Sid Davis saw the world change from feet away.
After hearing the gunshots that rang out in Dallas, Texas on Nov. 22, 1963, killing President John F. Kennedy, Davis was a witness to history and became the first to report the transition of presidential power to Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson aboard Air Force One.
Davis, a former Westinghouse Broadcasting Co. radio reporter, rode in the first press bus eight car lengths behind the Lincoln limousine Kennedy was shot in while he rode in the back seat of the convertible in Dealey Plaza.
“What we saw was the limousine take off and we never saw it again,” Davis, a Youngstown, Ohio, native now in his 80s, said in an interview this week. “We could see the red blaze of Mrs. Kennedy’s raspberry-colored suit sitting on the top of the ledge of the convertible.”
Lee Harvey Oswald fired three rifle shots within seconds, striking both the president and wounding Texas Gov. John Connolly, historical accounts say.
Secret Service agent Clint Hill sprinted to the car from one following directly behind the president’s limo. Hill helped first lady Jacqueline Kennedy back into the rear seat as she clamored onto the trunk. She had frantically attempted to gather fragments of the president’s skull, Davis said. The car rapidly accelerated and headed for a freeway to Parkland Memorial Hospital.
The press bus was in front of the Texas School Book Depository when three shots rang out from the sixth floor and across the plaza, Davis said.
“We saw the movement of the crowds as soon as we heard the shots,” he said. “The crowds were starting to disperse and hide their children, find a place to lie down in the grass and put their bodies over their children.”
A president’s death
In the minutes after the assassination, Davis waited at the hospital for word on Kennedy’s condition.
A local priest who administered last rites to the president told a handful of reporters at the hospital Kennedy was dead, Davis said.
Davis decided to wait for official word from the White House before he announced the 46-year-old president’s death to a stunned nation.
“I know that probably wouldn’t happen today,” said Davis, of Bethesda, Md. “Most people would say, ‘well, a priest is good enough source, why would you need two sources?’ It wasn’t a need for two sources with me. I think the priest was good enough.
“But I just felt that you’re dealing with the president of the United States, the Cold War is at its highest decibels with the Soviet Union, you don’t know what’s happening on Wall Street, you don’t know whether this is a conspiracy by the Soviet Union or some other group, and it was best to just ride until the White House told us the president was dead,” Davis remembered. “And so for those reasons, I didn’t go on with it except I did know, but I was not the only one. There were three other reporters who heard it from the priest.”
When he was on the air reporting Kennedy’s assassination that day, a White House official tried to usher Davis off the broadcast to urgently join a press pool and head to Air Force One at Love Field.
“I argued that I was on the air and couldn’t leave, but they insisted so I left the broadcast and went to Air Force One,” he said. “We crossed over median strips in an unmarked police car.”
Davis, along with Merriman Smith of the UPI wire service and Charles Roberts of Newsweek magazine, were about to be the only journalists to witness a pivotal moment in U.S. history.
“We arrived at Love Field just as they were unloading the casket from the hearse that had brought President Kennedy to the airport with Mrs. Kennedy,” he said. “Mrs. Kennedy had ridden in the back of the hearse with her hand on the casket during that ride from Parkland Hospital to Love Field.”
The red bronze casket was carried up the rear stairs of the Boeing 707, the same jet on permanent display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
“They had trouble getting the casket into the rear of the aircraft because the handles protruded beyond the doorway or the hatch, and they had to knock the handles off the casket in order to get it inside the aircraft,” Davis said.
Aboard the plane, four seats were removed and part of the bulkhead was cut out to make space for the coffin.
Davis ascended the front ramp steps with the other reporters. Many aboard were in deep mourning, and weeping.
“The interesting thing about the Kennedy staff was its youthfulness, but also how bright and how smart they were,” he said. “They were terrific people. Very dedicated. And they were in tears in the compartment when I walked in.”
A new leader
Davis was the only broadcaster to witness Johnson take the oath of the presidency. Jackie Kennedy, still wearing the blood-streaked and stained pink Chanel dress, stood next to the new president at Johnson’s behest.
“I just think she felt it was part of her responsibility as the first lady to be there, and I give her a lot of credit for the courage she had to come forward in her condition and with the situation as tragic as it was,” Davis said.
Johnson walked toward her when she walked to a doorway for the ceremony.
“Johnson saw her in the doorway, walked over to the doorway, took both of her hands, brought her over to his left. Mrs. (Lady Bird) Johnson he placed next to him on the right,” Davis said.
The vice president told federal district judge Sarah T. Hughes to administer the oath. Constitutionally, Davis said, Johnson became president the moment Kennedy died, but the new president wanted the ceremony in a sign of the continuity of government.
The radio broadcaster clocked the oath at 28 seconds and counted 28 people in the sweltering, cramped compartment .
“President Johnson’s first words after he took the oath was: ‘Let’s get airborne,’” Davis said.
“At that point the White House transportation and press people came to me and said there are only two seats left on the airplane back to Washington (and) that Merriman Smith, as a wire service man gets one of them, period, and that the other seat goes to myself or Chuck Roberts and we would have to flip for it,” Davis said.
Davis decided to get off the plane to tell a press pool at the airport Johnson had taken the oath of office. The ceremony happened less than two hours after the president’s death.
Davis told Smith and Roberts what he was going to report to the press pool and asked them if they wanted to add anything. “We all agreed that the behavior of the president (Johnson) was remarkable, stern, resolved. (He) knew exactly what he was doing,” Davis said.
They also agreed Jackie Kennedy had been courageous standing in as part of the transition ceremony, he said.
Standing on the back of a car trunk at Love Field, he said about 25 reporters gathered to hear the news.
He actually broadcast the breaking news on the radio after he gave the pool report to the press, honoring tradition-bound rules.
“Any one of those reporters could have gone and filed a story while I was talking,” he said. “They were under no obligation not to. But I was. I had to finish the pool report before I could file. So in a sense, while I might have been the first to know it, I was about the last to broadcast it, but it was only a matter of minutes.”
The early 1960s airfield had three phones set up for the White House press corps to report the historic bulletin. “But that wasn’t enough telephones,” he said.
Within hours, Davis made his way back to Washington, D.C., where he watched the ambulance carrying Kennedy’s body drive up the White House driveway lit with flickering lanterns in the dark chill of a suddenly solemn November. With a motorcycle escort, the ambulance returned around 4 a.m. from Bethesda Naval Hospital, where the president’s autopsy was performed.
“I saw Mrs. Kennedy in the rear holding her hands on the casket as they drove up the driveway,” he said. “And I broadcast that and described that. I held out pretty well, but I broke up at the end.”
He had been on the story since the assassination happened 16 hours ago.
On the air, he tried to recite the last stanza of the Robert Frost poem, “Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening,” a Kennedy favorite he had told on the campaign trail when running late, Davis said.
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,” he said, reciting part of the poem, “but I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep. And that’s where I cracked up on the air. I couldn’t sign off, and I just fell apart at that point.”