Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Fifty-three years ago today

President and Mrs. Kennedy had breakfast in Fort Worth and later in the day rode in a motorcade through downtown Dallas.

Then the world as we knew it ended.

I was a 22-year-old airman, married for six months, and working in Strategic Air Command's underground command post at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska.

A year earlier I had completed twelve weeks of training to become a computer programmer, but when the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred in the fall of 1962 we enlisted folk who worked in the underground were formed into details to move lots of furniture on dollies up many ramps to the main Headquarters building so that the Battle Staff of twenty-some generals could live in the command post for the duration of the crisis. No one knew how long that might turn out to be. We were in the middle of moving furniture up and had not yet begun the equally formidable and muscle-wrenching task of moving other furniture down when a Chief Master Sergeant appeared and asked, "Does anyone know how to type?"

Since I could type quite well (about 120 words per minute) and I also thought this might be a way to get pulled off the furniture-moving detail, I ignored the little voice saying never to volunteer for anything, and said, "I can."

He said, "Come with me," and for the next 18 months I worked as a clerk-typist in Colonel Shirey's office along with Captain Bendorf, Major Something-or-other, and civilian Ginny Milacek. I also could take shorthand, which proved helpful. After the Cuban crisis had passed and the underground had been reconfigured again -- I was not recruited to help this time -- Colonel Shirey's office was moved to just off the Command Staff Balcony. Every day I had a full view of the two-story-high maps and data projected on the walls as well as the screens and consoles on the main floor below. One of my assigned duties was to clean up the balcony area after each use. In the spring of 1963 I went back to Florida to marry Mrs. RWP, and when we returned to Nebraska I had already moved out of the enlisted men's barracks into a small apartment just outside the back gate of the base, on a street of houses near the Missouri River. We lived so close to my work that I could easily go home for lunch and often did. At some point that year, Ginny quit to get married and another civilian, Irene, replaced her.

On November 22, 1963, I said to Irene, "See you in a bit," and I went home to have lunch with Mrs. RWP as usual. When I walked back into the office, Irene said, "The President has been shot." This was such an unimaginable scenario that I replied sarcastically, "Yeah, what else is new?"

"I'm serious," she said. "Look down on the floor at the consoles." I went to the edge of the glassed-in balcony and peered into the command post below. All the officers were gathered in groups around several communication centers, trying to learn as much as possible as rapidly as possible. It wasn't chaos, but there was a tense, deadly serious air about the scene. Irene hadn't been kidding.

The phone rang on my desk. It was Mrs. RWP telling me what she had just seen and heard on television from Walter Cronkite. "I know," I said, "I found out when I got back to the office." I mentioned that things were uncertain at this point and that I may have to remain on base overnight, but as it turned out I was able to go home at the end of the regular work day. The next few days were a very sad time for Americans, most of whom watched not only the state funeral but the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald on live television by Jack Ruby in the Dallas Police Station.

My lasting memories of that week include the motorcade above, Mrs. Kennedy walking in black behind the President's casket, and the moment caught by UPI photographer Stan Stearns that broke the nation's heart:

Eventually I did become a computer programmer again, but that is a story for another time.


  1. To witness this world-shattering event through the eyes of an ordinary American, it made for a fascinating and eminently readable blogpost. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I was in high school in my algebra II class. It was a split class. We went to lunch in the middle of it and then back to class. When we went out for lunch we found out about President Kennedy. It was a strange time. I can still hear the drum cadence from the funeral procession. It was repeated over and over and over for days. Everyone from that time remembers where we were when we learned of the tragedy that shocked the world.

  3. I was fourteen, skipping school, and sitting on the pot smelling bottles of cologne that no one in my family ever used (but were dutifully given at Xmas every year) when I heard my mother’s soap opera being interrupted by Cronkite. I was still naive enough that I thought money could buy anything, so I felt sure Kennedy would survive. Now that we have Trump as president to-be along with scores of proudly uncompromising Republican Congressmen and Senators who are willing to shut down the government anytime they don’t get their way, I remember past governments and reflect upon how low we have fallen. I’m just hoping that our country outlasts me.

  4. My mother always told the story that she was in hospital waiting for me to be born when President Kennedy was assassinated. I was eventually born some weeks later and I too eventually became a computer programmer (when I grew up).

  5. I agree with YP, this is a fascinating insight. My memories of the event are hazy given that I was just ten years old but they are there nonetheless because of how upset my cousin was. She was 18 and living with us while at school in the UK but her parents lived in LA.

    Your memories of the bunker are equally fascinating. I shall look out for you the next time I watch Dr Strangelove!

  6. In much of the Southern US, the assassinations of the Kennedys and MLK were met with rejoicing among most of the white population.

