|
Dover Post
  • Delawareans recall shock, horror, confusion at news of Kennedy's death

  • Delawareans remember when they learned of Kennedy's assassination in Dallas
    • email print
  • Each generation has its touchstone in history. For today's Americans, it is the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; for their parents, it is the end of the Cold War. For their grandparents, it is the death of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. To Delawareans younger than 60, Kennedy only is a historical figure, remembered from old photographs or black-and-white television images. To an older generation, however, memories of his presidency -- and his death -- remain strong. Kennedy had his detractors, but even most of them joined the rest of the country in mourning the loss of the nation's leader. The president's death came at a time of great tension; the standoff of the Cuban Missile Crisis was barely a year in the past, and there were continual warnings about the Soviet Union's attempts to subvert the rest of the world. The assassination also sparked great confusion, with people wondering how their leader could have been cut down so quickly, questions compounded when the alleged assassin himself, Lee Harvey Oswald, was gunned down on live television by nightclub owner Jack Ruby. It was a period that many pundits, in hindsight, say marked the end of America's innocence. But at the time of the assassination and all that followed, people were just wondering: what's next? Area residents remember In Dover, the Nov. 25 City Council meeting was postponed until Dec. 2 Dover's Grace Ricey, a waitress at the former Perry's Pancake House, was home when the news came over the television. “I thought, oh my God, no,” she recalled. “When I went to work, everyone was down in the dumps.” George Malatesta was 23, and learned of the assassination while in Wilmington. “Everyone there was just stunned, they couldn't believe it,” he said. Malatesta was one of millions who witnessed Oswald's shooting in the midst of a police escort. “It all happened so fast,” he said. “The first thing you had to wonder was how did Ruby get in there with a gun? To me, it seemed like a setup, that the cops had just let him in.” Sandtown's Edward Townsend, who had voted for Kennedy in 1960, was watching television at home when CBS anchor Walter Cronkite came on the air to announce Kennedy's death. “I was really startled,” he said. “You didn't think anyone could do that to the president of the United States.” “People were just walking around, stunned,” noted Dover's Priscilla Lynch, who was working in New York at the time. “We all prayed that it hadn't been bad, that he'd live, that they'd come back and say he was OK, but that didn't happen.” Doretha Davis, then 32, said, “The world just stood still. Everything stopped, everybody stopped.. It's been 50 years, but it's something I'll never forget.” Kennedy, she said, “was just a man, but to many he was an angel.” Alfreda Fisher-Dean was in Bessie McDowell's typing class at the former William Henry High School when principal James C. Hardcastle made the announcement over the PA system. “We were taking a test,” Fisher-Dean said. “She told all us to stop, sit quietly and see what happened. “When we left that day, the flag already was at half-staff,” she added. “It was so quiet. Usually on a Friday, there was a lot of noise, but it all was so quiet.” During the ensuing four days, when the three networks cancelled all entertainment programming, Fisher-Dean and her family stayed glued to their televisions. “What really tore me up was when John-John saluted his dad,” she said. “I just cried and cried and cried.” Mike Stachecki, who was a 24-year-old Dover Police patrolman when Kennedy was killed, said there were no special security measures taken and no change in how the police went about their business. Personally, however, “I was upset. I thought he was a very likeable person and I was very sorry to see that happen.” Like most other Americans, but particularly because he was a police officer, Stachecki wanted to see Oswald go on trial. “You wanted to know what was going on,” he said. “You wanted to learn the reasons why. And later you wanted to know why Ruby shot him. You wanted to know how he got in there. “I thought, this is the United States. It's not supposed to happen here.” Three years after he had encountered Kennedy during a campaign swing through Dover, Jim Flood working in Washington, D.C., as chief of staff to Delaware Sen. Caleb Boggs. Flood was in his office when Boggs called him from the Senate floor. “At that point, he didn't know and the rest of the Senate didn't know what had happened. They were just like us, waiting for news.” The staff turned on a television set and watched as Cronkite announced the president's death. “We were absolutely shocked,” Flood said. “It was something that was difficult to digest because Kennedy had been such a colorful president already.” The feeling was comparable to that in April 1945 when the nation received the news of Franklin D. Roosevelt's passing, Flood said. “It was in a way a very similar shock,” Flood said. “He was such a dominant figure in the country that it just had to be a shock when he died.” The military reaction At Dover Air Force Base, military personnel learned of the president's death over the radio. The base flag was lowered to half staff at 2:42 p.m., less than 15 minutes after Kennedy's death