50 years later, Airmen recount JFK's death

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Joe W. McFadden
  • 52nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
"This is Walter Cronkite in our newsroom: there has been an attempt as perhaps you know now on the life of President Kennedy..."

The news alert -- just one in a series of frenzied and vague bulletins -- broadcast across television and radio waves Nov. 22, 1963, to a nation that couldn't believe what its collective eyes and ears were processing.

In an age without social media or instantaneous live feeds, the American public and indeed the world at-large marked the endless minutes between updates by piecing together the few details they received until the latest report came in.

"...three shots fired..."
"...President Kennedy and Texas Governor Connally wounded..."
"...reported in critical condition..."
"...suspect Lee Harvey Oswald..."
"...died at approximately 1:00 Central Standard Time today, here in Dallas..."
"...Vice President Johnson took the oath of office aboard Air Force One..."

In what became the first presidential assassination in more than half a century, the murder of President John F. Kennedy and its aftermath seemed to leave a lasting imprint on the national and world consciousness even half a century later.

Today, roughly 2 percent of Airmen are old enough to answer where they were when they first learned about Kennedy's death. However, while different in magnitude and context, virtually everyone serving on active duty now has their own story of where they were on another date etched in tragedy: Sept. 11, 2001.

Their respective anniversaries, particularly as Nov. 22, 2013, is the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's death, are often marked with memorial services and somber reflections about how those incomprehensible acts represented significant turning points in American history.

No matter how diverse their upbringing, education, language or careers compared to others, many people would impart their own recollections of where and when they first learned the sad news -- as shared sorrow during national heartbreak often transcends existing divides.

"The entire nation seemed to be in mourning"

Fifth-grader Richard Novotny and his classmates just returned from recess to Mrs. Ernest's classroom at St. Mary's Catholic School in Winner, S.D.

But when they saw Sister Mary Bernard, the school principal, later enter the room, the tone of their room post-playground shenanigans would quickly evaporate as she announced the president had been shot.

"The entire school went next door to the church to pray for the president," said Novotny, now an Air Force lieutenant colonel and chaplain with the 52nd Fighter Wing. "Only after we returned to our classrooms did we learn he had died. The entire school was as silent as a tomb for the rest of the day."

The mourning would continue as millions of Americans sought solace through many means, be it clasping rosary beads while kneeling or shaking their heads and asking 'Why?' And many of them would be tuning into their TV sets to watch the slain president's funeral procession in Washington, D.C., three days later.

"I remember news footage of people walking past the coffin as it lay in state in the Rotunda," Novotny said. "On the following Monday, TVs were placed in each classroom and we watched the funeral."

Although seven presidents before JFK had either been killed or died in office, the television images of the president's funeral procession -- particularly a three-year-old John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father's hearse -- underscored the humanity of the loss to a wider audience in ways telegrams or the press simply couldn't before.

"My memory of the events that surrounded the assassination and funeral were quite similar to the 9/11 terrorist attacks," Novotny said. "The entire nation seemed to be in mourning. It seemed as if everything stopped as the nation and the world focused on the death of President Kennedy."

And after the president's burial in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, an era once characterized as an optimistic "New Frontier" had abruptly ended, giving way to uncertainty and years of war and civil unrest.

"Growing up in rural South Dakota seemed to be a safe haven," Novotny said. "Something had changed with the assassination of President Kennedy. I never realized how violent the world was, or could be, until that day."

"It was like losing a member of our family"

Like a shockwave following an earthquake, the distress following the president's death seemed to shake the world off its emotional axis, too.

Eight-year-old Bernard Schaefer readied himself for sleep at his family home in Bitburg, Germany, near then-West Germany's border with Luxembourg. While lying in his bed, he soon heard his parents in another room talking louder and faster than usual.

"My mother walked into the room saying that something terrible had happened and that a very popular and good person had been killed," said Schaefer, now a community relations advisor for the 52nd FW commander. "I soon got out of bed and found out more details from the radio."

Following his parents' conversation, Schaefer said he could gather from their expressions the person who was killed was no ordinary person.

"My family was all so sad - I'll never forget that," he said. "It felt like a family member had died. I really felt for Caroline and her brother - you hate to lose your father. As a child, you don't understand why this happens to good people."

Six months prior to his death, Kennedy toured Berlin alongside its mayor and future chancellor Willy Brandt -- whom the German press often compared to Kennedy due to his youthful, charismatic demeanor.

The president's oft-quoted words "Ich bin ein Berliner"-- while causing initial grammatical confusion - symbolized America's solidarity with the citizens of the city divided by both a concrete barrier and an ideological divide between East and West.

"This simple phrase was so fascinating to all generations of Germans," Schaefer said. "He meant a lot of hope to us. I believe his phrase helped future presidents get in touch with Berlin afterward. He was a popular man who helped Germany and an idol who helped get our country back on its feet."

"He personified to us the best of America"

While attending Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Marshall Michel III and his college friends lived right down the street from Kennedy, then a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts with future ambitions to run for president in 1960.

"When I was a freshman, we regularly saw Senator Kennedy, his wife and brother Teddy at mass on Sunday," said Dr. Michel, now historian for the 52nd FW. "When he made his run for president, we would go up to him, shake his hand and wish him good luck - he didn't have Secret Service with him yet."

Michel's wish for Kennedy's success may or may not have been the deciding factor in what became one of the closest presidential elections in history. But his connection to the man -- a neighbor who would become a future commander-in-chief -- formed a bond that would extend past the campaign trail and into government.

"On Inauguration Day, we went down to his town house and watched him come out and grandly put on his top hat," he said. "That night I went to his Inaugural Ball - very cool."

Like Novotny and millions of students in America, Michel also heard about the news while preparing to focus on his studies.

"I heard about his assassination as I was walking on campus to class," Michel said. "We were all in shock ... there's no other way to describe it. As far as the how the country reacted, it seemed to be the same shock in most places -- less mass communication then, of course. But the TV was full of coverage."

An already-speechless nation would then witness more shock as Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged assassin, would be shot on live television by Jack Ruby during a prison transfer just two days later.

"Watching Ruby shoot Oswald was kind of amazing," Michel said. "But by then I, at least, was kind of numb."

Oswald's death would later bring just as much controversy into the already elusive search for a culprit and a motive behind the president's death. Michel commented on how both events further intensified divisions in the country over civil rights and a brewing war in Southeast Asia during a tumultuous decade known as simply "the Sixties."

"Historically, JFK's assassination provided a certain centrifugal force that divided Americans along political fissures, because many were not saddened by his death," he said. "By contrast 9/11, like Pearl Harbor, was a centripetal force that united virtually all Americans in sorrow and anger."

Within five years of the president's assassination, those lines would rupture, resulting in more senseless tragedies. The president's brother, Senator Robert Kennedy, as well as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., would both be murdered within weeks of each other in 1968.

But even as a historian today recounting many more losses of life to follow, Michel said he looks back to that day 50 years ago when he not only mourned the death of a president but the loss of a neighbor.

"For me and my friends at Georgetown, it was a very, very personal loss," Michel said. "He personified to us the best of America."