At this moment in time, it should be noted that the command and control network appeared to experience to a sudden slowdown. The response appeared disjointed and uneven. Procedures such as communication checks were not followed, nor was effort made to alert overseas commands, nor was contact made with Air Force One at Love Field in Dallas. Within the Pentagon itself, an air of tension reigned. Indeed, contingency plans had considered a Presidential assassination as the prelude to a decapitation strike. Some even thought of this as the start of a possible coup. However, the Pentagon appeared to follow the Joint Chief’s example by keeping a low-keyed response.
At Love Field in Dallas, the Presidential Party returned to Air Force One. The late President’s body was placed aboard, and after being sworn in aboard the aircraft, President Johnson gave the order to depart for Washington, with AF1 leaving the ground at 1447. 13.
Above the Pacific, Secretary of State Dean Rusk informed the rest of the cabinet of the sad news, he then contacted Commander in Chief Pacific (CINCPAC), Admiral Harry D. Felt. Their plane immediately turned around and headed back to Hickam, AFB, Hawaii. 14.
The strongest reaction occurred in the Pacific and the Far East. On hearing the news of the assassination, CINCPAC commander Admiral Felt immediately sent a flash message to all units under his command.
“This is the time to be especially on the alert.
Do not desire any actions which would indicate heightened tensions such as recall of personnel on leave. But take actions that would definitely be consistent with DEFCON 3.”
Throughout the Pacific warships immediately went to general quarters.
Special weapons were loaded and courses changed, with task forces deploying towards positions off the Soviet Pacific Coast. In Yokosuka Japan, crews of warships were suddenly awakened, called to general quarters, special sea details set, and all haste made to leave the harbor. At nearby Yokota Air Base, alerts were sounded, the base locked down, and crews ordered to report to the flight line and stand by their aircraft. American forces in Korea were in what could be described as a hair trigger state of readiness.
US NATO forces in Europe also quickly responded. In Germany, soldiers who were expecting a relaxing weekend received a rude awakening when American ground units were immediately mobilized and sent to positions on the East German border. At Zaragoza Air Base Spain, as well as other US air bases, personnel were recalled, security tightened, and aircraft placed on runway alert. In the words of one soldier, “Everyone thought the Commies were coming.”
However, the response of America’s nuclear strike force was more subdued. Unlike the Cuban crisis the year before, SAC commander General Thomas S. Power didn’t elevate the alert level above DEFCON 4. And in spite of the tense atmosphere, bombers on their alert pads stood ready and missiles remained on standby in their launch silos.
Indeed, the record shows that almost all domestic US commands didn’t much alter their daily routine that afternoon.
In the US 2nd Fleet for example, at bases such as the Brooklyn Navy Yard and at Norfolk Virginia, ensigns were lowered to half staff and gun salutes fired, the atmosphere being more of mourning than fear.
The one exception was at Fort Bliss, Texas. There, the alert battalion from the Second Armored Division received orders to mount out and deploy to Dallas in anticipation of potential domestic disorder. Battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel George S. Patton junior (Son of the famous WW II General.), immediately oversaw the involved and complicated process of mounting armored vehicles on railroad flat cars. However, at approximately 2200 hours Lt. Col. Patton received the order to secure and stand down. However, this again was the exception. The mood at all other domestic military installations appeared to mirror the shock and disbelief that the rest of America was experiencing.
At this point in time Air Force Chief of Staff General Curtis Lemay was airborne and en route back to Washington. On multiple occasions Lemay’s military aide Colonel Dorman attempted to get in contact with the General. However, at times this proved nearly impossible due to the massive amount of traffic from various individuals and agencies asking for updates on the situation. At certain times, the entire command net appeared to have broken down due to the overload of message traffic. As Lemay’s Jetstar approached DC airspace, Colonel Dorman announced on the net that the General’s flight was being diverted to land at National Airport rather than at Andrews. The best explanation for this sudden change would be that with the uncertain atmosphere around Washington, as well as the elevated military posture, General Lemay would likely have needed to return to the Pentagon as expeditiously as possible. The close proximity of National Airport to the Pentagon does indeed support the logic of this decision.