President Kennedy speaks at Redstone Arsenal
President John F. Kennedy addresses a crowd gathered at Redstone Army Airfield May 18, 1963. This was the second of the president's two visits to Redstone Arsenal.

Friday, Nov. 22 marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Kennedy visited Redstone Arsenal twice during his presidency, more than any other president in Redstone Arsenal's history.

Kennedy's first visit came on Sept. 11, 1962. The Army Materiel Command, and its major subordinate command at Redstone Arsenal, the then Missile Command, had only been in business for six weeks (since Aug. 1, 1962). Two Boeing 707 jets -- Air Force One and Air Force Two -- landed at Redstone Airfield at 9:30 a.m. Greeting the president and his party were MICOM commander Maj. Gen. Francis J. McMorrow and AMC's commander then Lt. Gen. Frank S. Besson Jr.

The president was accompanied by Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of the Army Cyrus Vance, Secretary of the Air Force Eugene M. Zuckert and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Curtis E. LeMay. Also accompanying the presidential party were foreign dignitaries, many members of the Alabama congressional delegation and representatives from NASA's leadership.

Soldiers from Fort Benning, Ga., were brought up to Redstone Arsenal to conduct the 21-gun salute to the commander in chief. Redstone Arsenal's very own 55th U.S. Army Band played "Hail to the Chief." Soldiers from Redstone Arsenal's 291st Military Police Detachment represented the face of the Army at Redstone Arsenal to the president. More than 500 students from 13 different nations attending missile operation and repair classes at Redstone Arsenal were also in attendance. Some 150 members of the press were on hand to report and record the visit.

The trip's primary purpose was to receive an "eyes on" update on the progress of the space program. But before Kennedy received that update, his motorcade drove past a display of 13 AMC program-managed missile systems along with representatives of each system's crew. Among the systems Kennedy viewed that day were the Pershing, Nike Hercules, Sergeant, Honest John, and Hawk, to name a few.

The president also received a classified update at MICOM's Research and Development Directorate (a predecessor to today's Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center, an element of AMC's Research Development and Engineering Command headquartered at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.). While there, the president received a briefing on the progress of future weapon systems, along with a demonstration of an Army developed laser.

The visit then shifted to visiting NASA facilities at the Marshall Space Flight Center. The Saturn rocket, which was started as an Army project in the late 1950s before being transferred to NASA on July 1, 1960, was the focus of the NASA update. The president witnessed a 30-second test firing of the Saturn.

The entire visit lasted just over two hours. The presidential jets departed Redstone Airfield before noon heading to Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Just eight months later, President Kennedy would return to Redstone Arsenal for the last time. He arrived at Redstone Airfield at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 18, 1963 via his Army Sikorsky VH-3D presidential helicopter. He had left Muscle Shoals earlier that afternoon after giving a speech marking the 30th anniversary of the Tennessee Valley Authority or TVA.

A total of four helicopters carried the president and his guests. Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who also attended the TVA anniversary, flew with the president from Muscle Shoals. Those also accompanying the president included Alabama's two U.S. senators, John J. Sparkman and Lister Hill, Tennessee's two U.S. senators, Albert Gore and Estes Kefauver, along with other members of both states' congressional delegation.

Greeting the president once again was McMorrow, representing the Army at Redstone Arsenal, and MSFC director Dr. Wernher von Braun. Huntsville Mayor R.B. Searcy and Madison County Commissioner James Record also welcomed the president.

Kennedy's visit on May 18, 1963, differed in many ways from his Sept. 11, 1962, visit. This visit was first and foremost part of the local Armed Forces Day celebration. The president requested -- and was granted -- that no formal ceremony (normally bestowed for a commander in chief) be conducted for his second visit because of time and schedule constraints. There were no visits to Army or NASA facilities. Though photographs and film footage of the visit show the president speaking to McMorrow and von Braun, this was a visit to the workforce of Redstone Arsenal and members of the community. More than 10,000 people reportedly came to the Redstone Airfield to hear the president speak.

