A Day The World Mourned, And Nearly Went to War: The Military Response to the Assassination of John F. Kennedy

John F. Davies

A Day The World Mourned, And Nearly Went to War: The Military Response to the Assassination of John F. Kennedy

A chill November wind blew from the Yellow Sea and across the runway at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea. Nearby parked on an alert pad were a detachment of US Air Force B-57 Canberra bombers, each with a live nuclear weapon in their bomb bay and ready to fly at a moment’s notice. On deployment from their home base at Yokota Japan, crews from the 8th Bomb Squadron, 3rd Medium Bomb Wing were sleeping soundly in their alert facility when at 0400 klaxon horns roused them from their slumber. As the crews rushed to their waiting aircraft, they likely thought this was just one more drill, where they would strap themselves in, start engines, stand down, secure, and return to bed for some much needed shut eye. But this morning was different. As the pilots strapped themselves into their cockpits, they awaited the arrival of their navigators with the latest weather and target reports. When the navigators arrived, to their shock the pilots were told not to start engines but instead stand by for further orders. Then to the amazement of all, a gate next to the runway rolled back. A blue Air Force pickup then drove in and parked itself just inside. The pilots were told that if the truck pulled out, they were to immediately fly their war mission. An air of foreboding then settled on both the air and ground crews there on the ramp. With targets in North Korea, China, and the Soviet Far East, the air crews instinctively knew they would be flying one way missions. But they had no idea as to why they were facing potential oblivion. As dawn broke, many sitting in their cockpits and standing around the ramp felt that this would be the last sunrise they would ever see. It was not until 1000 that the stand down order was finally issued. Exhausted and sore, the crews secured and returned to the alert shack. It was then and there that they were told the reason for their ordeal. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, President of the United States and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, had been shot and killed in Dallas, Texas. The afternoon of 22 November,1963 found America’s National Security leadership literally scattered about. In the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was in his office with National Security advisor McGeorge Bundy working on a draft of the new defense budget. At the same time, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were in the Pentagon Gold Room, meeting with the staff of the West German Bundeswehr. Air Force Chief of Staff General Curtis Lemay was absent from the meeting, himself away on a hunting trip in northern Michigan. Secretary of State Dean Rusk and the rest of the cabinet had departed Hawaii and were in flight over the Pacific en route to a conference in Japan. With the Presidential party in Dallas were military aides Army Brigadier General Chester Clifton and Air Force Brigadier General Godfrey McHugh. In the White House Situation Room, and at the National Military Command Center, staff were performing their normal watch duties. At 1330 Central time, shots rang out at the Presidential motorcade as it passed through Dallas’s Daley Plaza. Both the President and Texas Governor John Connolly, were hit, and the motorcade rushed to nearby Parkland hospital. Shortly afterward, at 1334, the White House situation room received a flash bulletin from United Press International that the President had been shot. Word was immediately sent out to the Pentagon and White House staff. Upon hearing the shocking news, Secretary of Defense McNamara immediately adjourned his meeting, with Bundy departing for the White House. McNamara then conferred with the Joint Chiefs, and a flash message was quickly sent out to all US military commands.
A Day The World Mourned, And Nearly Went to War:   The Military Response to the Assassination of John F. Kennedy
Open Gate at Kunsan, 23 November, 1963 Artwork by Author

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A Day The World Mourned, And Nearly Went to War:   The Military Response to the Assassination of John F. Kennedy
Admiral Harry D. Felt, USN Commander in Chief Pacific, 1963

A Day The World Mourned, And Nearly Went to War The Military Response to the Assassination of John F. Kennedy

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.
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A Day The World Mourned, And Nearly Went to War The Military Response to the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Part III

