Walter Cronkite On The Assassination Of John F. Kennedy
The story of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy has been told many times by many people. Among those who told it first was the late Walter Cronkite. He anchored the CBS News coverage during the first hours after bullets hit the president in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, 50 years ago Friday.
A decade ago, Cronkite put together a story about that fateful day for NPR. He combined his recollections with several remarkable recordings from the day of the assassination, recordings few had heard before.
Cronkite's reminiscences were rebroadcast Friday on All Things Considered. The audio of the story is above.
Cronkite, who covered some of the biggest stories of the last half of the 20th century, remembered that Friday in 1963 vividly: a slow day that burst into action when the first dispatches from Dallas went out.
"UPI teletypes around the world started ticking out the news," Cronkite recalled. "One of them was on the communications deck of Aircraft 972, where the radio officer blinked in disbelief at what he read."
That plane — which held two-thirds of Kennedy's Cabinet, including Secretary of State Dean Rusk — was 900 miles west of Honolulu, en route to Japan, when the news came that the president had been shot. Tape of the ground-to-air communications between 972 and the Situation Room in Washington, D.C., sat largely unnoticed for decades at the National Archives. The tapes were recorded by the Signal Corps at Andrews Air Force Base.
We've posted here those recordings, which Cronkite described as "a strikingly immediate document of men caught in a historic crisis," in both condensed and unabridged form. In addition to communications with Aircraft 972, the National Archives tapes record dispatches from Air Force One as it carried Kennedy's coffin and the newly sworn-in President Lyndon Johnson back to the capital.
"Government was being improvised in the air," Cronkite observed, as small but necessary decisions, like the equipment needed to transport the coffin, were being made en route.
These communiques and other tape from the archive, weaved into Cronkite's remembrance of the events from where he sat at CBS News, paint a remarkable picture of the day the 35th president of the United States was assassinated.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. The story of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy has been told many times by many people. Among those who told it first was the late Walter Cronkite. He anchored the CBS News coverage during the first hours after bullets hit the president in Dallas on November 22 50 years ago today.
A decade ago, Walter Cronkite put together a story about that fateful day for NPR. He combined his recollections with several remarkable recordings from the day of the assassination, recordings that few had heard before. Today we rebroadcast Cronkite's reminiscences.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)
WALTER CRONKITE: The government of the United States was at ease that afternoon but unusually scattered. Congress was in session but the president and vice-president had been in Texas for two days. With the president away and Thanksgiving a week away, Washington seemed a vacant almost open town. Even more unusual, six members of the president's Cabinet, including Secretary of State Dean Rusk, were on route to Tokyo for talks with the Japanese.
They had left Washington Wednesday for California then rendezvoused with Presidential Press Secretary Pierre Salinger and Senior Kennedy Advisor McGeorge Bundy for a Thursday layover in Honolulu. Salinger would join the party and go on to Japan.
It was 7:00 a.m. Friday morning in Hawaii, or about noon in Washington, when aircraft 86972 lifted off from Hickam Field carrying two-thirds of the Kennedy Cabinet out across the pacific. They had been flying for an hour-and-a-half before H hour in Dallas.
UNIDENTIFED MAN #1: It appears as though something has happened in the motorcade route. Something, I repeat, has happened in the motorcade route.
CRONKITE: The plane was nearly 900 miles west of Honolulu bearing south from midway but not yet halfway to Wake Island where it was to refuel. Four minutes later UPI moved Merriman Smith's first bulletin. UPI teletypes around the world started ticking out the news. One of them was on the communications deck of Aircraft 972, where the radio officer blinked in disbelief at what he read.
Another was at CBS News in New York, where my colleague Ed Bliss shouted the news across the room. I leaped from my desk to get on the air. But the cameras were not yet in place for the evening news so I rushed into an adjoining radio booth. CBS was ten minutes into its daily drama "As the World Turns" when a CBS News bulletin slide appeared on the screen and a different drama took over the air.
Here is a bulletin from CBS News. In Dallas, Texas, three shots were fired at President Kennedy's motorcade in downtown Dallas. The first reports say that President Kennedy has been seriously wounded by this shooting. Repeating...
