Midway Island 1963--Remembering When President Kennedy Was Assassinated

We boomers (and older) can all recall it—where we were when we heard the news that President Kennedy was assassinated.  In my case, I was in Miss Howerton’s 4th grade classroom, far out in the middle of the Pacific, on Midway Island.

 

When Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963, the world was mired in the Cold War.  Midway Island’s played a vital role in defending the United States against a Soviet attack.  The island was the tail end of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) line, which was a series of radar stations that stretched across the Arctic to give an early warning should the Soviets launch something at us.  Over the Pacific Ocean, there were no land-based radar stations, and so detection depended on big planes called Willy Victors, which flew seven hours up to the Aleutian Island radar stations and seven hours back, thus providing radar coverage 24 hours a day over the ocean. 

There were always concerns that the Soviets were going to take over Midway Island and thus cripple our defense, for the cold war was in the height of its shivering flu.  Any tipping of the balance of power was cause for concern, and the assassination of an American president was like kicking an ant hill. 

On Midway, when there was some cause for alert, such as a tsunami warning or Bay of Pigs concerns, they blasted an air raid siren and we were under General Quarters.  This meant we were to leave school and rush home, then stay locked inside the house.  Locked is questionable, as I don’t recall having a lock on the front door.  Latched, maybe.

At the sparkling white George Cannon school, the bikes stood neatly parked in bike racks.  There were no cars on Midway, as it was only a mile long or so.  Everyone rode bikes.  Moms went grocery shopping on bikes with huge baskets that could hold two grocery sacks.  Dads went to work on fancy “sports car” 3 speeds.  Kids all rode their coaster brake bikes everywhere, so the bikes were all stabled in the school’s bike racks.  Recess was over in the modest field that sported a small playhouse and meager swing set.  We now sat doing social studies worksheets.

An enlisted man in a blue denim shirt and dungarees walked into our classroom.  Something was up.  Enlisted men NEVER walked into the classroom.  He wasn’t someone’s father, as no child shrieked with delight at seeing their daddy.  He walked over and whispered solemnly to Miss Howerton.

This went on for some time.  We 4th graders pondered this.  It wasn’t General Quarters, as no siren went off.  Therefore, it was no emergency.  This sudden interruption was not from the principal, so it wasn’t a school matter.  But the looks on both their faces meant that it was something big.

War?  Were we are war with the commies?  We children feared the commies like the boogie man.  A commie was the Black Plague, he was the devil, he was the Nazi of our time.  If we were at war, it did not take a genius to figure out that Midway was in danger of being invaded.  Did that mean that we would be occupied?  Or were we to be prisoners of war?

Presently the enlisted man left.

“Boys and girls,” said Miss Howerton.  “The president has been assassinated.”

We looked at her blankly.  What did assassinated mean?  Was it like “elected” I remember silently wondering?  We guessed no, for we would have known about an election, as we were well aware of the Nixon-Kennedy election and how looooong that took.

Teddy Hanson raised her hand and asked for a definition of assassinated.  Miss Howerton now realized why her news had not shocked us, and said that he had been shot and killed.

I still don’t think we reacted as she wanted, nor expected.  It was sad, of course, but none of us knew how it would affect us.  I remember figuring that America would just have to get busy and elect a new one.  I guess we were pretty much used to hearing that most of the presidential heroes had died.  It wasn’t much different than hearing that George Washington died and Abraham Lincoln was assassinated years ago.  It seemed like that was just what presidents did. 

We talked about it later on the playground.  At this time, very few of us had had experience with death.  My only brush with it was when a goldfish had died and my mom unceremoniously flushed it.  I’d never been to a funeral, didn’t really remember my grandpa dying when I was barely four. I had little understanding of the historical impact of a president being assassinated, the finality of death, or death’s customs and grieving. 

We had a television broadcast on Midway and there were lots of scenes of the funeral, but I grew weary of the process of dispatching the deceased and ran outside to play.  I was surprised at hearing a neighbor woman saying that she cried a little when watching the funeral.  Endless streams of black cars on a tiny black and white TV did not move me to tears.

A woman I met at a church softball game told me that she was an adult on the day she heard JFK had been shot.  She said she was so disappointed that he would not fulfill the rest of his term, and hopefully a second one, as she really had hoped that his destiny would be to lead America to greatness, to think beyond our own personal concerns and strive to help the nation if not the world, move forward in common brotherhood.

In an era when fears and polarization had led us into a Cold War, I can see what hope America had placed in their young president.  Perhaps he would not have been able to lead us to the brotherhood he had dreamed of.  But who knows what one person can accomplish, what we ourselves might be able to do if we have the courage and conviction?  After all, during his administration, a miniscule island named Midway was able to successfully stand as the anchor line of great defense.

What are your memories of JFK's assassination?  Has his vision had an impact on you?

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