Witness to history: Spokane’s ‘Hank’ Buller was usher at Kennedy’s funeral
Knowing his 6-foot-5-inch frame might block views of the momentous scene unfolding in Washington, D.C.’s, St. Matthews Cathedral on Nov. 25, 1963, Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Henry Buller positioned himself carefully.
“I … stood directly under the TV cameras on the left side so I wouldn’t be in anybody’s way and still be directly behind my section to assist everyone,” Buller wrote to his mother three weeks later.
The “everyone” in Buller’s section for the funeral Mass of President John F. Kennedy included former U.S. Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman, and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Earl Warren. Buller, a former B-17 gunner, said the scene grew frenzied as the hour approached noon.
“At this time the place was mobbed – like when Church is over and everyone is in a hurry to get out,” Buller wrote.
The airman’s son, Mick Buller, keeps the typewritten letter along with the 32-page Mass booklet and burial card from Kennedy’s funeral in a glass cabinet at his north Spokane home. The relics are surrounded by photographs of Henry Buller – known as “Hank” to the nurses and staff at Sacred Heart Medical Center, where he worked after retiring from the Air Force – and the numerous medals he received during the war and after as an attaché in Prague.
“He never talked about combat,” Mick Buller said. “He was very quiet, very humble.”
Nearly 35 years later while in England on business, the younger Buller would find himself drawn to the gates of Westminster Abbey for the funeral services of Diana, Princess of Wales.
“I just thought it was two of the biggest funerals of the century, and I felt connected with my dad,” Mick Buller said.
In his basement, the younger Buller keeps a black-and-white photo from around 1942 that shows his young father, both hands gripping the triggers of a mounted machine gun in the hull of a Flying Fortress. His upturned eyes belie the 35 missions he would fly in the Pacific, yet the death of a president 20 years later gave him pause.
“President Kennedy’s death was a shock to everyone,” Henry Buller wrote his mother, ending his sentence with the only exclamation used in his two-page letter. “It is still hard to believe that it happened!”