nov. 8.
Mary Kay Ruddy said her uncle risked consequences for removing and leaving behind his beret.
“I think he just was so devoted, and his respect for that man, that day he just wasn’t afraid of the consequences,” she said. “My uncle, he will always be remembered, which is great thing, because I mean, what does anybody want?
“To be remembered.”
Source: Berkshire mont