Kennedy's Last Days
The Assassination that Defined a Generation
By Bill O'Reilly
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2013 Bill O'Reilly
All rights reserved.
JANUARY 20, 1961
Washington, D.C. 12:51 P.M.
The man with fewer than three years to live places his left hand on the Bible.
Earl Warren, chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, stands before him reciting the Presidential Oath of Office. "You, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, do solemnly swear ..."
"I, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, do solemnly swear," the new president repeats in his Boston accent.
John Kennedy was born into wealth and has a refined manner of speaking that would seem to distance him from many people. But he is an enthusiastic and easily likable man. He won the popular vote over Richard Nixon by a razor-thin margin, getting just 49 percent of the total votes. So not everyone loves JFK, but this is an exciting moment for the country.
"... that you will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States ..."
"... that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States...."
Eighty million Americans are watching the inauguration on television. Twenty thousand more are there in person. Eight inches of thick, wet snow have fallen on Washington, D.C., overnight. Spectators wrap their bodies in sleeping bags, blankets, thick sweaters, and winter coats — anything to stay warm.
But John Kennedy ignores the cold. He has even removed his overcoat. At age 43, JFK exudes fearlessness and vigor. His lack of coat, top hat, scarf, or gloves is intentional — this helps to confirm his athletic image. He is trim and just a shade over six feet tall, with greenish-gray eyes, a dazzling smile, and a deep tan, thanks to a recent vacation in Florida.
"... and will to the best of your ability ..."
"... and will to the best of my ability ..."
In the sea of dignitaries and friends all around him, there are three people vital to Kennedy. The first is his younger brother Bobby, soon to be appointed U.S. attorney general. The president values him for his honesty and knows that Bobby will always tell him the truth, no matter how brutal it may be.
Behind the president is the new vice president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who is often called LBJ. It can be said, and Johnson himself believes, that Kennedy won the presidency because Johnson was on the ticket, which allowed them to win the most votes in Johnson's home state of Texas.
Finally, the new president glances toward his young wife, standing behind Justice Warren. Jackie's eyes sparkle. Despite her happy face today, Jackie Kennedy has already known tragedy during their seven years of marriage. She miscarried their first child, and the second was a stillborn baby girl. But she has also enjoyed the birth of two healthy children, Caroline and John Jr., and the stunning rise of her dashing young husband from a Massachusetts politician to president of the United States.
"... preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States."
"... preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States."
Kennedy's predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, stands near Jackie. Behind Kennedy stand Richard Nixon, Eisenhower's vice president and Kennedy's adversary in the presidential campaign, and Harry Truman, the Democratic president who held office before Eisenhower.
Normally, having just one of these dignitaries at an event means heightened security. Having all of them at the inaugural, sitting together, is a security nightmare.
The Secret Service is on high alert. Its job is to protect the president. The leader of the service, Chief U. E. Baughman, has been in charge since Truman was president. His agents scan the crowd, nervous about the proximity of the huge audience. One well-trained fanatic with a pistol could kill the new president, two former presidents, and a pair of vice presidents with five crisp shots.
"... So help you, God."
"... So help me, God."
The oath complete, Kennedy shakes Chief Justice Warren's hand, then those of Johnson and Nixon and finally Eisenhower.
Kennedy is the youngest president ever elected. Eisenhower is one of the oldest. The great divide in their ages also represents two very different generations of Americans — and two very different views of America. Those watching in person and those watching on TV agree: The future looks limitless and bright.
* * *
Now the 35th president of the United States turns toward the crowd. At the podium bearing the presidential seal, Kennedy looks down at his speech.
Kennedy is a Pulitzer Prize–winning historian, having received the award for his book Profiles in Courage. He knows the value of a great inaugural address. For months, he has worked over the words he is about to recite. That morning, he rose after just four hours of sleep and, pencil in hand, reviewed his speech again and again and again.
His words resonate like a psalm. "Let the word go forth from this time and place, from friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans — born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage...."
This is no ordinary inaugural address. This is a promise. America's best days are still to come, Kennedy is saying, but only if we all pitch in to do our part. "Ask not what your country can do for you," he commands, his voice rising to deliver the defining sentence, "ask what you can do for your country."
The address will be hailed as an instant classic. In fewer than 1,400 words, John Fitzgerald Kennedy defines his vision for the nation. He now sets the speech aside, knowing that the time has come to fulfill the great promise he has made to the American people. He must manage the issue with Cuba and its pro-Soviet leader, Fidel Castro. He must tackle problems in a faraway land known as Vietnam, where a small band of U.S. military advisers is struggling to bring stability to a region long rocked by war. And here at home, the civil rights movement requires immediate attention. Tempers in the South are flaring as more and more people demand equal treatment under the law for all races.
