Jim Hanchett's story
about President Kennedy brought back a flood of
It was good to be back in Brienne. The last couple of months in Thailand and Vietnam was horrible. Six of us were sent in to train South Vietnamese pilots on the Sikorsky H-34. I had to get a new issue of fatigues, as mine had rotted on my body. Thank God for the talcum powder. I gave up the hazardous duty pay and went back on isolation pay. Brienne Le Chateau, France, population 200, was 100 miles from anywhere. We outnumbered the village by 100. We could only get Armed Forces Radio, Munich on a good day. Other than that, it was BBC, London. I forgot what TV was. It was a classified base assigned to NATO. We rebuilt rotary wing and fixed wing aircraft from the bottom up, with the latest technology. My job was to flight test rotary wing (Helicopters) and train new pilots on the latest Automatic Pilot systems.
The village was only 4 cliques down the road, so I went to Brienne for dinner. It's was snowing like a machine, and I had a bad cold from the climate change. There was only a couple of us in the bar when it happened. It was around 8:00PM, when the old woman who owned the bar came out of the kitchen screaming that the President had been shot. I thought she meant the President of France, and I really didn't care. Then she yelled no, Kennedy.....Kennedy!
Within a very few minutes, the Military Police came and told us to report back immediately. My heart was in my mouth as I passed through the one and only Main Gate. They were setting up machine guns. When I entered my room, my 2 roommates were already in battle dress, yelling at me to hurry up and draw weapons and ammo. I don't know what I was feeling? I'm sure my blood pressure was about 500/200. We kept asking "What's the latest?" No one knew. AFN Munich wasn't coming in either that night. We thought World War III was about ready to start.
Then the order came down to save all flyable aircraft. Get them out of the hangers and onto the surrounding pads, in case of air attack. I was assigned an aircraft and 12 men. We were all in a state of disbelief. I warmed the ship up and taxied on out to an empty pad. I was met by a fuel truck, to top me off. I was told to keep it warmed up, in case I had to take it up quickly. I remember how warm it was, as I had the engine heater blower going through the cockpit and crew compartment. I tuned in the BBC, @ 200Mz on the low frequency navigation. It wasn't the top of the hour, and they were not talking about President Kennedy. At 10:00PM, the news loop started. American President John Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connley had been shot. There was speculation that it was an assassination attempt by the Soviet Union. They were taken to the hospital and there was no further word on their condition. Then there were some political analogies, but nothing current. I had to relay what I was hearing, as there was only headsets in the cockpit. About 7 or 8 minutes into the news, the tower cut in and told me to shut it down. Take your men 10 meters from the aircraft and dig in. At the top of each hour, warm it back up to cylinder head temperature and then shut it down and get back in your trench.
God it was cold. My nose was running down to my chin. I ran out of Newports, and somebody gave me a 1/2 pack of Camels. Every hour I would run up the engine and listen to the same recorded news loop. Nothing current. Then the Officer of the Day came by and told us that our President was dead. In the same breath he said "Lock 'N Load, get ready to Rock 'N Roll." Scared? A few of us were crying, thinking we would like to be home. So little information. Why can't we find out what the hell is going on? Our minds as well as our bodies were just plain numb. They brought us out some hot coffee and smokes just before dawn.
I was climbing down after my 07:00AM warm up, when I heard a machine gun. There was no mistaking the sound. I hollered "Safety's Off," as I ran back to the trench. I couldn't believe this was happening. Hearts in our mouths, we waited. A few minutes later, we heard several people screaming "Safety's On, Safety's On." Then the Stand Down order came. The War had not started. Only some poor French liaison engineer, who came through a void in the perimeter fence. He was shot and killed by the tower gunner, causing a major International incident at the time.
We stayed out there in the snow for another day. Then someone decided that the world was safe, and we got to put things away and go back to our barracks. We just laid around that day, still numb from what had happened. The following day, we all dressed in Class A's, and stood a memorial formation and service for our fallen President. And then, life went back to normal.
For that day and time in history, most of the modern world witnessed the events as they were happening. Around the clock TV and radio, etc. For me, everything was second hand. I had missed one of the most tragic days in history.
Jack Jakubik '60 - Henderson, NV