In that plane over the Pacific, the passenger cabin had neither radio nor television. Protocol required that the radio operator take the UPI bulletin first to the ranking Cabinet member, Dean Rusk. He told the Cabinet that the president had been shot and that it could be fatal. Salinger insisted that the plane turn back to Honolulu immediately, but Rusk hesitated. He wanted to confirm facts, not press reports.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: This is situation room. I read you, go ahead.
CRONKITE: You're listening to the original ground-to-air radio traffic just moments after the news first reached the plane over the Pacific relayed from the UPI wire. These remarkable tapes provide a strikingly immediate document of men caught in an historic crisis. Salinger was among the first to get on the frequency.
PIERRE SALINGER: Give me all the available information on the president. Over.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: All available information on president follows (unintelligible) he and Governor Connelly of Texas have been hit in the car in which they were riding. We do not know how serious the situation is. We have no information. Mr. Bromley Smith is back here in the situation room now. We are getting our information over the tickers. Over.
SALINGER: That is affirmative, affirmative. Please keep us advised up here...
CRONKITE: Rusk wanted official information direct from the White House but the only information the White House had to give was what it was getting from the press. At 1:50 Eastern Time the plane turned back to Honolulu.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: That is affirmative, affirmative. This plane on which secretary of State and other Cabinet members headed for Japan turning around, returning to Honolulu, will arrive there in approximately two hours. Over.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: This is wayside. Understand those departing Honolulu are turning around and will be back there in about two hours. Is that correct? Over.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: That is affirmative, affirmative.
CRONKITE: But the White House so dispersed there seemed reason to imagine a possibility even more unthinkable than assassination: a coup against the government of the United States. Salinger was being addressed from the situation room by his code name Wayside. In the confusion of the moment, he didn't know whether to return to Dallas or Washington.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: We'll be just kept advised so to determine whether some members of this party should go directly to Dallas. Over.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Roger. Do you have anything else, Wayside?
SALINGER: No. Any other information get a hold of us as soon as possible.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: All right. The Associated Press is coming out now to bulletin to the effect that they believe the president was hit in the head. That just came in. Over.
CRONKITE: At CBS in New York, our television cameras were up within 15 minutes. I sat at the news desk in shirt sleeves surrounded by telephones, typewriters, a clutter of papers and a lone apple that sat on the front edge of the desk. Our attention was focused so completely on Dallas, it hardly seemed newsworthy that half the government was 4,000 miles out over the Pacific.
This is Walter Cronkite in our newsroom and there has been an attempt, as perhaps you know now, on the life of President Kennedy. He was wounded in an automobile driving from Dallas Airport into downtown Dallas along with Governor Connelly of Texas. They've been taken to Parkland Hospital there where their condition is as yet unknown.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Hold on the line there, Wayside. We have some more information coming up. I read from the AP bulletin, Kennedy apparently shot in head. He fell face down in backseat of his car. Blood was on his head. Mrs. Kennedy cried, oh no, and tried to hold up his head. Connelly remained half seated slumped to the left. There was blood on his face and forehead. I have nothing further for you now. I will contact you if we get more.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: Wayside, roger and out.
CRONKITE: The president was pronounced dead at 2:00 pm Eastern Time, but the news was not released. Conflicting rumors continued to circulate. Not even the situation room in the White House could tell plane 972 what was happening in Dallas.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: Wayside, this is situation room. We have conflicting reports now so we're not - getting no confirmation. We will call you again. I have relayed your intentions and present position to the front office. Your office has the word. We will call you again when we get confirmation. Over.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: (Unintelligible).
CRONKITE: By 2:30 there was a mounting consensus to the rumors. Eddy Barker was news director of CBS's Dallas affiliate and had some of the best police sources in the city. He was among the first to learn the true facts and he worked closely with Bob Pierpoint and Dan Rather who were covering the Kennedy visit for the network. I marked time.
It's been one hour since that electrifying flash came over the wires that bullet shots had been heard to ring out in the Kennedy motorcade. There is the report in Dallas that the president is dead, but that has not been confirmed by any other source. And as late as 15 minutes ago it was reported by aides outside in the corridor that he was still alive. The extent of his injuries is not known either.
Regarding the probably assassin, a man 25 years old, we are - we just have a report from our correspondent Dan Rather in Dallas that he has confirmed that President Kennedy is dead. There is still no official confirmation of this however...
Ten minutes later Press Officer Malcolm Kilduff released the news and it was official. It fell to me to make the announcement for CBS. My emotion was apparent as I fought to control my composure, locking it inside a clinched jaw.