On the other side of the Iron Curtain, the reaction of the Communist world mirrored the shock that spread across the West. In the Soviet Union, the news of Kennedy’s death hit the Communist leadership in Moscow very hard. The tense atmosphere in the Kremlin in many ways mirrored that of the Pentagon. At the time many in the leadership had a great fear that “extremist elements in the US Military would use this as a justification to start an attack against the USSR”. Yet in spite of this, with one exception, the Warsaw Pact and other Communist nations did not elevate their military forces to a higher alert level. That one exception was Cuba. Upon receiving word of President Kennedy’s death, Cuban Premier Fidel Castro immediately ordered a complete mobilization of the Cuban Armed Forces. His message stated: “A state of alert is ordered for all military personnel. Be prepared to repel aggression”. Ground, air and naval units were deployed around the island, with special emphasis being put on the region known as the “Eastern Naval District”, which included the US Naval Station at Guantanamo. Further messages called for “continued vigilance”, and to “watch for suspicious aircraft”. For the rest of the day and into the evening, all of Cuba appeared to be in a state of tension that mirrored the Missile Crisis of a year before. At 1805 Eastern time Air Force One finally touched down at Andrews AFB. With the Presidential Staff and the Media in attendance, the late President’s body was taken off and transferred to a Navy ambulance. The Presidential party then headed on their way to Bethesda Naval Hospital. A visibly bereaved President Johnson made a brief speech, then departed for the White House aboard the Presidential helicopter, Army One. At the announcement of Kennedy’s death, the Military District of Washington immediately put itself at the disposal of the White House. By order of the District’s commander, Major General Phillip C. Wehle, a funeral operations center was set up in the District’s headquarters at Fort McNair. At 1930, a detailed briefing began for active and reserve military, Secret Service, DC Metro and US Park Police. District personnel then began preparations for conducting the funeral and related activities. For example, a battery of saluting howitzers was emplaced in a park next to Union Station, with firing of salutes coordinated by radio operators. The cabinet’s plane touched down at Andrews at 0031 Eastern time after a non stop flight from Hawaii. The morning of 23 November, 1963 broke upon a tense and grieving world. As the day wore on, the crisis atmosphere began to subside. By mid day both Cuba and US overseas commands had relaxed their alert level. In spite of this, both sides nonetheless kept up a degree of vigilance. On 24 November, at 1230 Eastern time, the Pentagon ordered the alert level lowered back to DEFCON 5. 38. By the next day, Cuba’s military alert was stood down as well. The sudden death of America’s 35th President plunged America’s National Security apparatus into an immediate crisis. Information on the situation in Dallas was incomplete and sketchy, with many in the Pentagon suspecting the worst of possibilities. Indeed, the potential for an accidental war starting was apparently on the mind of many that day. What is most noticeable about this time is the near breakdown of command and control procedures, especially regarding communications. The most glaring example being that much of the situation updates came from commercial sources and not official ones. There was indeed such a rush for information from so many agencies in Washington that the entire command and control network at times ground to a halt. That there was not a total breakdown is a tribute to the perseverance of those at the NMCC, The White House Situation Room, and the Pentagon. General Maxwell Taylor’s effort to keep the atmosphere at the Joint Chiefs calm and stable was apparently mirrored by most US domestic military commands. The strong reaction seems to have only occurred with overseas commands. The unilateral elevation of the alert level to DEFCON 3 was completely consistent with their command responsibility, and were meant as more of a precaution than a confrontation. And even while on alert, CINCPAC and US NATO forces made an effort not to draw much attention to their activities. Yet there were moments such as at Kunsan Airbase in Korea, as well as with Cuba, when it seemed like Armageddon was indeed near. That said, in the end a great effort was made by those on both sides to keep tensions down and events from spinning out of control. Thus ended a Cold War crisis that almost was. On 25 November, 1963, the Military District of Washington commenced in carrying out one of the largest and most dignified memorials ever given for a President of the United States. The funeral parties worked with near clockwork precision, and carried out their duties with great respect and dignity. At the same time, at military installations around the world, memorial services were held and gunfire salutes rendered. And above all else, it was John Fitzgerald Kennedy who had the distinction of being the first American President to be buried with full military honors. A fitting tribute to a fallen Commander in Chief.
A Day The World Mourned, And Nearly Went to War:   The Military Response to the Assassination of John F. Kennedy
Generals Curtis Lemay and Maxwell Taylor Lead the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Presidential Military Aides at the Funeral of President John F. Kennedy, 2 November, 1963
A Day The World Mourned, And Nearly Went to War:   The Military Response to the Assassination of John F. Kennedy

John F. Davies

I am a fourth generation Californian, born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. I'm also a 1978 graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, with a Bachelor's Degree in History. Immediately afterward, I served as an Officer in the United States Marine Corps during the Cold War, doing tours in both active service and active reserve duty. My specialties were in Infantry, and later Armor. A significant part of my career involved Intelligence-related duties and work with Special Weapons. After eight years, I decided to conclude my military service and embark on a civilian career, eventually ending up in the healthcare field as a nurses' assistant at the San Francisco Veteran's Hospital. Following my retirement, I decided to begin doing historic research into the Cold War era. I especially wanted to investigate the military events of that period which are not well known to the public at large. I do believe that these historic moments have had an important impact on our present time and therefore need to be told. As I have also studied classical drawing and painting, I intend to add illustration to these moments in Cold War history as many of them happened in secret and had no pictorial record. I currently reside in Berkeley, California with my partner of 24 years who is herself the daughter of a Lieutenant Colonel in the Swiss Army.
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