For me the answer is simple. I was sitting just inside the Deck Division sleeping quarters, shooting the breeze with two other sailors. Someone, I don’t remember who, filled the open hatch and almost shouted, “Someone shot the President!” This was a statement that made no sense, because in those days no one had ever considered that an American President would ever be shot.
“What?” Someone said.
“They just shot, President Kennedy!” Was the breathless reply.
The radioman told us, Yes; The President was shot in Dallas, Texas. No one knew at that time what his condition was but we all presumed he would survive and be all right in the end. He wasn’t and he didn’t.
We learned later that the President was dead. The President of the United States (a former Navy man) had been assassinated.
If I remember correctly, the picket had just begun so we had another thirty-some days to go. For the next couple of weeks the Tracer was a joyless vessel made even more miserable because we were patrolling in bad weather. At one point we patrolled on station with the ship's running lights off because no one knew what would happen next and there was concern that the early warning system would be neutralized prior to an all out Communist attack.
During this period, I recall standing a lookout watch on the wing of the bridge, probably the mid-watch, and looking out over a broiling sea; the weather was cold and it was windy. Standing watch after midnight on the wing was always a little eerie even during the best of times, but for days and weeks after the Kennedy assassination night watches became downright creepy. That particular evening, the sky was dark, the water churning and tossing about, veins of white foam crisscrossing the troubled surface of the sea. In places, spouts of brine splashed upward toward the blackened dome of the sky; and the wind would howl and then still, then howl again. I was somewhat unnerved when suddenly, somewhere aft, a bucket, or something metal, broke loose and rattled down the length of the weather deck, sending shivers up my spine.
The entire ship seemed to creak and groan each time her bow smashed headlong into the power of the ocean.
I pushed my face down into my coffee cup; the brew had been in the pot since the evening watch, which was something like five hours, and with every sip I tasted the gritty bitter grounds on the tip of my tongue. Sporadically, the wind would howl and slap against my face and I would turn my head away from its force, making a little tent out of the hood on my parka, lifting my cup up to allow the steam to flow over my face.
A seaman named, Richard Archelletta was on watch on the opposite wing at the time. He was on the Starboard wing and the hatch leading into the bridge was closed because the wind was blowing from Starboard.
I was lost in thought when I heard a voice speak to me.
It was Archelletta. He had walked through the bridge from the opposite wing out onto the Port wing where I was and just stood there, sipping lukewarm, rather bitter coffee, obviously stalling. After a while I mentioned that he should go back to his own wing because he was on lookout watch. Archelletta responded he was too nervous out there all alone because of the assassination. Normally, a sailor who said something like that would have provided the Deck Division with fodder for a campaign of merciless ridicule for weeks. But, I never mentioned the incident to anyone for a month or more. Even the Officer of the Deck, that evening, understood how Archie felt.
There is another, more personal aspect for the author, to this story: The author, Roland Phillips, graduated from Boot-Camp in July of 1961. When a company graduates from Boot-Camp after three months there is a ceremony of sorts. Relatives are invited and dignitaries are in the stands and each graduating company marches by and performs some of the military maneuvers they have learned over the weeks. Our dignitary, the man who headed the dignitaries program at the graduation of our company was the Secretary of the Navy. He was a politician from Texas named, John Connally. On November 22, 1963, John Connally, then Governor of Texas was sitting in the front seat of the vehicle in which the young President and his wife were riding. The bullets that struck John Kennedy also struck John Connally. John Connally was seriously wounded, but the President was killed.
The photo above shows the President and the Governor just moments before the Assassin's bullet struck. John Connally is in the front seat, wearing a Stetson.
From 1963 on… the assassination of John F Kennedy defined the American Experience. Where were you when Kennedy was assassinated? Was the question asked around the water cooler thousands of times for years after? America had lost her innocence…