From Dallas, Texas, the flash apparently official, President Kennedy died at 1:00 pm Central Standard Time, 2:00 Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago. Vice President Lyndon Johnson has left the hospital...
Those whose jobs often involve great emotional stress develop an amazing stoic power to defer emotion, a power that momentarily eluded me. None had it more than the men who had to give aircraft 972 the news. It was about 2:35 in the capital when the plane received a transmission from Crown, which was code name for the executive mansion.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #10: Roger, sir, I have Crown on, would you give them a call, sir?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #11: Crown 972, correct?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #12: This is situation room relay following the wayside. We have report quoting Mr. (unintelligible) in Dallas that the president is dead, that he died about 35 minutes ago. Do you have that? Over.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #11: The president is dead, is that correct?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #12: That is correct. That is correct. New subject. Front office desires plane return Washington with no stop Dallas. Over.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #11: Sir, copied. Wayside copied, all OK and we return direct to Washington not stopping in Dallas. Roger, out.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #12: All right. This is situation room, out.
CRONKITE: Attention now shifted to Vice President Lyndon Johnson. Back in New York at CBS, we had no information on his whereabouts and only sketchy information on his condition.
Vice President Johnson was in a following car and was apparently not hurt. He has left the hospital and has gone to an unknown destination where it is assumed he will shortly take the oath of office as the president of the United States.
The vice president's destination, it turned out, was as unknown to us in New York as it was to the situation room in Washington. And the plane now flying east through five time zones over the Pacific didn't have the word, either.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #13: This is situation room.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #14: (Unintelligible) 972, Wayside would like to know the whereabouts of the vice president, over.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #13: Wayside, from situation room, the vice president is in the hospital building, Parkland Hospital in Dallas. He is not injured. I repeat, not injured. Over.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #14: Copy (unintelligible)
CRONKITE: With the president's death no longer in dispute and the vice president safe, the sense of pandemonium began to ease and events took on a more predictable sense of form. We all knew what would be done now. Lyndon Johnson was already at Love Field in the presidential plane when Kilduff made his announcement, but Washington could not be informed because no scrambled line was available in Dallas.
Over the Pacific, 972 was on its approach to Honolulu. There was nothing to do but let the process run its course.
SIEGEL: Walter Cronkite's story about the Kennedy assassination will continue in a moment on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIEGEL: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
BLOCK: And I'm Melissa Block. We continue now with the late Walter Cronkite's recollections about the day President Kennedy was killed. Two hours after the shooting, in Dallas, aircraft 2-6,000 was about to become Air Force One and take off for Washington. At the same time, a plane carrying Secretary of State Dean Rusk and other Cabinet officers was nearing Honolulu.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #15: (Unintelligible) coming up here pretty closely to Honolulu for landing.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #16: This is Andrews. That is affirmed. 2-6,000 is about getting ready to take off. He's on 1-3.
CRONKITE: In the guarded protocols of the military, Air Force One became Air Force One only when the president stepped on board. Because there was no president for the moment, it was simply 2-6,000.
As 972 approached Honolulu, the presidential plane in Dallas was preparing for takeoff. It was 3:30 Eastern time. The casket of the dead president lay in the rear of the plane. The search was on for the text of the oath and a judge to administer it. Secret Service agent Roy Kellerman in Dallas briefed the chief of the White House detail in Washington, Jerry Ben(ph).
You're going to hear two code names: Volunteer refers to the vice president, Lace to Mrs. Kennedy.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #17: Do you have any idea yet what Lace wants to do and what Volunteer wants to do on their arrival here?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #18: (Unintelligible) we have a two-hour, 15 flight into Andrews.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #17: All right. Let know what Volunteer wants to do when they land, if they want to come into Crown by helicopter.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #18: Roger. I'll call you again.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #17: OK.
CRONKITE: Such conversations were beyond our reach in New York. We still, quite oddly it seems to me on this news desk have had no word from Dallas at all as to the location of Mr. Johnson, nor as to whether or not he has indeed taken the oath of office. It is assumed that he would have from a Dallas judge, a federal judge perhaps.
We now learn that Vice President Johnson is expected to be sworn in as president aboard an airliner before flying back to the nation's capital.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I solemnly swear...
PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: I solemnly swear...
