“Nov. 22, 1963 is a day that I try not to remember, but one that I will never forget.”
MILITARY HISTORY is filled with strange coincidences.
Consider France’s Adolphe Pégoud, World War One’s first flying ace. The former civilian flight-instructor-turned-combat-pilot was fatally wounded in a dogfight on Aug. 31, 1915. Amazingly, the German aviator who killed him was Walter Kandulski, one of Pégoud’s pre-war flight students.
Then there was the case of Wesley Culp. The Pennsylvania native moved to Virginia before the Civil War and joined his new-found state’s army at the outbreak of hostilities. In 1863, Culp found himself in action on own childhood stomping grounds just outside the town Gettysburg. In fact, during the battle’s third and final day, the 24-year-old rifleman was shot and killed on a piece of land owned by his own family known as Culp’s Hill.
And let’s not forget Tsutomu Yamaguchi. The 29-year-old Japanese engineer was visiting Hiroshima on business on Aug. 6, 1945 when the American B-29 Enola Gay dropped an atom bomb on the city. Despite standing just two miles from ground zero, Yamaguchi survived the blast with minor wounds. He returned home to recuperate and by Aug. 9 he was back in his office, which was located in Nagasaki. As Yamaguchi was describing his recent ordeal to coworkers, history’s second atom bomb exploded above the city, just two miles from where he was standing.
An equally compelling story comes to us from Trisha Lindsey and Yoshika Lowe, authors of the recently-released Cold War Memories: A Retrospective on Living in Berlin. The book is made up of first-hand recollections from American military dependents, all of whom were stationed in the city during the 45-year U.S. occupation. One of the anecdotes, which comes from an American base brat in Berlin who would later join the Air Force, recounts an astounding series of coincidental encounters with one of the United States’ most popular presidents. The authors have provides us this excerpt.
It was June 26, 1963. I was reminded by my mother that President John F. Kennedy had arrived in Berlin, and was due to visit the American community shortly to give a speech.
I grabbed my camera and we headed out of our apartment on Taylor Strasse, near the Outpost Theater, and crossed over to Clayallee, where the activities were taking place.
There was a huge crowd of about 200 to 300 American dependents, soldiers, and VIPs gathered in front of the podium which was all roped off. The president arrived and the crowd was all pumped up as the band was playing and soldiers from Andrews and McNair barracks were marching past the reviewing stand.
Minutes later, the president gave a rousing speech which lasted about 10 to 15 minutes, and that’s when it happened! He stepped from the podium and made his way around the roped security area greeting well-wishers along his route. As he rounded the corner, he walked so close to me that I lunged forward and grabbed his hand, pulling him closer so he could shake my mother’s hand. It was at that moment that I snapped a close up photograph of him as he was flanked by two of his Secret Service agents. I shouted out “Welcome to Berlin Mr. President,” and he replied “Thank you, it’s good to be here.”
I let go of his hand and he continued down the line. It wasn’t until several days later when the film was developed, that I saw the photograph that I took of him, and noticed the look on the Secret Service agents face focusing his attention on me when I grabbed the presidents hand.
A few months later, I left Berlin to live with my sister at McDill AFB in
Tampa, Florida, and subsequently decided to join the Air Force. On November 18, 1963, I was at an Air Force recruiting station in Tampa, when — in the middle of taking the Oath of Enlistment with two other individuals — in walks JFK on an inspection tour! He stayed until we completed the oath and shook our hands, congratulating us on our entry into the USAF.
I told the president that I had met him a few months earlier in Berlin, and he replied that he was so exhausted from that trip that he did not remember much.
Then, a mere 48 hours later, I was in my barracks at Lackland AFB in San Antonio, Texas, when my drill sergeant walked in and informed my flight that JFK was coming to Lackland the next day to inspect the troops — and we’d “better look sharp!” With our heads shaved and our brand new starched green fatigue uniforms, on Nov. 21, 1963, we stood at attention on the parade grounds at Lackland, as President Kennedy began to review the troops.
I was standing at attention in the middle of the formation as he walked past me rather briskly, but then he suddenly stopped, causing the top brass to almost run into him. He then performed what I would describe as a Michael Jackson “Moon Walk” backward to my position again, and turned to me stating — with a big smile –“Denitto! Good to see you again. How is the Air Force treating you?” I was stunned and replied “very well, Mr. President!” “Well, you go and have a nice career now,” he said. He turned to continue on.
The very next day at 1:20 p.m., while sitting on my foot locker polishing my boots, a message came over the intercom.
“Attention all personnel, The President of the United States was just shot and killed in Dallas.”
Nov. 22, 1963 is a day that I try not to remember, but one that I will never forget.