JFK assassination: Memories of terrifying day

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THE gunshot blast sounded at 12.30pm on November 22, 1963 . . . its resounding echo is still being heard to this day.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States was shot as he travelled through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, his wide smile as he waved to cheering crowds instantly vanishing as a bullet, believed to have been fired by Lee Harvey Oswald, smashed into his right temple.

President Kennedy driving through Dallas on the fateful day. Picture: contributed

President Kennedy driving through Dallas on the fateful day. Picture: contributed

The images of that moment and of the reaction of his wife Jackie as she leapt to cradle his head in her arms are still shocking even after 50 years.

And while they’ve been replayed time and again on television, for those who can remember the first time the news of the shooting was broadcast on radio or saw the grainy black and white film captured by the admiring Texans who turned out to see their young President and his glamorous wife that day, the moment of horror has never left them.

Tomorrow, on the anniversary of his death, there will be eulogies given about the young man who wanted to explore space, to end the Cold War with Russia, to make America and the world a better, more peaceful place, and the US will mourn all over again.

But it wasn’t just Americans who were affected. Even in Edinburgh, thousands of miles across the pond from that doomed cavalcade of cars in Dealey Plaza, the shooting of JFK had a major impact.

Here six people cast their minds back to that fateful day, recalling how they heard the terrible news, how they watched in horror as the scenes were broadcast and why they believe his killing changed the world.

‘IT’S TRUE . . YOU NEVER FORGET WHERE YOU WERE THAT DAY’

LIVINGSTON writer Beryl Beattie, 69, used to work in advertising and has vivid memories of the day JFK was killed.

“My mother, myself and the dog had recently moved as part of the Glasgow overspill to Whitburn,” she remembers. “My lovely mum had managed to make friends with a neighbour whose garden overlooked our concrete shared back yard and I had volunteered to baby-sit.”

Beryl remembers she had settled down to read the Edinburgh Evening News when the drama began to unfold. “Suddenly, there was a frantic knocking at the door. When I opened it, my mother stood there with tears running down her cheeks.

“‘You will never believe it, but President Kennedy has been shot!” she said. She was right, I could hardly believe it. President Kennedy? America’s golden boy? The man to whom Marilyn Monroe famously sang Happy Birthday, Mr President before the entire world?

“This was almost too much to take in. I gave my mother a hug and promised to return home as soon as I could.”

The neighbour arrived home early, allowing 19-year-old Beryl to dash home to catch the news as it unfolded on television.

“I watched the television as the cavalcade of presidential cars were shown, with the elegant Jackie Kennedy and her husband both looking so happy, then the panic of the shot and the Secret Service men trying too late to shield the victim, whilst Jackie Kennedy evoked the sympathy of the world as she tried to cradle her husband in her arms.

“I think the scene was replayed the entire evening and then we switched off the television and my mother and I sat down and talked into the wee small hours.

“They say you will never forget where you were the day President Kennedy was assassinated. Well what they say is actually true.”

‘KENNEDY REPRESENTED A PERIOD OF HOPE’

ACCORDING to Jim Sillars, former SNP politician and husband of Lothians ­independent MSP Margo MacDonald, the background to JFK’s election is ­important in understanding the ­worldwide reaction to his assassination 50 years ago tomorrow.

“There had been a long period of a cold, cold war,” says the 76-year-old. “John Foster Dulles, the US Secretary of State in the Eisenhower administration, was a hawk. The USSR was pushing out its influence in Africa and Egypt. Mao in China was killing millions with his great leaps that didn’t work. The mushroom cloud hung over everything.

“So important was Kennedy, what he seemed to represent, that I stayed up all night as the US election results came in. Kennedy represented a change from that, a period of hope. His speech to the American University about people in the USSR being human too, was a ­breakthrough to better relations.

“I was playing with my son in our living room when the news came through. I can remember it as though it was only a few seconds ago . . . I was stunned. It was if the world had been turned backwards. The bright hope died. It may be that my generation was naïve in placing so much hope in Kennedy, but the fact is that we did. With him gone, idealism was diminished, the world reverted to the cold, cold war, with its proxy wars and the horror of Vietnam.”

‘I DIDN’t BELIEVE IT WHEN I HEARD’

RICHARD Demarco, artist, writer, theatre producer, was 33 in 1963 – a year he says which changed his life, as it was the year he and two others launched the Traverse Theatre on to an unsuspecting Edinburgh public.

