John F. Kennedy began his presidency in one of the most turbulent times in American history. The Cold War was in full swing and the nation divided. The country needed JFK. The young, virile Jack and his radiant wife Jacqueline embodied the American dream and the hopes of a nation. He was to lead the nation to a bright future and the world to a united front. He could do no wrong.
All was brought to an untimely end November 22, 1963, when President Kennedy was shot twice and killed.
The AP bulletin, moving only minutes later, filled the airwaves and newswires. For the first 24 hours afterward, the only images available were three AP photographs. They dominated the world media.
Immediately following the assassination, AP General Manager Wes Gallagher asked his best writers to create a memorial volume. Saul Pett, Sid Moody, Hugh Mulligan and Tom Henshaw worked quickly to produce the instant best-seller, “The Torch is Passed.” They dedicated it to those who might one day find, in their words, “an insight and a wisdom and a workable moral out of these events which so far elude us who lived them.” In what follows, we have drawn directly from their account.
FRIDAY, NOV. 22, 1963
President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline touch down in Dallas to a crowd of Texans awaiting their arrival. Mr. Kennedy had always made it a point to greet the crowd, and the first lady was no different. One well-wisher gives Mrs. Kennedy a bouquet of flowers, blood-red roses.
At 12:20 p.m. on Nov. 22, the Dallas bureau of The Associated Press was its usual noisy self, with no signs of excitement except that all knew President Kennedy was in town. The bureau had just sent on the news wires an insert telling of the warm reception given JFK and his wife Jackie on arrival at Dallas’ Love Field.
In preparation for the president’s visit, Chief of Bureau Bob Johnson had dispatched any and all staffers with camera experience to cover JFK’s tour of downtown Dallas. One such staffer, James Altgens, known to everyone as “Ike,” had started his day at 4:45 a.m. as the Wirephoto operator until, at 6:45 a.m., he shifted to act as newsphoto editor. At 11 a.m. he took up station as an AP photographer covering the presidential motorcade.
Back at the bureau, as Johnson was returning to his desk from the adjacent Times Herald newsroom, Executive Editor Felix McKnight of the Times Herald yelled to him. “We hear the President has been shot but we haven’t confirmed it!”
Johnson hurriedly typed out the slug and dateline for a bulletin. He had just reached the dash that follows the AP logotype when the phone rang.
On the other end of the line was Ike announcing that the president had been shot. Johnson asked, “Ike, how do you know?” Ike replied, “I saw it. There was blood on his face. Mrs. Kennedy jumped up and grabbed him and cried, ‘Oh no!’” Astonishingly, Ike had captured it on film.
Following the shots, the president’s motorcade rushed to Parkland Hospital, near the Trade Mart where JFK was to make a speech. At the hospital, most newsmen holding phones dared not release them for a second, but “some wonderful woman” on the hospital emergency desk held Jack Bell’s phone. Capitol Correspondent Bell, who had been riding in the Dallas motorcade four cars behind the president, had heard shots. Immediately, the press car rushed to the hospital right on the tail of the presidential limousine.
Meanwhile, Society Editor for the Dallas Times Herald Val Imm pushed through the crowd to reach State Editor Bob Ford, with whom she had agreed to share information.
Ford relayed her words to Bob Johnson in the Dallas bureau.
At 1:00 p.m., Dallas time, the president was dead.
AP staffers work tirelessly to file stories on the president’s assassination. From left are Texas Bureau Assistant James Mangan, Chief of Bureau Bob Johnson and State Editor Robert Ford.
Down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to the Capitol the funeral cortege flowed, retracing in sad reversal the path John F. Kennedy had traveled in his triumphant inaugural parade.
The president was being carried to lie in state in the great Rotunda of the Capitol, on the same catafalque that had cradled Abraham Lincoln. Nothing could detract from the solemnity of that scene. Vengeance died in the throat, smothered by the mournful echo of the muffled drums. To those along the street, primitive violence in Dallas seemed a world away.
Her eyes fixed ahead on the casket, Mrs. Kennedy followed up the stairs, leading young Caroline and John Jr., just 5 and 2 years old respectively, by the hand.
After the eulogies, Jacqueline Kennedy led Caroline toward the casket. “Kneel down,” she said softly. She kissed the coffin, reverently, lovingly, while Caroline groped beneath the flag to touch the hard shiny wood.
Outside, the crowd, on its own, had formed itself into a long line to pass into the Rotunda and view the bier. The day had suddenly turned cold, as the sun died in pinkish glow behind the Capitol dome, but the line grew longer and longer. Within a half hour, it stretched twenty blocks, a silent shivering stream of mourners which by dawn would grow to a great river of sorrow.
In the wake of the death of President Kennedy, after the dust had cleared and the situation was as normal as it could be in such trying times, AP General Manager Wes Gallagher gathered his finest writers to put into words, with such freshly wounded fervor, the events of those four days in November 1963. From this and other internal AP documents, this recounting of the president’s death is drawn.
In the months that followed, newly sworn-in President Lyndon Johnson sought to move a grieving nation forward. Firmness would be key in the coming years as the United States would face significant challenges, including an expanding war in Vietnam. There would also be, at home, a new commitment to explore space through manned flight, one of Kennedy’s dreams, historical advances in civil rights legislation and Johnson’s own “War on Poverty.”
Although cut short, John F. Kennedy’s life would have an enduring impact on the nation. While his assassination ended a promising presidency, it sealed Kennedy’s entry into American culture and consciousness, particularly for the generation who recalls it.
—Wes Gallagher, AP general manager