CRONKITE: Johnson took the oath in the privacy of the state room at 3:38 Eastern time. 20-6,000 now became Air Force One - Angel in the codebook of Secret Service aliases. It would be 90 minutes before we would receive word of his improvised inauguration.
We just got the word that Lyndon B. Johnson has been sworn in as the president of the United States. He was sworn in at 1:38 Central standard time. That was 2:38 and that's almost an hour and a half ago now, if this time is correct here. The oath was administered to him by U.S. District Judge Sarah T. Hughes.
Judge Hughes, three decades before her role in the assassination drama, had been the first woman appointed to the Texas court system. Her nomination by Governor Allred caused a mighty fight in the Texas Senate, a debate that I, as a young cub reporter, had helped cover.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #18: Roger, roger, Air Force One. Are you airborne at present?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #19: (Unintelligible) at 2047 point...
CRONKITE: Ten minutes later, the plane was in the air. A strong tailwind pushed the air speed close to mach one as it flew east into the night. Aircraft 972 out of Honolulu followed six hours behind. Meanwhile, government was being improvised in the air. Arrangements had to be coordinated with Crown, code name for the executive mansion, for the arrival at Andrews. A call went out go Army Surgeon General Leonard Heaton.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #20: Air Force One, this is Crown. General Heaton is at Walter Reid hospital. You'll have to standby just a moment or else let me call you back when I get him on the line. It'll take about a minute to reach him.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #21: Crown, roger. Try to get General Heaton and in the meantime, try to get me deputy sergeant general. We'll talk to either one. It's very important.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #22: Roger. I'll put in a motion to the other. We'll get him as soon as possible.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #23: This is Dr. Brinkley(ph). I want to get in touch with General Heaton or General Heaton's deputy.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #20: Dr. Brinkley, this is Crown. We're working as fast as possible trying to get the call through for you. He's at Walter Reid. We're unable to locate. We're still searching. Over.
CRONKITE: The most urgent matter was removing the casket from the plane and transporting it to Bethesda Naval Hospital. Air Force One reached Jerry Ben(ph), code name Duplex.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #24: Duplex is on the line. Go ahead.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #25: Duplex, this is Duplex. Arrangements have been made for a helicopter for the Bethesda Naval Medical Center. Over.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #24: Duplex is on. This is Dr. Brinkley. What arrangements have been made in regards to terms of the reception of the president?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #25: Everyone aboard Air Force One, with the exception of the body, will be choppered into the south grounds. The body will be choppered to the Naval Medical Center at Bethesda. Over.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #24: His body is in a casket, you know, and it will have to be taken by ambulance and not by chopper.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #25: All right. I'll take (unintelligible) that.
CRONKITE: As Air Force One approached Washington, other small but necessary decisions were made. Major General Chester Clifton, code name Watchman, spoke to General Heaton.
MAJOR GENERAL CHESTER CLIFTON: This is General Clifton. We do not want a helicopter for Bethesda Medical Center. We do want a ambulance and a ground return from Andrews to Walter Reid. And we want the regular postmortem that has to be done by law under guard performed at Walter Reid. Is that clear? Over.
GENERAL LEONARD HEATON: That is clear, General Clifton.
CRONKITE: Watchman then contacted Duplex with further specifications.
CLIFTON: Duplex, Duplex, this is Watchman, over.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #26: Go ahead, Watchman, this is Duplex. Over.
CLIFTON: (Unintelligible) in the front of the aircraft on the right-hand side, just behind the pilot's cabin in the galley. We are going to take the first lady off by that route. Over. Do you understand?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #26: I receive. Affirmative.
CRONKITE: Americans watched Air Force One touch down at Andrews at 5:58 in the afternoon.
The ramp is now moving up close to the back door of the presidential plane and now we can see what we believe to be a coffin containing the body of President Kennedy being moved from Air Force One onto a special enclosed ramp, a mobile ramp, which was drawn up to the back door. Yes, we can make out the casket now.
For the first time, things seemed to be moving according to plan. The new president was in Washington, the rest of the Cabinet would be in the capital by midnight. The government was in place. But for the next three days, Americans would share a mass of sounds and images that would remain with them for the rest of their lives.
Today, they still seem as real as they did on that weekend four decades ago. For NPR News, this is Walter Cronkite.
BLOCK: Our story was produced by John McDonough(ph) for the 40th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's death. Walter Cronkite died in 2009. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.