Remembering Clifton Pollard, JFK’s Grave Digger

By Kevin M. Hymel, Historian on 11/22/2023

John Metzler Sr. apologized when he asked Clifton Pollard to work on a Sunday to dig the grave for President John F. Kennedy. But Pollard didn’t mind at all. “It’s an honor for me to be here,” he said. The president had been assassinated on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, and Pollard had been called at home Sunday morning to come to work that afternoon. He had dressed in his work overalls that morning in anticipation of the call.  

Metzler, the cemetery’s superintendent at the time, greeted Pollard near the equipment storage area and spoke to him before Pollard climbed into a backhoe and drove off to dig President Kennedy’s grave. When he reached the area beneath Arlington House, Pollard worked the backhoe’s controls and scooped out the first chunk of earth, crunching the dry November leaves atop the grass in the process.

As Pollard continued to dig, he commented that he hoped to keep some of the soil and that he wanted to fill in the ground where his tracks had gouged small divots into the ground. He spoke highly of the president, calling him a good man and repeating what an honor it was to dig his  grave.

Pollard, who was Black, had served in the segregated 352nd Engineering Battalion in Burma during World War II. He respected Kennedy for his principled stand on civil rights and had attended the president’s 1961 inauguration with his nephew.

As the nation watched Kennedy’s funeral that Monday, Nov. 25, Pollard continued working out of sight. He dug graves in a different section of the cemetery and placed boards over the holes for future funeral services.

Yet, Pollard’s role in the president’s funeral was not forgotten. Reporter Jimmy Breslin of the New York Herald sought an interesting angle on the funeral, a way to express the grief and reverence felt by the nation. Breslin chose to interview Pollard and stood by as he dug the grave. Breslin’s article, “It’s an Honor,” noted that the man burying the president of the United States only made $3.01 an hour. The article is considered part of journalism history.

Pollard spent 30 years digging graves for service members, dignitaries and their families at ANC. He cried when he helped move Kennedy’s burial spot to a new location further down the hill, where the president and his family lay at rest today. Pollard retired from the cemetery in 1980 and passed away on Apr. 5, 1992. His service in World War II ensured his burial at the cemetery.

Today, Clifton Pollard’s simple headstone stands among the orderly rows and columns in Section 31, a two-minute walk from the resting place of the president he had so honored.