“It was a time of real hope, personally, and because of JFK’s presidency, globally as well,” says the 83-year-old. “It was an incredibly important year for me. Things were happening, but that moment of hearing he’d been shot, well, it’s impossible to forget.”

He was just completing an art class he was teaching when the news of Mr Kennedy’s assassination came through on the radio. “It was a BBC broadcast and the radio was on in the kitchen of my Frederick Street flat where I was conducting the class. Nobody could believe what we were hearing. Everything just stopped.

“It was so shocking to hear he’d been shot that my first reaction was I didn’t believe it. When it sank in that it was true – and when the later report came through that he had died – it was like all the hopes that we had that he would make the world a better place just disappeared. We were all left having to grapple with an impossible drama, that it was the ending of that Arthurian dream we’d all entered into with him.

“It was the Cold War, everyone was waiting for the atom bomb to drop, and he was the most inspirational figure of the time. Everyone had their hopes on his shoulders for a better time but instead it was the beginning of terrorism which we still suffer with today.”

‘MOST JUST FELT SYMPATHY FOR JACKIE’

KENNY Omond, 72, Deans, Livingston, had just left ­university to start his first job as an electronic engineer with Hewlett Packard in South Queensferry.

“I was at home, the television was on and there was a newsflash. I think it took a minute or two to sink in what had happened.”

The newsflash was over in seconds. There was no footage from the scene to watch and, says Kenny, the world- changing incident was announced by a lone presenter before the next programme began as scheduled. “It was one of those ‘bool in the mooth’ announcers saying that the president had been shot. Then it took a bit of time ­before it then became clear that he had died.

“But I don’t recall people ­being worried about the impact it would have on us here. Most just felt sympathy for Jackie. The focus was on her rather than everyone thinking it was the end of the world. When everyone saw her son later saluting his father’s coffin . . . it can still bring a lump to the throat today.”

‘IT HAD BEEN TOO GOOD TO LAST’

AUTHOR and broadcaster Roddy Martine was at school at Edinburgh Academy on the day President Kennedy was assassinated. Now in his 60s he recalls: “It happened around midday on a Friday in the USA so the news only broke that evening in the UK.

“At home, my parents had a black and white television and I recall an atmosphere of shock coupled with a strange kind of resignation. Since Mum and Dad had been through the war in south-east Asia, my mother escaping through the jungle on foot, and my father enduring three-and-a-half years in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, then witnessing first hand the assassination of the colonial governor Duncan Stewart in Sarawak in 1949, both remained remarkably ­stoical. Bad things happen.

“However, I think the main reaction of my wider social ­circles was that aged 46, Kennedy was so young, good looking and charismatic, and carried so much of the weight of the world on his shoulders, it had been too good to last.”

“At school on Monday, prayers were said for him at the morning assembly, but at the time we were all gearing ourselves up towards end-of-term parties and the Christmas holidays. What went on in America went on in America.

“Seventeen years later I was invited to the White House in Washington and standing in a hallway, found ­myself ­profoundly moved by Kennedy’s official portrait, painted posthumously by ­Aaron Shikler. Somehow it made me want to cry.”

‘IT WAS A MADHOUSE FOR EVERY MILITARY UNIT’

AUTHOR Howard Gee, now 71, had recently left the city to join the Scots Guards in Troon when news of Kennedy’s murder spread around his barracks.

“It was a chilly day and the sun was shining. I was on duty as the sergeant of the guard. Everyone in the camp was busy – it was a normal day. I was at the desk in the guardroom, reading and writing up daily orders and instructions for the night patrols when the duty guard on the gate called out, ‘Mrs Gee to see you, sergeant’.”

Howard’s wife Carmine had walked from the family quarters in the camp and was waiting at the guardhouse with their 14-month-old son, Andrew, who was asleep in his pushchair. “‘Have you heard the news?’ she asked. I had no idea what she was referring to. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘John F Kennedy has been assassinated in Dallas, Texas’.”

Howard remembers simply thinking it was “bad news” before his wife set off for shopping. It was only later as the news sank in that he considered possible implications. “I waited for official information and security signals to start coming through the military system,” he says. “It was very shocking. With the security surrounding the parade and the president’s car, I found it hard to believe that JFK had been assassinated. And no-one knew who was responsible. It could have been a communist attack, maybe the Russians were going to invade.

“The phones started to ring off the hook; it was a madhouse not just for us but for every military unit. No-one was sure if we needed extra guards on duty or what would happen. I wondered how this would affect us, whether we’d be moved or put on alert or sent to a frontline posting.”