JFK surveys the adoring crowd, knowing that he has much work to do.
What he does not know is that he is on a collision course with evil — a course that will cut short the time he has to fulfill the promises he just made.
* * *
About 4,500 miles away, in the Soviet city of Minsk, an American who did not vote for John F. Kennedy is fed up. Lee Harvey Oswald, a former U.S. Marine Corps sharpshooter, has had enough of life in this communist nation.
Oswald is a defector. In 1959, at age 19, the slightly built, somewhat handsome drifter decided to leave the United States of America, convinced that his political beliefs would make him welcome in the Soviet Union. But things haven't gone according to plan. Oswald had hoped to attend Moscow University, even though he never graduated from high school. Instead, the Soviet government shipped him to Minsk, where he has been working in an electronics factory. Oswald left the United States because he believes in workers' rights and thinks that workers in the United States are treated like slaves, but these endless days in the factory don't make him feel that he has any rights at all.
He was briefly important when his defection was reported by American newspapers. It was extremely unusual for a U.S. Marine to violate the Semper Fi (Always Faithful) oath and go over to the enemy. But now, here in Russia, he is anonymous, which he finds unacceptable. Lee Harvey Oswald needs to be noticed and appreciated.
Defection doesn't seem like such a good idea anymore, Oswald confides to his journal.
As America celebrates Kennedy's inauguration, he writes to the U.S. embassy in Moscow. His note is short and to the point: Lee Harvey Oswald wants to come home.
United States of America
The country Lee Harvey Oswald wants to come home to in 1961 is different in many ways from the country he left in October 1959. President Eisenhower had served for almost the whole decade, from 1953 until 1961. He was the general in command of the winning forces in World War II and is famous around the world. He and his wife, Mamie, are grandparents. Americans trusted him to keep the world safe.
But beginning in 1960, another face appeared on the political scene, that of a young man who is also a war hero. A man who has two small children who sometimes go with him on trips. His glamorous wife wears designer clothes. She took the popular pageboy hairstyle and flipped up the ends to create a lighthearted, fun look. As the bells ring for 1961, it seems as if the country is ready for change.
Change is happening in all parts of life. Things that will one day be familiar make their appearance that year: the first Hardee's restaurant opens in Rocky Mountain, North Carolina. The founder of Weight Watchers holds her first meeting. The "Poppin' Fresh" Pillsbury Doughboy is introduced. The first Six Flags adventure park opens. Johnson & Johnson's Tylenol for adults, Pampers, Life cereal, and Sprite are on grocery shelves. People on the cutting edge of technology are buying the newly invented electric toothbrush. And skateboarding, invented by California surfers, increases in popularity across the country.
Young people's tastes begin to influence fashion. After 15 years of quiet colors, people want to be bright. Jackie Kennedy is a leading example of that trend. She loves intense colors and wears bright pink, yellow, orange, and red.
Youthful tastes are also reflected on the charts: The most popular songs in 1961 are "Let's Twist Again" by Chubby Checker, "Runaway" by Del Shannon, "Surrender" by Elvis Presley, and "Hello Mary Lou" by Ricky Nelson. A movie ticket costs about a dollar, and lines form for the original Parent Trap, 101 Dalmatians, and the best movie of the year, West Side Story.
Teens have portable record players, small square boxes that play vinyl singles. They dance the Pony to Chubby Checker singing "Pony Time"; they think about consequences when the Shirelles sing "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?"; and they dream of dark, dangerous boys as Elvis sings "Surrender."
Communication is improving, too. Half the people in the country can dial long distance directly, without asking an operator to connect them. Although color television is a rarity, 90 percent of people in the United States own black-and-white TVs. In 1961, the first animated weekly prime-time TV show, The Flintstones, inspires people to go around saying "Yabba-Dabba-Doo!" Another big hit is Mister Ed, featuring a talking horse.
Television was a crucial factor in the election of November 1960. Presidential debates were broadcast for the first time during the campaign. People saw the young, confident John Kennedy squaring off with the seemingly anxious Richard Nixon. They chose Kennedy's youth and passion at the polls.
The most popular names for children born in 1961 are Michael, David, and John for boys, and Mary, Lisa, and Susan for girls. Famous faces born that year include George Clooney, Meg Ryan, Michael J. Fox, Elizabeth McGovern, Eddie Murphy, and a man who someday will also sit behind the desk in the Oval Office, Barack Obama.
