Remembering Kennedy: Troops reflect on assassination 44 years later
November 27, 2007
CAMP TAJI, Iraq - Although most Americans' thoughts turned to giving thanks and eating turkey this Nov. 22, the date also marked the 44th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas-- an event that a few members attached to the 1st "Ironhorse" Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division still remember well.
Most Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines serving today, are too young to remember or weren't even born yet that fateful day that the "young president's untimely death marked a psychological blow to the vitality of the nation," according to Navy Capt. John Dillender, an economics and industrial advisor with the Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team Baghdad 5, attached to the 1st BCT, 1st Cav. Div., who recalls exactly where he was and clearly relates what transpired.
It was a typical fall day in St. Louis said Dillender, who was a fourth grader at the time, staring out the large double hung windows of his elementary school when the school's public address system announced the president had been shot in Dallas.
"There was a collective gasp, and a lot of puzzled looks on the faces of a bunch of fourth graders," said Dillender, who calls Henning, Tennessee home. "The rest of the day centered on finding a television."
The few televisions available were rolled from classroom to classroom by the teachers.
"The teachers were in a buzz, and believe it or not, I remember discussions of who had done it and who was behind it," Dillender said. "We were taking a civics class and were just learning about government so our fourth grade gasps were from the way a child sees something. It was a kid's reaction of looking to an adult as if to say 'how should I react.'"
For Dr. Louis Marano, an anthropologist with the 1st BCT's human terrain team, now 64, the event was seen through the eyes of a young adult.
As a 20-year old college student at the Canisius College, a Jesuits school, in Buffalo, N.Y., Marano had taken his morning classes and was relaxing on his bed prior to going to work when his mother ran upstairs to his room crying.
"She said the President's been shot," said Marano, who borrowed his mother's car later in the day to go to the drugstore where he was employed. But sometime after hearing the news, he was so upset he forgot to bring the car back home.
"I had forgotten that I had driven to work and got a ride home. The next day, no one could find the car," said Marano describing the confusion surrounding the event. "I also remember when I was at work that my mother's friend came into the drugstore and I told her what had happened and she began crying."
Lt. Col. Harvey Fitzgerald, a senior agri-business advisor for EPRT Baghdad 5, who hails from Hermosa, S.D., the memories consist of being a youngster who was upset that all the scheduled television programs he wanted to watch had been interrupted.
"I remember being six or seven years old and my mother watching the events on the news as they unfolded and saying 'kids be quiet, I want to hear this,'" said Fitzgerald, who also related vividly recalling images glowing on a wooden, black and white television as he sat on the hard wood floor of his house. "Then we began watching, but as children we were too young to understand the political significance of what was happening."
"My next memory was of the funeral and seeing the Kennedy children-John and Caroline-and seeing John who was not much younger than I was, salute and thinking that his coat was too short," added Fitzgerald. "One thing that caught my interest was that the president's middle name was the same as my last name and that Jacqueline had a hairstyle very much like my mother's and they resembled each other, but of course, these are a child's recollections."
In the early 1960's there were only three television networks which were on the VHF television dial with a few local stations offered on UHF and there were no cable news networks. According to Dillender, the television coverage of the event was quite unusual for the times.
"It was all you had on TV no matter where you went," said Dillender. "And I remember that because of all the broadcast media coverage, there was a definite sense of mourning and this wasn't the usual happening. That was our first exposure to 24 hour news."
"In my extended family (among family friends and neighbors), deaths would occur, but it didn't seem to last nearly as long," added Dillender. "We shared that same sense of grief as the adults, even as children amongst the other kids. As children, we knew something had definitely changed."
Although throughout American history, the nation has faced many challenges and still managed to soar to greater heights, there are few events that can equal the Kennedy assassination in relation to the way it changed the country, stated Dillender.
"The next nation-wide event like that was 9-11 and nothing else has been on par with that," Dillender said, explaining that the death of such a young president who had successfully faced down the communist threat during the Cuban Missile crisis of 1962 and then been tragically killed came as a huge shock to the American psyche.
Each of those who remembered Kennedy's assassination had their own take on the historical significance of the former president.
"What's often lost was that he was a fierce cold warrior and a fierce anti-communist," said Marano. "People tend to forget that and it's almost lost from his legacy."
"As someone who has learned most of what I know of Kennedy as an adult, I think he offered a chance for the country to have the driving force to confront such things as racism and equal rights," said Fitzgerald. "He was thrown into it like Lincoln was with the Civil War, but I don't think anyone else at the time would have been as well-equipped to address the challenges of integration."
Looking back at his childhood, Dillender said that Kennedy gave many kids a dream deeply rooted in the pioneering spirit of America and the promise of a bright future.
"Aviation and space were high on our ideas of the future and the mood of the kids in those days was akin to the movie October Sky," said Dillender, citing the example of a film depicting the true story of students from West Virginia in the late 1950s who became interested in school science projects in the form of rocketry. "So as kids, we were in tune with the president's vision of going to the moon. It was in the comics we read and in our dreams and aspirations, we wanted to be astronauts."