- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
They were in classrooms and airports, at work and out on the street all across the country Nov. 22, 1963, when the news of what had happened in Dallas first began to trickle out.
Stunned silence stopped a nation dead in its tracks. For Southern Marylanders old enough to remember, the memories of that day still are just as clear as they were on the day that President John F. Kennedy was shot dead.
‘Details of the event are still fresh’
Joe Chappell might have had one of the most direct glimpses into history in the making. A retired chief master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, Chappell served as a flight engineer aboard Air Force One for five presidents, beginning with Kennedy. Chappell, who lives in Clinton, was 35 years old and a part of the crew in Dallas that day.
“It was a beautiful November day, leaving Washington the day before, and everything was going fine,” he said. “Our first arrival in Texas was in San Antonio, with bands playing and a very warm reception. It was a short flight the next day to [Dallas’] Love Field, where the president was met by a huge crowd with the bands playing and the majorettes dancing. Everyone was having fun. We were in the cockpit watching the reception the president received … and we went down to see the send-off. The president and first lady departed Love Field, and we began making preparations for our next departure.”
Then, all routine ended completely.
Pilot Doug Moody “and I were having a conversation, and a couple minutes after that, Col. [James B.] Swindal, who was President Kennedy’s pilot, came up to Moody as we were standing at the top of the No. 2 engine and said, ‘Joe, let’s get ready to go,’ so I assumed we were going back to Washington because there was a rumor something had happened, potentially with Vietnam,” Chappell said. “I went for a fuel truck … and I went over to the Pan-Am press charter. About that time, Swindal ran back down the steps and said, ‘Did I tell you the president has been shot?’
“That was our first knowledge of anything,” Chappell said. “I was assuming it was nothing more than a flesh wound, and that the motorcade had turned around and was coming back to the terminal. We didn’t treat it as anything really serious at the moment. We got started with the refueling process, and I went into the airplane, and then I found it was really serious. Shortly after that, it was announced the president was killed.”
Chappell and the other crew members began making the preparations to fly back to Washington. This would mark the first time the body of an assassinated president would be flown on Air Force One.
“We were notified that they would be bringing Kennedy’s body back to Washington,” Chappell said. “It occurred to me that we had flown a number of government officials whose bodies had lain in state at the Capitol … that their bodies had been placed in the cargo hold. I said to Swindal, ‘He needs to be in the passenger cabin.’ He agreed but said there was no space. So we removed two rows of passenger seats. I talked with the Secret Service agents carrying the casket and told them the plan, so we brought it aboard and began our departure process. One of Kennedy’s aides told us we needed to wait. … We shut the engines down. [Vice President Lyndon B.] Johnson told us we weren’t leaving until Judge Hughes arrived, so … I ran back over and told the police lieutenant we were waiting on Judge Hughes. He pointed me over to the judge’s car, and I went over there and knocked on the door. There was a man in a big Texas hat wearing a suit, and I asked him to come with me. ‘I’m not the judge,’ he said. ‘I’m the chauffeur.’ Judge Sarah Hughes was this little 5-foot-tall, tiny lady … and I took her aboard the airplane for the swearing-in [of Johnson as president to succeed Kennedy]. We then departed and started the flight back to Washington.”
Once back in Washington with Kennedy’s body, his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, arrived at Andrews Air Force Base and met with Jacqueline Kennedy and others as the military honor guard came for the body. Chappell and other flight crew members went back to the office to discuss the events of the day.
“I was driving home, and I noticed normally air traffic is very busy, especially around dinner time. On our arrival back in the area, I saw it was a very clear night, and you could see rotating beacons for planes in holding patterns,” Chappell said. Out of respect, “the pilots of commercial air carriers had elected to stay airborne until we landed at Andrews with the president. That’s why there were no transmissions.”
What sticks out to Chappell is how ordinary everything seemed until the bullets began to fly. “Everything had gone so well until the moment I was notified the president had been shot. That was unbelievable. Every place we’d gone, the president was always well received.”
Since the crew was small — only 12 men — its members and their families frequently were included in White House parties and other social gatherings. Kennedy was the first president with whom Chappell had flown. Chappell recalled “seeing Mrs. Kennedy wearing the clothes I’d seen her in last when they departed from the airport with the motorcade. She was still in that pink suit standing with Johnson. This all happened in a very short period of time.”
As with many others, the event has stayed with Chappell throughout the years.
“It’s fresh, but I was 35 then and 85 now. Fifty years is a long time, and I’m beginning to feel it,” Chappell said. “The details of the event are still fresh. It was just that no one could believe the president had been killed. It was really a sad time in Washington. I arrived home, and there were neighbors of mine at my house who knew I was with the president and … everyone was watching TV, staying with the story. That Saturday, when his body was lying in state, we got a call that Mrs. Kennedy had invited the crew to see the body at the White House before it went over to the Capitol with the heads of state.”