The speaker's platform, located near the present air traffic control tower, had been constructed specifically for the visit. Security ropes were initially placed so that the crowd could not get any closer than 50 feet from the commander in chief. But as the limousine that carried Kennedy from the presidential helicopter neared the platform, the ropes were dropped by members of the Secret Service. The audience now stood 10 feet from the prresident.

Kennedy's remarks lasted five minutes -- almost to the second. In the speech, Kennedy noted the Army's contributions to defense and noted NASA's responsibility to the space program.

In his closing remarks, Kennedy said:
"So, ladies and gentlemen, we depend upon you, either you in the armed forces of the United States who help defend freedom, even here, of countries thousands of miles away, you who are building these missiles which not only raised an American into space, but raised the prestige and reputation of this country. I am proud to be here.

"I leave this valley, this state, this region, in which I arrived only a few hours ago, realizing once again what a strong, great country we are, what a strong great people we are, and we are all determined to keep it so."

After the president spoke, he left the platform and walked into the crowd, shaking hands and speaking to many who had waited up to four hours for the president. The May 22, 1963, edition of the Redstone Rocket noted "While the president hobnobbed with John Q. Public, a babe in arms touched him and squealed; a graying grandmother shook his hand and gulped; men were quietly awed in the presence of the man who holds the highest office in the land; teenagers scrambled in hopes of an autograph; and hundreds were close enough to stretch out a hand hoping for a touch, or just a greeting."

After several minutes, the president's security detail ushered him toward his waiting Air Force One Boeing 707. As he headed up the steps to his plane, the president waved to the crowd for what would be the last time at Redstone Arsenal.

Three months later on Aug. 24, 1963, McMorrow would die from an apparent heart attack at the post hospital (building 112). Six months later on Nov. 22, 1963, President Kennedy would die from an assassin's bullet in Dallas, Texas.

At 10 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 23, 1963, Brig. Gen. John G. Zierdt, the acting commander of MICOM and Redstone Arsenal, presided over a ceremony to honor the slain president. The location was the Redstone Arsenal Parade Field (located where the present Redstone Activity Field is now located). All of the installation's senior military leaders stood with
Zierdt, along with one civilian, von Braun.

Some 4,000 Soldiers massed for the ceremony designated by an Army regulation to render honors upon the death of a president. The Soldiers were joined by some 1,000 civilians and family members.

Only two officers spoke. Capt. Farley Thompson of Florence read the official order written by Secretary of Defense McNamara: "I have the sad duty of announcing to the armed forces of the United States the death of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the president of the United States, who was the victim of an assassin's bullet Friday, Nov. 22. The world has lost a gallant spirit whose championship of freedom and opportunity will be recognized by history. All members of the armed forces whose welfare was his concern, can pay no better tribute to his memory than to carry on in the tradition which he shared and of which he was so proud. Colors shall be displayed at half-mast for 30 days beginning Nov. 22 West Longitude date."

Following a brief prayer by Redstone Arsenal post chaplain Lt. Col. Wilmer R. Bottoms and a moment of silence, Redstone Arsenal's own 55th Army Band played as the troops marched off the parade field.

Since that time, not much has been mentioned in the historical record at Redstone Arsenal about Kennedy's visits. Not only does Kennedy remain the only president to address the Army workforce at Redstone Arsenal, but his tenure as president had a profound effect on AMC, its major subordinate commands, and most defense entities on Redstone Arsenal.

First, it was the president's directive that launched the study to consolidate the Army's technical services from which AMC was formed in August 1962. In October 1962 following the Cuban Missile Crisis, AMC was called on to install the first hotline between the White House and the Kremlin.

Missile defense was accelerated under Kennedy through the creation of the Nike Zeus Project Office in August 1962. Today, those efforts have expanded exponentially into today's Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command and the Missile Defense Agency. Foreign missile intelligence efforts, once part of MICOM, were accelerated and were the foundation of today's Defense Intelligence Agency's Missile and Space Intelligence Center. Expanded medium range missile capabilities through the Pershing project would years later enable President Ronald Reagan to eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons through the INF treaty.

Page last updated Wed November 13th, 2013 at 00:00