On Friday, November 22,1963,1 was in the fifth month of my cardiology fellowship at Bethesda Naval Hospital on the northern edge of the District of Columbia. As I stepped into the hallway at 1:45 P.M. , I noticed a small group by the mailroom window listening intently to a radio broadcast. We heard the awful news of President Kennedy’s shooting.
Around four o’clock we received word that President Johnson was returning immediately to Washington. Since he had suffered a heart attack in 1955 while Senate majority leader, it seemed wise to send a cardiologist in a Navy ambulance down to Andrews Air Force Base to be at the disposal of the President’s physician. Our small cardiology staff gathered about a table. Each of my seniors appeared to have a pressing engagement, and I became aware that all eyes were fixed on me. I volunteered to go.
The Beltway would not be finished for months yet, so we made our way from Bethesda to Andrews through rush-hour traffic, siren blaring, the driver, a nurse, and I, with my state-of-the-art black bag. Looking back, one can appreciate how optimistically we were prepared. Soon after we parked inside the fence at the base one of Kennedy’s staff came by. He explained that they might not be able to transport the body by helicopter and asked to use our ambulance. By then we knew that President Johnson was in no difficulty, so I promptly agreed. We pulled up to the front of the line of cars just before Air Force One landed.
The plane pulled up. A back door opened, and the casket was carried onto the ramp truck. Our ambulance backed up to the truck. I stepped out and looked up at a scene I shall never forget: the bronze casket of the President flanked by his brother and his magnificent wife in her bloodstained dress.
Life magazine published a photograph (seen above) showing a dazed young naval officer in the front seat of the ambulance peering over his shoulder at Mrs. Kennedy as she attempts to open the back door, with Robert just behind her. A staff member explained that she wanted to accompany the body to Bethesda. The nurse and I quickly offered our seats.
That raised the practical matter of just how we would get back to the hospital—until a thoughtful aide offered us a ride in a White House limousine. Thus occurred a second never-to-be-forgotten image: the solemn, silent groups of people leaning over the railings of the overpasses as our procession made its way to the National Naval Medical Center.