DECATUR - If there's something strange about your historical ambulance, who ya gonna call?
You could do a lot worse than Dan Brintlinger, president of the Brintlinger & Earl Funeral Homes and a passionate collector of old ambulances, hearses and professional vehicles. He even has a 1954 American LaFrance fire truck.
So when a 1963 Pontiac Bonneville U.S. Navy ambulance came up for televised auction recently and was described as the very vehicle used to move the body of President John F. Kennedy after his assassination in 1963, Brintlinger was more than interested.
The vehicle, with long sweeping lines and a big light on top, looks somewhat like the ambulance used in the 1984 "Ghostbusters" movie. But to Brintlinger, there was something weird about it and he knew it didn't look good at all. Not only did he know this could not possibly be the ambulance that played a role in one of the defining tragedies of the 20th century, he could prove it.
The story goes like this. Brintlinger is a member of the Professional Car Society whose members collect vehicles ranging from ambulances to hearses and limousines. In 1988, Brintlinger and fellow club member David Burkham, the CEO of Decatur Ambulance, hosted a meeting of the society in Decatur and the subject of the ambulance used to move the president's body just happened to come up.
A certain generation of Americans will probably never forget the vehicle. Its image, as the 26.6 seconds of the Abraham Zapruder film, is engraved on their psyche. After his assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, Kennedy's body was flown from Dallas to Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, D.C. His wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, had requested a Navy ambulance be waiting to collect it.
"She thought it would be nice if the body could be moved in a Navy ambulance since President Kennedy had been in the Navy," Brintlinger said.
Grainy black and white TV footage and still pictures flashed around the world show the casket being loaded into the ambulance watched by the grieving widow. Painted "U.S. Navy gray," the ambulance was plain and simple with "US Navy 94-49196" stenciled on the doors.
"Someone in the Pentagon had actually pointed out that there was a regulation against moving deceased people in a Navy ambulance," Brintlinger said. "But they had been told they had better forget that regulation and have that ambulance sitting at Andrews Air Force Base."
The vehicle took the president's remains to Bethesda Naval Hospital for an autopsy and then moved them to a funeral home "to be dressed and casketed." From there, the ambulance carried the mahogany casket to the White House where the casket lay in repose for 24 hours and then was taken by horse-drawn caisson to lie in state beneath the Capitol Rotunda.
"Back in 1988, we had wondered what had happened to the ambulance after that," Brintlinger recalled. "I got to thinking ‘Well, this is what you pay your congressman for', and so I wrote to Bob Michel, R-Peoria, who was our congressman at the time and said something to the effect ‘Could you find out what happened?' It was only later I realized I had actually written my letter on Nov. 22, 1988, the exact 25th anniversary of the assassination."
Michel worked his Rolodex and forwarded a response from the Navy that laid the matter to rest: "The Navy transferred ownership of the vehicle to the Kennedy Library on Nov. 5, 1980," the Navy said. "Subsequently, the director of the library requested permission from the Archivist of the United States for destruction of the vehicle. Permission was granted on August 5, 1985. We understand the vehicle was destroyed."
And indeed it was. There are even pictures of it being crushed in a Boston junkyard where its demise was witnessed by a staffer from the Kennedy library. The pictures show the correct identification numbers for the vehicle.
Brintlinger would like to have seen the ambulance kept as an historical artifact, and points out the actual vehicle Kennedy was riding in when he was killed is now in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. But he can also understand why the Kennedy family would not want it around. "To avoid just the kind of thing that was going on at that auction," he said.
The run-up to the ambulance sale generated headlines and a kind of morbid excitement around the world. And while the auctioneers did back away from absolute claims this was the Kennedy vehicle after Brintlinger had faxed them his information, they didn't kill the auction and the sale went ahead. The vehicle's physician and car collector owner insisted he had proof, tied to serial numbers, that this was indeed the right ambulance.
"They sold it for $100,000, and that's way above the asking price for an old ambulance like this," Brintlinger said. "I tell you, at these car auctions, people have more money than reason."
But the Decatur funeral director is gravely confident the journey of the real vehicle is over, and his confidence is shared by fellow collectors and old vehicle experts such as Burkham at Decatur Ambulance. "Dan has done a lot of research into that issue and has come up with more than anybody else had," he said.
Asked why some people involved in the sale refused to accept the proof, Burkham had some ideas. "I don't know if they thought they could further the myth and sell it again, later, for more money," he added. "Otherwise, (without the Kennedy connection) it's just a very austere, government-issue Navy ambulance."
The actual Ghostbusters movie vehicle, by the way, was a 1959 Miller-Meteor Cadillac and there is a Decatur connection.
Ed Kemnitz, director of operations for Decatur Ambulance, had once owned an unrestored Miller-Meteor and his former vehicle is used in the scene when the Ghostbusters team first drive the ambulance into their converted fire station headquarters.