Where were you when you heard that President Kennedy had been shot?
Most Americans who were alive on Friday afternoon, November 22, 1963, can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when they got the awful news.
For others, the question is as puzzling as a question about President William McKinley’s assassination in 1901 would have been to us in the 1960s.
I remember that early afternoon when I was playing volleyball with fellow members of the 801st Intelligence Detachment at the corner of the area on Fort Bragg’s Smoke Bomb Hill assigned to the 5th Special Forces Group. Volleyball was an easy part of a required exercise program and a pathway, we hoped, to slipping away from duty a little early. Our commander had invited us to his home for the annual unit party.
Somebody came out of our unit’s office to say, “Something has happened to the president.” We kept on playing, not appreciating how serious the something might turn out to be.
But we were already anxious. Kennedy had a close relationship with the Special Forces, and folks in our unit remembered that he was our friend. Kennedy appreciated the role of “behind the lines” guerillas. He read Ian Fleming’s James Bond books. So there might have been some fascination with the thriller aspects of Special Forces that drew him to support them. But the president was also facing up to the challenges of developing capacity for training local forces to fight against insurgents in counter-insurgency operations.
After a visit to Fort Bragg in 1961, Kennedy gave the Special Forces authority to wear the Green Berets that became their trademark. He ordered an increase in its size from 800 soldiers to about 5,000.
If it had not been for those two decisions, I would never have worn a green beret. The expansion of the Special Forces opened the door for some of us who would never have made it earlier, or later. When I arrived at Fort Bragg in the late summer of 1963, there was still a shortage of berets. But I had a friend in supply that found one for me. It did not fit. It flopped over and looked silly to others. But I did not care, even though at first I was not allowed to wear the full-sized group shield-shaped patch on the beret. We untrained, unqualified newcomers were allowed only a small bar patch with the colors of our group.
When word came that the president’s situation was serious, the volleyball game stopped and we gathered around a radio to follow the news from Dallas.
I thought about some of the words of hatred I had heard about Kennedy. The year before, at college graduation, parents of a couple of my classmates ranted about the evil course the president was taking. “Worse than Franklin Roosevelt,” they agreed.
Just a few months earlier, at Fort Holabird in Baltimore, where I got my intelligence corps training, a fellow student officer from the Deep South made no secret of his disrespect for his commander-in-chief. At one party, after several beers, he talked about his hatred for Kennedy and how he would welcome an opportunity to kill him and would thereby become a hero.
For a moment, I wondered if that young officer might have something to do with what was happening in Dallas, and I felt guilty for not having reported his disloyal remarks to our superiors.
Finally, we learned that the president was dead. I assumed our commander, Major Fleet, would cancel his party for that evening. It felt wrong to me to party on such a day, but he had been around a long time. In his experience in wartime, death was routine. When it happened, you had to soldier on.
The party went on, but nobody could shake the weight of the gloom that sunk down on us.
Remember that day?
I will never forget.