The new president has a coconut shell on his desk in the Oval Office. It's now encased in plastic with a wood bottom. His staff made sure to put it in a prominent place when they moved him in. The unusual paperweight is a reminder of a now-famous incident that tested John Kennedy's courage and made him a hero.
August 2, 1943
Blackett Strait, Solomon Islands
Eighteen years earlier, in the South Pacific Ocean, three American patrol torpedo (PT) boats were cruising the Blackett Strait, hunting Japanese warships. It was 19 months since the United States had entered World War II. There were more than 50 countries involved in the war now. Since 1939, German leader Adolf Hitler had been waging his campaign of terror across Europe. In 1937, Japan had attacked China. In 1935, Italy's Mussolini had invaded Ethiopia. These events had divided the countries of the world into two groups — the Allies, led by the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union, and the Axis countries, led by Germany, Italy, and Japan. The United States had entered the war after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, a naval base in Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. By the time the conflict ended in 1945, it was the deadliest and costliest war ever fought.
That night, one small PT boat would come close to being another casualty. At 80 feet long, with hulls of two-inch-thick mahogany and propelled by three powerful engines, these patrol boats were nimble vessels. They were capable of flitting in close to Japanese battleships and launching torpedoes. Those weapons would zoom underwater toward their targets and explode when they hit, sinking the Japanese ships.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the skipper of the PT boat bearing the number 109, was a twenty-six-year-old second lieutenant. He slouched in his cockpit, half-awake and half-asleep. He had shut down two of his three engines so they wouldn't make ripples in the water that Japanese spotter planes could see. The third engine idled softly, its deep propeller shaft causing almost no movement in the water. He gazed across the black ocean, hoping to locate the two other nearby PTs. But they were invisible in the darkness — just like PT-109.
The skipper didn't see or hear the Japanese destroyer Amagiri until it was almost too late. The destroyer was part of the Tokyo Express, a bold Japanese experiment to transport troops and weapons in and out of the tactically vital Solomon Islands using ultrafast warships. The Express relied on speed and the cover of night to complete these missions. Amagiri had just dropped 900 soldiers on nearby Kolombangara Island and was racing back to Rabaul, New Guinea, before dawn would allow American bombers to see and destroy it. The ship was longer than a football field but only 34 feet across. This long, narrow shape allowed it to knife through the sea at an astonishing 44 miles per hour.
In the bow of PT-109, Ensign George "Barney" Ross was stunned when, through his binoculars, he saw the Amagiri just 250 yards away, bearing down on 109 at full speed. He pointed into the darkness. The skipper saw the ship and spun the wheel hard, trying to turn his boat toward the rampaging destroyer to fire his torpedoes from point- blank range — it was either that, or the Americans would be destroyed.
PT-109 couldn't turn fast enough.
It took just a single, terrifying instant for Amagiri to slice through the hull of PT-109. The skipper was almost crushed, at that moment thinking, This is how it feels to be killed. Two members of the 13-man crew died instantly. Two more were injured as PT-109 exploded and burned. The two nearby American boats, PT-162 and PT-169, knew a fatal blast when they saw one and didn't wait around to search for survivors. They gunned their engines and raced into the night, fearful that other Japanese warships were in the vicinity. Amagiri didn't stop either, but sped on to Rabaul, even as the crew watched the small American craft burn in their wake.
The men of PT-109 were on their own. Kennedy had to find a way to get his men to safety. Later in life, when asked how that night helped him become a leader, he would shrug and say, "It was involuntary. They sank my boat." But the sinking of PT-109 would be the making of John F. Kennedy — not because of what had just happened, but because of what happened next.
The back end of PT-109 was already on its way to the bottom of the ocean. The forward section of the hull remained afloat because it had watertight compartments. Kennedy gathered the surviving crew members on this section to await help. But as morning turned to noon and what was left of PT-109 sank lower and lower into the water, remaining with the wreckage meant either certain capture by Japanese troops or death by shark attack.
John Kennedy made a plan.
"We'll swim," he ordered the men, pointing to a cluster of green islands three miles to the southeast. He explained that these specks of land might be distant, but they were less likely than the closer islands to be inhabited by Japanese soldiers.
The men hung on to a piece of timber, using it as a flotation device as they kicked their way to the distant islands. Kennedy, who'd been a member of the swim team at Harvard College, towed a badly burned crew member by placing a strap from the man's life jacket between his own teeth and pulling him. It took five hours for them to reach the island, which was not much: sand and a few palm trees surrounded by a razor-sharp coral reef. From one side to the other, it was just 100 yards. But it was land. After more than 15 hours in the ocean, there was no better place to be. (Continues...)
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