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My Memories of the Day JFK Died

On the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, television, newspapers and magazines have been saturated with pictures and stories of the death of the young president. When asked, “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?”, it brings back memories.

I was a Sergeant stationed at Andrews AFB, MD when it all happened. I was on my way to work the swing shift at the Communications Center, when I stopped at a café to get a cup of coffee. The television was on, and I noticed the place was packed with people who were strangely quiet, intently watching TV. It quickly became apparent that some big news situation was unfolding, and then it began to sink in that someone had shot the President. It was only a matter of minutes before it was announced that JFK was dead. I remember, as I drove to work, how angry I felt upon hearing that someone could kill our President. He was a WW II hero, a very likeable person, and our Commander-in-Chief.

For the next four days, we were glued to the television in the Day Room as events unfolded, including the arrest and murder of Lee Harvey Oswald. Air Force One came in with the president’s body, his widow Jackie, and our new president. But security was such that none of us tried to go over to see.

A couple of days later, I was on duty at the Comm Center on the midnight shift when we heard on the radio that the President’s body was lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda. The center was not busy, so at about 1:00 am four of us enlisted men got permission to take an hour off to drive to D.C.

When I finally found a place to park, we began walking up to the Capitol building, noticing that the line was extremely long. It was also apparent that there were several high ranking officers standing in line. We knew it would be hours before we would reach the Capitol. Knowing we could not stay away from work that long, we decided we would just walk up to the Capitol steps to see if we could see the lighted chamber inside. As we walked, we counted the line; it was eleven blocks long, and four abreast. Then, a DC Park policeman in uniform saw us and said, “You enlisted folks can go to the front of the line.” So we quickly walked up the steep steps into the Captiol, saluting as we passed the flag draped coffin.

An Honor Guard of four enlisted men, representing all four branches of the military, were at parade rest at the four corners of the coffin. A TV camerman was curled up asleep on a small marble bench with his camera pointed down to the floor. We learned later that morning that Jackie Kennedy came by the coffin about 4am, so we missed seeing her by a couple of hours.

I have often wondered what those ranking officers standing in line must have thought when four enlisted men “dished” the line ahead of them. It was just one more reminder that our world had been turned upside down; not even rank had its privilege.

Rev. John R. Gray (Ret)
TSgt USAF (Ret)
Grove City, OH