“We Heard the Shots…”


The heat was suffocating. Johnson asked for and was given a glass of ice water, more ice than water. Army Capt. Cecil Stoughton, the White House photographer, standing on a chair, his back against a bulkhead, struggled to fit everyone into the official photograph, while Mac Kilduff crouched, holding a microphone. Kennedy’s personal Bible had been found on the plane. Johnson placed his left hand on the book and raised his right. Judge Hughes administered the 36-word oath, adding, “So help me God.” I clocked the ceremony at 28 seconds. The President turned, kissed Mrs. Johnson, then kissed Mrs. Kennedy on the cheek. “The whole nation mourns your husband,” Mrs. Johnson told Jackie. Johnson clasped the hands of Kennedy’s grieving secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, and fended off any congratulations. Outside, one engine had been idling. Air Force One’s pilot, Col. James Swindal, cut in all four. “Now let’s get airborne,” President Johnson ordered.

Roberts and I were told there were only two seats left on the plane for press. Smitty would stay because he was a wire-service man; Roberts and I would have to flip a coin for the remaining seat. I said I’d get off. I wanted to broadcast the swearing-in story as soon as I could after giving the pool report. Judge Hughes was in tears as we went down the stairway. She spoke of Kennedy’s service to the country, and she told me he was the President who had appointed her to the federal bench. Halfway down I heard Smitty shouting at me from the hatch. “The President was sworn in at 2:39 PM CST,” he yelled. But I had noted the time as 2:38 PM on my chronograph.

Colonel Swindal taxied to a far end of the field and turned sharply onto the runway. Quivering under full throttle, its four fanjets screaming, Air Force One lumbered past us, then hurtled upward on its mournful journey. “Wheels up” came at 2:47 PM CST, 2 hours and 17 minutes after the shots had been fired. Mrs. Kennedy returned to the rear compartment and sat with the casket throughout the flight, wearing her blood-stained suit. According to Roberts, when an aide suggested that she change into fresh clothing, Mrs. Kennedy replied, “No. Let them see what they’ve done.”

As Air Force One headed home, the press corps arrived at Love Field. I was lifted onto the trunk of a shiny white car to deliver the first word of the swearing in. From my notes I gave the time of the ceremony as 2:38 PM CST, and all the news services used that as the official time. Later that night, when I arrived back at the White House press room, Smitty was waiting for me in a fury. “You son of a bitch,” he screamed, “I said the time was 2:39!” It took weeks for my lese majesty to be forgiven.

With compassion and resolve, Johnson brought the country together over the next weeks and months. The orderly transfer of power on that chaotic November 22, aboard Air Force One, was – and remains – a testimonial to the strength of the Constitution and of our country.

It was 4:22 AM, Saturday, November 23, when President Kennedy’s body arrived at the White House in a Navy ambulance following the autopsy at the Bethesda Naval Hospital. Scores of mourners stood silent outside the White House gates. Black mourning crepe had been hung over the North Portico. Bowl-like lanterns lined the driveway, flickering in the night chill. A marine honor guard marching in funeral cadence led the ambulance carrying the casket and Mrs. Kennedy toward the portico, where members of the other armed forces were represented. In the East Room, a black catafalque, similar to the one used for Abraham Lincoln, awaited Kennedy’s casket.

I was broadcasting the arrival with my Westinghouse colleague Ann Corrick. I had covered Kennedy from his 1960 election through the debacle of his Bay of Pigs decision, his triumph in the Cuban Missile Crisis, to Dallas. Now he was gone. I chose, unwisely, to close the broadcast with a verse from Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” a poem often quoted by President Kennedy at the end of his speeches during his presidential campaign:

"The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep."

In tears, I was unable to finish it.

-Sid Davis, a lecturer and writer, was White House correspondent for the Westinghouse Broadcasting Company in 1963 and served later as vice president and Washington bureau chief for NBC News. He is a former guest scholar at the Brookings Institution.