By Martha Cenkci
ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY, Va. - The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can lay claim to a vast array of famous projects since the Continental Congress authorized a “Chief Engineer for the Army” on June 16, 1775: Bunker Hill fortifications, the Panama Canal, the Manhattan Project, not to mention an abundance of locks, dams, and levees that help form the infrastructure of our nation.
But one project, completed with little fanfare, helped bring solace to a grieving nation and continues to provide an iconic memory of a beloved president: the Eternal Flame that graces President John F. Kennedy’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery. From the original design and build of the temporary flame that President Kennedy’s widow lit Nov. 25, 1963, to the recent replacement in time for the 50th observance of his death, the corps has been the keepers of the flame.
President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. On Sunday, Nov. 24, the corps was given the last-minute critical tasks of locating the gravesite in Arlington National Cemetery and designing and constructing the Eternal Flame that would mark it. According to historical reports, the flame had to be installed and functioning by the next day, Nov. 25, the day that the nation would bury its young president. Several historical accounts report that Jacqueline Kennedy drew inspiration from a number of sources, primarily the eternal flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
The Chief of Engineers at the time was Lt. Gen. Walter K. Wilson, Jr., who recounted the corps efforts to complete these important assignments in his published oral history interview, Engineer Memoirs — Lieutenant General Walter K. Wilson, Jr., excerpted below:
"Now about the same time it developed they wanted an eternal flame, and guess to whom they turned to get the eternal flame? They decided on Sunday they wanted the eternal flame. The funeral was on Monday. So suddenly, again a mission arrived to the Chief of Engineers, this time to produce an eternal flame by the time of the burial in the morning.
"We immediately assigned the mission to General Cassidy, who had been my deputy and had replaced me at Fort Belvoir as commanding general. So he called on his specialist training people to come up with something. We all got together on the concrete floor of an Engineer School building and we laid out different things that might work and tried to figure out what we could do. We figured we couldn’t possibly get in a permanent [natural] gas line that soon. We’d have to go to propane gas. We’d have to get several bottles of propane gas and put them in a bunch of shrubs there and run a tube underground over to the gravesite. And where could we get the thing that would produce the flame? Well, we started hunting and we found people who knew where such things could be. And we started people clear up in Maryland going to pick up some of these things and some propane gas tanks. We designed right on the floor there the concept of what would be the eternal flame. The school troops began fabricating it.”
Wilson recounted how Col. Clayton B. Lyle, a veteran Army engineer with a 27-year career, and his staff at the Engineer School at Fort Belvoir had to work from scratch and scavenged through electrical shops until they found a “luau lamp” or "tiki torch" normally used at outdoor parties. They tested it by soaking it with water and blasting it with air, but it continued to burn. Lyle’s engineers then crafted a base for the lamp by welding metal strips into a support frame. Thirty hours and a sleepless night after Wilson’s edict, the project was complete.
After the funeral service and burial, millions watched on television as Mrs. Kennedy, joined by Robert Kennedy, took a burning candle from her military escort. When she touched the lamp, the flame leapt up and remained lit.
Col. Lyle was a native Texan, born in Greenville and a graduate of Denison High School and Texas A&M University. Ironically, after his retirement from the U.S. Army, he joined the Public Works Department for the City of Dallas, and retired from there in 1976. He was succinct but eloquent about his small part of history:
“I considered it an honor to be a part of it, but I’d rather not have had to do it,” he said.
Earlier this year, the Eternal Flame received several upgrades because it was experiencing some malfunctions. The corps’ Norfolk District awarded a contract to install automated controls and a more energy-efficient system than what was being used. The work included new electrical conduit and cable, as well as new gas lines, relocation of gas pressure regulators from inside to outside the vault to provide easier maintenance and access, and fabrication of new burner assemblies that are naturally aspirated to reduce maintenance and utility costs, according to Norfolk District officials.
A temporary flame was installed and lit April 29 and operated at the gravesite while these upgrades were made.
Then, on Oct. 29, Secretary of the Army John McHugh relit the Eternal Flame, ensuring that a flame has been burning continuously at the site since the president was buried there Nov. 25, 1963.
The Eternal Flame has become the lasting symbol of the Kennedy presidency, an icon that connects the generations. In his Inaugural Address in January 1961, President Kennedy spoke of the torch being passed to a new generation of Americans. This small but critical role that the Army Corps of Engineers has played has helps ensure that the torch continues to burn bright for new generations of Americans.