As the United States mourns the loss of President John F. Kennedy on the 50th anniversary of his assassination, I look back on my own family history. My grandparents have told me many stories over the years – from my grandmother reminiscing about getting ice delivered to her house to my grandfather recounting tales about his father’s old appliance store in Tarrytown, N.Y. But one family tale that has always stuck with me is the story of my great Uncle Tom and his connection to JFK.
Thomas Walsh, the brother of my grandfather’s mother, was a scientist that worked on the Manhattan Project – an effort to build the first atomic bomb. For those unfamiliar with the Manhattan Project, the government gathered brilliant scientists and military personnel to develop a new kind of weapon using nuclear energy. The result was the first atomic bomb, which helped bring an end to World War II.
According to Energy.gov, the project had employed 130,000 workers, one of whom was my Great Uncle, and by the end of World War II had racked up a bill of $2.2 billion. But what makes the large number of employees and high total so shocking is that the government managed to keep the Manhattan Project a secret until the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
My great-uncle ended up dying of a brain tumor sometime between 1959-1960 – likely, though not proven, to be related to causes stemming from his life’s work – and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. So, how does this tie into JFK? According to family legend, my Uncle Tom’s coffin was later exhumed to make room for the John F. Kennedy Eternal Flame.
The story has evolved over the years since the death of Tom’s wife, Louise, as do many stories told by word of mouth. And although we have no documentation for proof, Tom’s connection to JFK’s Eternal Flame is still one that we hold dear to our hearts.
After JFK’s assassination, Jackie Kennedy envisioned an Eternal Flame to remember the fallen President. The only issue is that the site they desired for the Eternal Flame was already occupied with graves – including that of my great-uncle’s. One version of the tale is that his wife, Louise, and other relatives of the deceased, were approached informally about exhuming their loved ones and reburying them in another part of Arlington Cemetery. My great-aunt supposedly gave permission, and Tom’s grave was moved a couple yards away.
A second version of Tom’s reburial formed after Louise’s death. Some relatives believe that Louise was never asked permission to relocate her husband, but instead discovered that he had been moved a little farther away from his original resting place after the assassination of Kennedy.
I was not alive when John F. Kennedy was shot in Dealey Square in Dallas, Texas, on Nov. 22, 1963. But I will always have a connection thanks to my Great Uncle Tom and JFK’s burial spot at the Eternal Flame.