‘I just couldn’t believe it’
Tim Willis joined the D.C. Metropolitan Police in 1960 and helped work the crowd during Kennedy’s inauguration in January 1961. Originally from the District, Willis now lives in Swan Point. He recalls Kennedy’s assassination as the catalyst for a new America he said hardly compares with how the country used to be.
“The 1950s were fun. I was born in Southeast, and when I was coming up everyone knew each other,” Willis said. “I remember when Kennedy was inaugurated. I was right there. I really liked him. It was like a fairy tale. … Everybody sort of got along. There was low crime. It was just a different place to live in. I can remember Frank Sinatra and all them movie stars being there. It was snowing and everything.”
Willis recalled that he was getting ready to go to work Nov. 22, 1963, when the news broke.
“My wife came in, and she said, ‘Oh, my God! ‘Oh, my God! ‘Oh, my God!’ And I said, ‘What?’ She said, ‘The president has been shot!’ I said, ‘What? You’ve got to be kidding.’ I didn’t even wait for them to call me. I just took off. It was such a mess back then. We didn’t have any riot gear or helmets, just our uniforms. People on the street were just walking around like zombies, crying. I saw grown men cry. People just loved Kennedy. He was a popular president. It was like being in a dream world. I can remember standing at 15th and Pennsylvania Avenue, and they came out with his body, and I just couldn’t believe it. It’s just something that doesn’t happen in this country.”
Although he had never met Kennedy personally, Willis said he had been given the chance.
“I wish I’d carried around a camera with me back then because I saw history,” Willis said. “I was at every demonstration, every parade, every protest … everything on the front lines. I was there for everything that went on.”
‘He was an inspiration’
Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton (D-Charles) was a senior in high school the day of the assassination. Middleton grew up on a farm and had just built a brand new stripping shed, where cured tobacco leaves were pulled from their stalks and prepared for market. For some reason, Middleton said, he didn’t have school that day and was in the shed with his dad and his brother.
“We had electricity in the new shed, so the radio was on, and the news came over where Kennedy had been shot and we were just shocked,” Middleton said. “I grew up in a Democratic household in a Kennedy family, and we were big Kennedy supporters. My dad just loved him. He was an inspiration to a whole nation. I remember it was like he had lost his own child. We watched the unfolding of events in Dallas … and after that watching the funeral. It was a solemn time.”
Although Middleton credits his upbringing with his future political career, he said that being an adolescent in such a turbulent time in history certainly bore some effect, as well.
“JFK was an inspiration to my whole generation. He was a world leader that young people like myself admired and wanted to imitate,” Middleton said. “I grew up on a rather steady diet of politics so I guess that was somewhat natural, but I always looked up to role models like JFK and my dad to follow in my political life. To this day, every time the anniversary of the assassination comes back around, all those memories come back in. In my lifetime, that was probably the most memorable event, even with the moon landing. I remember when it was, but not where I was.”
‘He put me on the road to service’
Del. Peter F. Murphy (D-Charles) was a freshman in high school at the time of the assassination and recalled hearing the news announced over the loudspeakers in his school. Although he was old enough to realize the significance of what had occurred, he said the real effects did not set in until years later.
“The impact on me probably didn’t really occur much until I was in college three years later … and had more to do with the Peace Corps,” he said. “I remember wanting to join at the time, but I didn’t want to stop and interrupt [my schooling]. I joined VISTA, which was kind of a domestic version. I was in school at American University, and I would go into the inner city in D.C. at nights and work with the children, so that’s how it affected me. He put me on the road to service, and I think that was his legacy for my generation of young people who really took that challenge and put it into action.”
‘History just kept happening’
Charles County Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) was nearly 8 and recalled being in his second-grade classroom in Brooklyn, N.Y., when the news came through.
“Almost instantly, teachers broke down crying, which was really disconcerting to a second-grader,” Robinson said. “It got even more disconcerting when my mother came to pick me up, and there were people crying in the streets of Brooklyn. It’s as vivid to me today as it was when it happened because the iconic images we’re familiar with today played for four straight days across the three channels. It was probably as somber a period as I can ever recall in my life. History just kept happening. I remember being in front of the TV when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald and … my older sister started screaming. It was a very scary time for a kid. I think it made me politically aware and interested in government and history. ... I’m 57 years old, and it’s hard for me because he was 11 years younger than I am today, and that’s just bizarre to me.”
