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The JFK assassination: A look back at a day when the world changed
By Jason Lesley
Bob Lamb of Litchfield was a young reporter for the afternoon Augusta Herald in the fall of 1963.
With the Friday, Nov. 22, paper put to bed, Lamb and a fellow reporter were at lunch at a little place called Luigi’s on Broad Street near the Herald when he first heard news that he would never forget: President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.
“We were sitting there eating,” Lamb said, “when suddenly just everybody knew it. We didn’t finish lunch. We knew we had to get back to the newspaper.”
Lamb remembers hurrying down the street and following the news on radio. “Every door was open,” he said, “and everybody had a radio playing, so we could go all the way back and never miss anything. I immediately started to do a react story.
“The thing I remember most is just how stunned everybody was. They weren’t just shocked. They were stunned. We stopped the press and put out a special edition.”
Friday will mark the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, a defining moment of the 20th century, and a memory for every American of a certain age. For people born after Pearl Harbor, JFK’s murder was the first confrontation with a shocking crime played out on new black-and-white television sets in almost every living room. Iconic images remain in the public’s mind through still photos taken from film shot by clothing manufacturer Abraham Zapruder showing the president clutching his throat, first lady Jackie Kennedy climbing on to the presidential limousine’s trunk to retrieve a piece of her husband’s skull, and Secret Service driver William Greer speeding away toward Dallas Parkland Hospital during six seconds that began a national loss of innocence.
Tom Keegan, a field representative for U.S. Rep. Tom Rice of South Carolina’s Seventh Congressional District, was a Greenwich, Conn., police officer on patrol when Kennedy was killed. “A person flagged us down to tell us that the president had been shot,” Keegan said. “A pall of gloom settled over the police department.”
In the emergency room at Dallas Parkland Hospital, Kennedy’s face was deep blue around his eyes and a bullet hole was visible near his Adam’s apple. He had no pulse as doctors performed a tracheotomy through the neck wound. Jackie Kennedy stood nearby, her pink Chanel suit spattered with her husband’s blood and brains. When Dr. William Kemp Clark saw the gaping wound in the back of the president’s skull he knew it was fatal but waited to pronounce death until a priest, the Rev. Oscar Huber, could perform last rites as a courtesy to Jackie. According to Catholic doctrine, the last rites had to be delivered before the soul left the body. If her husband was already officially dead before Father Huber had a chance to administer the sacrament, it would not have been valid. “Father do you think the sacrament had effect,” she asked Huber in the emergency room, according to a nurse. He tried to allay her fears. “I am convinced that his soul had not left his body,” he said. “This was a valid last sacrament.”
Word of the president’s death spread instantly across the world. Within a few minutes, the Secret Service had notified its office in Washington. Shortly after 1 p.m., Robert Kennedy would get a phone call at his home in Virginia informing him that the wounds his brother suffered had proven fatal.
At his home in Oklahoma, FBI agent Howard Burgin, who lives in retirement off the South Causeway in the Pawleys Island area, saw the news of the assassination on television when he came home for lunch.
“It was the first day of hunting season in Oklahoma,” Burgin said, “and everybody was hunting that day. I started getting telephone calls to go and find these people, about 10 of them, and find out whether they were involved in the shooting of Kennedy. When I showed some of those people my FBI credential they got all upset. ‘What did I do?’ they wanted to know. In the meantime, they found Lee Harvey Oswald. It was kind of an interesting day.”
Oswald, a former U.S. Marine, bought a .38 revolver and a rifle with a telescopic sight by mail order in April of 1963. After failed attempts to return to the Soviet Union, where he had married a Russian woman in 1962, and to get a visa to travel to Cuba, he came back to Dallas and took a job at the Texas School Book Depository. Less than an hour after Kennedy was shot, Oswald killed a policeman, J.D. Tippit, who questioned him on the street near his rooming house. Thirty minutes later, Oswald was arrested in a movie theater by police responding to reports of a suspect.
Frank Seitz, a resident of Litchfield by the Sea, was tinkering with a Ford automobile at lunch on Nov. 22, 1963, and didn’t hear the news. When he returned to work at a florist shop, his friends said, “Did you hear?” They couldn’t wait to fill in the details.
Sel Hemingway, who is Georgetown County administrator, remembers cutting school the day of the assassination to go on a dove hunt with his father, Edsel, and Dr. Robert Harper. “I was two months away from my 10th birthday,” Hemingway said. “We were not having a whole lot of luck and decided to move to another field. I was riding in the bed of the truck, and he pulled over on the shoulder of the road. ‘What’s wrong?’ I asked, and he said, ‘the president’s been shot’ and a few minutes later he was dead.”
Lane Cribb, Georgetown County sheriff, was a 17-year-old student at Pleasant Hill High School. “I remember exactly the room I was in at old Pleasant Hill High,” he said. “They announced it on the loud speaker, and I had an eerie, funny feeling. I remember a preacher in the highway kneeling down to pray.”
Cribb remembers the western sky that evening being unusually red. It was so brilliant that some people concluded the Russians had started a war by bombing America, he said.
Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who was three cars behind Kennedy in the motorcade, was sworn in as the 36th president of the United States at 2:39 p.m. He took the presidential oath of office aboard Air Force One as it sat on the runway at Dallas Love Field airport. The swearing in was witnessed by some 30 people, including Mrs. Kennedy, who was still wearing clothes stained with her husband’s blood. Seven minutes later, the presidential jet took off for Washington.
Eulalie Fenhagen, a resident of the Lakes at Litchfield, said her three children were students at the National Cathedral School and came home upset after Secret Service agents came and took the new president’s daughter, Lucy Baines Johnson, out of class for her safety.
“Lela, our oldest child, was 13 or 14,” Finhagen said, “and she came home in tears. ‘Oh Mama,’ she said, ‘the Secret Service came while we were in assembly and took Lucy Baines home.”
Finhagen and her husband, Jim, had been residents of Washington, D.C., for only about five months. He was working at the National Cathedral of the Episcopal Church. “I was in a hardware store in Washington when I heard the news,” Finhagen said, “and it just stunned me. We were all in tears. It was just horrible.”
President Johnson issued his first proclamation, declaring Nov. 25 to be a day of national mourning for the slain president. On that Monday, hundreds of thousands of people lined the streets of Washington to watch a horse-drawn caisson bear Kennedy’s body from the Capitol Rotunda to St. Matthew’s Catholic Cathedral for a requiem Mass. The solemn procession then continued on to Arlington National Cemetery, where Kennedy was buried with full military honors.
Mak Kelliher, a retired FBI agent who lives in Heritage Plantation, was in the crowd that day. Kelliher’s father had brought his two sons from their home in northern Virginia to see the historic funeral procession.
“As a 9-year-old, I remember the riderless horse, Black Jack,” Kelliher said. “We heard the ‘Clap, Clap, Clap’ of the horse and the caisson. The horse didn’t want to be there. That was an interesting experience and a lasting memory.”
On Sunday, Nov. 24, Oswald was brought to the basement of the Dallas police headquarters on his way to a more secure county jail. A crowd of police and press with live television cameras rolling gathered to witness his departure. As Oswald came into the room, Jack Ruby emerged from the crowd and fatally wounded him with a single shot from a concealed .38 revolver.
Lamb remembers sitting with his family den on that Sunday, and watching Ruby shoot Oswald on live television. “I couldn’t believe my eyes,” he said. “You really felt that maybe the country was about to come apart. That suggested that he was shooting him to shut him up.”
Hemingway remembers being fascinated with the events as they unfolded on television. “It was personal,” he said. “You felt like something had been taken from you.”