  7. We were in Wahiawa, Hawaii. My husband was in the Army as was assigned to Schofield Barracks and when the news came.I was expecting our first child. A neighbor called and I thought she had heard something very wrong and told her "That cant happen"--Isnt it funny how our minds work when hit with such a shock? I walked out side to go to her house (she had a TV, which was a big deal then)& it was so quiet. It seemed like the ever present wind, just stopped.
    I remember holding my big ole tummy and trying to think--what will the Army do? Will my husband still go to Viet Nam? and the ever present Why? Why? why? We waited,watched and prayed. 2 military wives, together, yet alone with our fears for our future.So many things "could" have happened. Thankfully, LBJ held things together, as best he could. My husbands Medical Company was not called up for Nam and we returned to Ca. at the end of his enlistment. Funny it was called and Enlistment, but he was drafted out of Long Beach State College in Calif. in his Senior Year. What a time it was and I wouldnt wish it on anyone now.

  8. Sue, I started college in 1967, and at that time, deferments were automatic for college students, so I’m wondering how it was that your husband was drafted out of college prior to 1965 when the first US combat troops were sent to Vietnam. Some of you will remember the lottery that was instituted in 1969. My number was around 110 (funny but I can’t remember the exact number), which was low enough to get me drafted if my doctor hadn’t told the draft board that I had had kidney stones. This was news to me, but I didn’t argue, and it was true that I did go the ER one night with a bad tummy ache from which I soon recovered and went home. Still, if I had had stones, I should have thought someone would have told me.

    Also, Robert, I was surely one of the few Mississippians who sent a sympathy card to Jacqueline Kennedy. She—through her staff—responded to all of those cards, and for some reason her response to me first went to Massachusetts and had to be forwarded to Mississippi. Forgetting that surely many black citizens of the state must have sent cards to her, I speculated that the postal service had simply been incredulous that anyone from Mississippian would have sent her a sympathy card because the hatred of JFK was intense down there.

  9. Snowbrush--IF there was deferments in 1960-61,he missed it.
    After Basic, we were at Fort Hood,Texas in 1962, he was put on a train on the way to Florida to invade Cuba and then turned around after the Crisis was over.
    By '67 we were out of the military & back in Ca. and had 2 kids.He was on some sort of 'stand by'status for several additional years.

    What was heartbreaking was that when he applied for work several employers asked "where have you been for the last 4 years, you have no work experience". He said he would laugh and tell them he was a Medic in the Army, awaiting deployment with the Green Berets or whoever needed his company. The response was always the same "oh". We fed ourselves and two little ones on unemployment for about a year,before he got work & finished school at night.
    It's been an amazing 54 years !!

  10. Sue, this is from the Wikipedia page on US Military Conscription: “Between the Korean War's outbreak in June 1950 and the armistice agreement in 1953, Selective Service inducted over 1.5 million men.”

    I simply didn’t know this, and I wish they had broken it down by year because I had assumed that between Korea and Vietnam, there was no need for a draft. My experience with the draft was that, when I became of draft age in 1967, anyone in college got a deferment. After that, anyone in certain majors in college got a deferment (I went into education). Then the lottery came along. Short of moving to Canada, shooting my foot off, or entering the ministry, I made every effort to avoid the draft, but if that doctor hadn’t said that I had passed however many kidney stones, they would have gotten me at the last, but he got me a yearlong deferment, and by the time the year was up, the war was winding down, and the lottery number of those being drafted was just below my own. When I see guys with caps proclaiming that they served in Vietnam, I just think, how sad that you had to go and risk your life in a pointless war.

    Congratulations on your long marriage. Peggy and I will celebrate our 46 in a few weeks. She used to have a card on the refrigerator that read, “Believe it or not, my life is based upon a true story.”

  11. Not only were many drafted, but the guy in front of my husband at induction, had a full blown hay fever attack and he was deemed 1-A--go figure. How nice it is to hear of someone who 'escaped' -Great for you and also great for us too. The one's that came back in a bag around that time were deemed US Army "advisors" or some of the Green Beret/Secret Service guys.
    It was heartbreaking for sure.
    As a Medic on post, my husband saw so many "accidents"--toes shot off/fake mental health issues and the ever present overdose of whatever they could get their hands on. One knew beforehand when your company was going to be called up and there was always a big influx of problems in the Dispensary.
    You guys are at 46 yrs.Just go's to show Peggy is a "keeper" for sure.Or perhaps she says what I say "I'm not gong to try and train another one" !!
    Best Wishes, Sierra Sue

  12. “You guys are at 46 yrs. Just go's to show Peggy is a "keeper" for sure.”

    With the hope of Robert’s continued indulgence, I’m going to leave just one more comment. A woman divorced her husband after 60 years of marriage, so her friends and family were naturally curious about why she stayed with her husband for six whole decades before finally leaving him. Her response? “Enough is enough!”