‘It was doubly bad’
For Lorraine Wallace of Leonardtown, the news of Kennedy’s death came at an already somber time. Nine days prior to the assassination, her own father had died in her home state of Ohio. She flew there from New Mexico for his funeral and returned back west that day.
“I was on my way home to New Mexico, and my plane was delayed in Chicago, so I was going to be real tight or delayed … out of Love Field in Dallas,” Wallace recounted during a phone interview. She “scrambled to make arrangements to get home” but found that it was impossible to do so for the next nine hours.
While laid over at the airport, Wallace said, she began to notice something odd. “I kept seeing these papers saying ‘Kennedy Killed,’ and I knew he wasn’t very popular in Texas, so I thought it was a joke, and I thought that wasn’t a funny joke,” Wallace said. “But then I saw nuns crying in the airport, and everyone was very sober. There were a lot of Texas Rangers around … and then it dawned on me. The first president I’d ever voted for had been killed. For me it was kind of doubly bad because I’d lost my father and first president I’d voted for who I thought was pretty good.”
During her layover, Wallace bought first edition copies of the newspapers from Dallas and Fort Worth that day. On the 25th anniversary of his death, she donated the papers to St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
Strangely enough, the day was not entirely without benefit for Wallace, who recently had quit smoking cigarettes. “I thought to myself if I can get through this without having a cigarette then I never need to have one again, and lo and behold, it’s been 50 years,” Wallace said.
‘We watched them take his body’
Charlotte Wilkening of Dunkirk was having lunch downtown in the District at the Hamilton Hotel, as was her daily custom in those days, when she heard about it. Wilkening, in shock, went back to her office and told her colleagues, but no one believed her until the reports started developing further. They were dismissed for the day, and Wilkening went with her husband to her mother’s Virginia home before returning to Calvert County that night.
“We came home that evening … and we were pulled over by the Census Bureau as the hearse was passing by. You could see light around the edges even with the curtains drawn, and I understand Mrs. Kennedy was in there. [My doctor] was on the hearse with her, so I got a firsthand account at my next visit,” Wilkening said in a phone interview. “The thing about it was there was hardly any traffic at that time of night. It must have been around 11 p.m. Another odd thing was there was not much security with the hearse, no more than one police car.”
As it turned out, the couple would have front-row seats to the unfolding drama during the next few days.
“My husband’s office was across from the Treasury Department, and so he and I decided we’d go down to his office and watch the proceedings the next day at the White House. There was no security. We just walked right into the building,” Wilkening said. “We had a front row seat to the White House, and we could see all the comings and goings, and we watched them take his body to the Capitol.”
Despite not having been a Kennedy supporter, Wilkening said she was nonetheless deeply affected by his death.
“Usually I’m not terribly emotional, but I felt animated inside,” she said. “I realized I was seeing a tremendous piece of history. I had a certain amount of anger. I felt that, very upset that anyone would dare kill the president of the U.S.. I think it was that fact, and then the whole thing was really like watching a movie that was pure history. To see all the dignitaries, [French President Charles] DeGaulle and them, was fantastic. I’ve never probably been impressed with anything so much as how … so many people from around the world were drawn in so rapidly. It was a culmination of emotion and realizations of history … it was like a whole huge bunch of things rolled into a Tootsie Roll, and they couldn’t get out. It was a sad exhilaration, realizing you’d witnessed something not many people would ever see. I don’t recall my husband ever telling me why none of his colleagues were there, but I thought they missed something. On Suitland Parkway, it was the most surreal feeling when we were pulled over when the hearse was coming.”
‘He came across as idealistic’
Joan Armistead of Hollywood has a small collection of Kennedy memorabilia, spawned from having campaigned for the president while living in California. Armistead was 23 at the time and a math teacher.
“My roommate, who worked with me, called me on the intercom in my classroom ... because she knew I had been really involved, so for me it was kind of personal,” Armistead said. “I announced it to the class, and there was one student in the class who yelled out, ‘Oh good! That means Nixon is president!’ And I just looked at him and said ‘No, I’m sorry. That’s not how the government works.’”
From there, Armistead said, the school principal sent a series of mimeographs out informing the teachers of what was going on, which she keeps in a box of Kennedy memorabilia along with articles and publications from that day, as well as items from the campaign trail.
“From there, we went home, and it was just all over the television,” Armistead said. “You watch these things on TV ... but for us on the West Coast, we were far away from everything. It was really ... fresh for everyone. It was this person who had some deranged ideas, rather than like with 9/11 where it was an attack from the outside. It was for me at that point in time the first election I ever got involved in. Obviously he did something to make us all feel like things were going to be good. He struck me as young, and ... it was just that appeal. He came across as idealistic, not just a politician.”