The day I met JFK

President John F. Kennedy on the bridge of Kitty Hawk, June 6, 1963. I was standing a few feet from Kennedy when this picture was taken.

One day it was announced that President John F. Kennedy was going to visit the ship at sea and spend almost twenty-four hours aboard. He was to arrive on June 6, 1963 and depart the following day. It was traditional for the president to spend a twenty-four-hour period with each of the military services. Kennedy chose to visit Kitty Hawk and was coming to see a weapons demonstration, including the firing of the new missile launchers Kitty Hawk sported.

The ship had two missile launchers, one on each side of the back of the ship. Each launcher held two missiles, but the things never worked right. You would give the order to fire the ones on the left, and the ones on the right would go off. If you gave the order to fire the ones on the right, the ones on the left would go off, or they would both go off, or neither would go off. They were expensive and flashy but were questionable in the defense of the ship.

The president was to be flown out by helicopter to board the carrier at sea as we steamed off the coast of California with a huge collection of ships. The taskforce contained two other carriers, two nuclear-powered submarines and a plethora of surface ships including heavy and light cruisers and destroyers, all assembled for the presidential show.

The Seventh Fleet went into what I thought was a virtual panic getting ready for the president’s visit. A replica of Kennedy’s rocking chair was mounted on the bridge in place of the captain’s chair. Numerous messages went back and forth between Seventh Fleet and the ship regarding every possible detail.

The admiral’s suite was painted, new furniture was brought in, and special meals were planned for the presidential party. The admiral’s suite where Kennedy was going to spend the night was just a few feet from the stateroom that I shared with another junior officer. The fleet spent weeks rehearsing every step of a display of power for Kennedy. I had been assigned a watch on the bridge when the president was scheduled to be there. I was thrilled.

On the afternoon of June 6, Kennedy was far behind schedule. He had taken extra time to visit with the enlisted men at the Marine base ashore. My watch period had expired, and the president was over an hour late. As the other three officers on my watch team approached the captain, saluted, and requested permission to leave the bridge, the captain routinely saluted back and said, “Permission granted.”

But when I came up, saluted and asked, “Permission to leave the bridge, Captain,” his response shocked me, and other people who saw it. “Permission denied,” he responded tersely, “Resume your bridge duties, Lieutenant.” I was deeply angered. I had no bridge duties. My relief officer had assumed what had been my responsibilities. I realized that I was to be on the bridge as window dressing for Kennedy, and I resented it deeply.

Finally, the presidential party arrived. Thousands of sailors and officers in full-dress uniforms ringed the flight deck. It is the custom in the Navy to pipe senior officials onboard a ship by announcing the name of the officer’s command, such as “First Fleet arriving.” I was impressed that day, despite my fog of anger, to hear, as Kennedy stepped off his helicopter, “United States arriving.”

At that moment, two F-4s screamed by at supersonic speed, flying just a few feet above the sea and creating sonic booms as they streaked by. The two nuclear submarines erupted upon the surface on either side of the carrier, and the entire formation of almost twenty ships went into a full turn to starboard, creating an incredible wake. The missiles on the stern of the carrier were launched. For the first time, they worked perfectly, spitting fire and streaking into a cloudless sky. It was a great show!

Kennedy missed it all. I watched him from the bridge. He was bent over under the helicopter, talking to the only two men aboard who were allowed to wear work clothes. They were the men who were assigned to place chocks under the wheels of the helicopter to secure it on deck. By the time Kennedy finished chatting with them, the show was over.

When the president arrived on the crowded bridge, there were no fewer than ten four-star generals and admirals who were jostling to meet him. Among the senior officers on the bridge were General Maxwell Taylor, who was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Admiral George W. Anderson, who was the Chief of Naval Operations, the highest ranking officer in the Navy. The Commandant of the Marine Corps, David M. Shoup, was there too. Governor Edmund Brown of California squirmed to maintain a position close to the president.

Kennedy appeared distracted and in pain, nodding robotically as general after general and admiral after admiral was ushered up to meet him. I would learn later that relations between Kennedy and the military were strained after the failure at the Bay of Pigs when the new president refused to commit air strikes in support of Cuban exiles who were trying to take back the island from Fidel Castro. Kennedy was the Commander-in-Chief, but he was not popular with the generals and admirals.

The president had a long history of back pain owing to an injury he sustained while in the Navy. Kennedy’s personal physician, Dr. Evelyn Lincoln, had accompanied him on the trip and was constantly beside the president as he sat in the captain’s chair, nodding as people were brought to him. He appeared to be uncomfortable, grimacing frequently.

I was standing about ten feet from the president, and our eyes met for a few seconds. It was a transformational moment for me. He never spoke to me. It was just a momentary connection. I had never seen such deep, blue and troubled eyes. I thought for a second that he and I were the only two people on the bridge that day who did not wish to be there.

Late that night in an effort to get away from absolutely everyone, I made my way up to the signal bridge, or crow’s nest, the very highest point on the carrier. It was dark and the only person there was a white man wearing a sports shirt, unlike the other civilians who were all dressed in coats and ties.

I took him to be a news reporter since dozens of them were swarming all over the ship. He spoke first. “How’s it going, Lieutenant?” “Terrible,” I replied and found myself spilling out my sad “I’ve been used” story to this total stranger in the dark, in the crow’s nest of all places. It was not that I did not want to see the president, I explained. It was that my fellow officers knew that bridge protocol was never broken unless there was an emergency of some sort and that this had happened because I am black, and it distinguished me from my peers.

The man listened as if there was no one else on the ship but us. Then he said something about how glassy the sea appeared, even in the dark. I agreed and returned to my sullenness. In the end, he asked my name which I freely provided but asked that none of this discussion appear in his newspaper. “Oh, I am not a reporter,” he said.

That night, by mere happenstance of the location of my stateroom, I slept within 50 feet of the President of the United States. When I got up to use the bathroom, there were two unsmiling secret service agents standing a few feet away. I decided to hold it.

The next day, from the bridge, I saw the man whom I had been talking to in the crow’s nest, boarding the helicopter with Kennedy to depart the ship. He was one of only three or four people who actually rode with the president. I wondered who he was. I learned later that the man was Paul Burgess Fay, Jr., a confidant of the president and the Under Secretary of the Navy. A few weeks later, he became Kennedy’s Acting Secretary of Defense. Four months after he left Kitty Hawk, Kennedy was shot dead by an assassin in Dallas, Texas.[1]Adapted from Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.24.


1 Adapted from Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.24.