was confirmed, and special Catholic Masses were heard on base later that evening and on the following day. Despite rumors of a plot against the government, the base did not go to a higher alert status. All but essential personnel were excused from duty on Monday, Nov. 25, the day of Kennedy's funeral, and the base observed a 30-day mourning period. Otherwise, the base carried on its normal missions. Veterans recall that in the days immediately following the assassination many military posts did increase their alert situation, but mostly as a precaution. Officers in the Strategic Air Command, which controlled the nations' long-range bomber fleet and nuclear arsenal, were particularly sensitive to the possibility America's foes might take advantage of the confusion. Fortunately, however, nothing occurred. Even our enemies, it seemed, didn't know what to think of Kennedy's death. Don Hall was a new Air Force enlistee going through training in Mississippi when the news broke, but he didn't find out right away. “We were in class, but they didn't tell us until we were done,” he said. “We were told to continue with our training. “After we marched back to the barracks, everyone was talking about what happened, but it all was just speculation. “But later the squadron commander called all the student leaders and told them we might be going on alert and might not be finishing classes. But none of that happened, and we just continued with our training. We never saw any of it on TV.” Virgil Robinette was stationed as a radio operator on the Pacific Island of New Guinea and didn't learn of the assassination until a day later. “We all had to wonder, 'What's happening next?” he said. “We went on alert but the operations didn't change, it was pretty much business as usual.” It was another five months before he saw any news footage of the assassination or its aftermath, Robinette said. David Doyle was stationed on Okinawa when a neighbor awakened him with the news. Already poised to take off on a mission, he headed off to work. “The whole island was on alert,” Doyle said. “The simple reason was we didn't know if the Russians or the Cubans were involved. That lasted for a couple of days. It's amazing how rumors get started.” “I just thought it all was unbelievable,” he said. “I mean, how could something like that have happened?” Reserve officer Bill Pool, now 89, was working his civilian job in Dover when he heard the news while at lunch. “I was surprised and shocked, of course,” he said. “I was wondering what the ramifications of this would be.” But as shocked as he was, Pool had more immediate worries. “Even though I knew the president had been shot, I was more concerned about the health of my little boy.” Ruby's shooting of Oswald raised a lot of questions, Pool added. “Here was someone who had taken the law into his own hands, and I wondered what effect that would have,” he said. “I thought, what kind of a clown would do this and where were the police to stop him? I mean, here was Oswald, surrounded by police and some guy gets through and shoots him. How did that happen?” Larry Koewing was in Air Force technical training the announcement came through. “I laughed out loud,” he said. “I thought it was a joke, but it quickly became apparent it wasn't. It's just that sort of thing was unimaginable.” The next day, some of his fellow trainees had been ordered to wear combat helmets and to carry carbines. Fortunately, they were not issued ammunition, Koewing recalled. “It was just a case of, 'Let's do something,' because who knows what would come next,” he said. “No one knew if it was a worldwide thing or just the act of some nut.” Although he didn't witness Oswald's shooting on television, Ruby's action had everyone agog. “It was like the world had been turned upside down. There were so many rumors going around, from it being just one guy to a plot to eliminate the U.S. leadership. “It all just seemed so incredible that these things could be happening like this." Kennedy well liked overseas Gerdi Mounts of Dover was a new emigrant to the United States, having arrived in America from Germany only two months before. She was staying in New Jersey with her sister-in-law while her husband, Ronnie, went on to his new assignment at an Air Force Base in Michigan. “I was watching TV when they cut in with the announcement,” she said. “Of course, I was shocked. How could this happen in a free country? It’s just something I’ll never forget. “I left a few days later and was on the way to Michigan when Oswald was shot,” she added. “I changed buses in Detroit and was in the terminal when they showed it.” Mounts checked with her brother, who still lives in Germany, about what it was like in the country where, only a few months before, Kennedy had stood in front of the Berlin Wall, proclaiming, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” “He said on that day, he’d returned from a visit to my sister in the Saarland when he noticed the newspaper building two houses up from his business was all lit up and people were very busy inside,” she said. “He saw a large sign in the window, ‘Kennedy ermordet,’ or ‘Kennedy shot.’ All his customers and neighbors talked about it. Most were shocked and some women cried. “Overall, Kennedy was popular in Germany and most of Europe, and of course the Berliners loved him, especially after his famous speech in Berlin. “My brother doesn’t remember any negativity toward JFK.”
      • calendar