My father has lived one of those “Forrest Gump” type of lives – often finding himself at the right place at the right time.
Such was the case 55 years ago this week. It was the third week of November 1963, and during the course of a four-day period, he would unknowingly play a small, but important role in the preservation of our national history.
When I was growing up, I heard whispers of my father’s time at the White House, but was never really able to grasp the significance of the front row seat he had to one of the most pivotal times in our nation’s history.
As I got older, I was able to piece together more specifics and finally 20 or so years ago, I convinced him to sit down for an actual interview for a series of articles I wrote in his local newspaper about his time in Washington.
By November 1963, he had already been stationed at the White House for about five years. In all, he was there for about a decade from 1958 to 1967 as part of the White House Army Signal Agency – the military unit assigned to keeping communication lines open between the President and the White House wherever and whenever he travelled.
In those days, it was done mostly with microwave signals and other low-tech devices, which would have been considered high-tech at the time.
These days, my soon-to-be-80-year-old-father busies himself by annoying my mother and creating projects around their house in northeast Oklahoma.
However, 55 years ago today on Nov. 22, 1963, he was sitting in the agency’s motor pool office in northwest Washington monitoring the radio traffic of the presidential motorcade in Dallas.
Here’s his story, as written in his own words.
It was my turn to be dispatcher. With the president out of town on a trip to Dallas, I was expecting an easy day monitoring the radios and dispatching vehicles on a routine day.
Our motor pool was located on NW 26th Street just a few minutes from the White House.
Alone in a glass-enclosed office, I was monitoring both our own radio frequency (called Able) and the president’s dedicated frequency for the Secret Service (called Charlie).
There was a freak radio bounce occurring and I was able to monitor the president’s motorcade as it travelled through the streets of downtown Dallas.
I can only remember a radio bounce occurring one other time and that was when President Eisenhower was on a trip to South America several years earlier.
When a presidential motorcade was being utilized, all of our (White House Communication Agency) cars were equipped with both radios because we were always the third car in line.
That Friday, the 22nd of November, I actually heard the Secret Service agents shout over the radio that President Kennedy had been shot. I couldn’t believe it.
I picked up our phone that was a direct line to our White House switchboard and notified the head telephone operator, Sgt. 1st Class Bob Brezell, what I had heard.
Bob insisted it wasn’t anything to joke about, but after some time I was able to convince him it had really happened. I found out later that Bob sent all the operators out of the switchboard room, locked the door, and handled all the incoming calls by himself.
It was Bob who notified our section leaders what needed to be done by orders of Col. McNally, our commanding officer who was in Dallas with the president. Bob also handled all the incoming calls from foreign and domestic dignitaries.
It was just a few weeks later that Bob died of a massive heart attack. Many of us remain convinced it was the stress of that day that ultimately killed him.
That was how the longest day of my life began.
ALL HANDS ON DECK
With a full crew of our men on the Dallas trip, all remaining section leaders were called together and we were given orders to begin immediate transition for providing communication services to the new president.
LBJ and his family lived in a quiet, exclusive neighborhood in northwest Washington, D.C. and his home would have to serve as the temporary White House until other arrangements could be made.
For the next 24 hours, we worked around the clock pulling wires to create a new communication headquarters in the basement of the house.
It included a full, working switchboard and full communication capabilities with direct lines to the White House and elsewhere. It was a massive job that required a massive amount of equipment.
We used inconspicuous antennae and other high-security equipment that we installed to blend into the natural wooded landscape of the neighborhood.
The president and his family lived right upstairs and it was our job to work quietly without disturbing them or their neighbors.
Until the president could move into the White House, there was a steady flow of seldom seen or recognized communication personnel coming in and out of the residence. The press corps was stationed out front 24 hours a day, but they didn’t give us any trouble and were generally unaware of the work we were doing.
Because the new president would attend all phases of President Kennedy’s funeral, we needed to have our communication people at every location with crews at the actual White House and the new temporary White House.
We brought in extra men from Camp David and some of our other outlying locations, but nobody seemed to complain about the work at hand. Personally, I worked for 27 straight hours before going home to get some sleep.
I remember telling your mother to turn the TV off because every channel was covering the assassination. I was able to sleep for a couple of hours, but returned to work to pick up where I left off.
PLANNING AND PREPARATION
Time flew by and the day of President Kennedy’s funeral was at hand. Again, because President Johnson was going to attend the funeral, the communication agency would have to be there.
Things were put together in such a hurry that there was no time to follow standard protocol.
The Secret Service needed a way to identify members of the press, the communication staff, and any other personnel who were authorized to be at Arlington National Cemetery. Normally, a sophisticated pass would be designed and security protocols put into place to avoid forgery. With no time, the Secret Service issued a simple paper tag on a string stamped with the word “ARLINGTON.”
It was simple, but effective. Not many people would be running around the cemetery with such a rudimentary tag.
On a normal basis, the movement of the President was always documented far in advance. For the graveside service, the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (nicknamed “The Old Guard”) was calling the shots and because of the time constraints, everything was hastily put together – including a hand-drawn map of the burial site that showed everyone’s position during the services.
There was a tremendous amount of planning and preparation done in an extremely short amount of time.
THE FUNERAL PROCESSION
On the morning of the burial, the procession had already departed St. Matthews Cathedral when someone on our staff realized that in the event of a possible power failure at Arlington Cemetery, there would be no official record of the proceedings.
It was unknown if President Johnson was going to address those gathered, but if he did – and a power failure occurred – there would be no official record of the speech.
Hearing this, I picked up a portable generator, a recorder and a recorder technician from the White House and headed for Arlington Cemetery.
All streets were blocked off to the public so we made great time and I was able to cross Memorial Bridge and enter the cemetery just before the caisson came into the view of the cemetery.
I can’t remember how fast I was driving, but I believe I set a new land speed record from the White House to Arlington Cemetery.
The recording tech and I were able to set up the equipment just in front of the area reserved for the press – just in front of the Lee Mansion.
Thinking back, I feel like all of this extra effort was for the Kennedy family – not so much the new president.
Fortunately, we were able to record the entire graveside service and it now sits in the National Archives for future generations.
During the service, I remember standing next to a White House correspondent from ABC News named Lou Cioffi.
At one point while the bugler was playing “Taps,” he uncharacteristically broke a note and Lou and I looked at each other and tears were rolling down both of our faces.
But somehow we knew it was okay.
I believe attending that graveside funeral was harder on me than attending my own father’s funeral.
I’ll never forget the experience for as long as I’ll live.
Gustafson is the not-so-mild-mannered editor and publisher of The PineBelt NEWS and Signature Magazine.