Sid Davis stood aboard Air Force One on Nov. 22, 1963, as Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn into the presidency immediately after President John F. Kennedy was killed by an assassin’s bullet in Dallas.
As the former Westinghouse radio broadcaster toured the iconic blue and white Boeing 707 at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force on Monday, those memories came flooding back.
“You can’t help but feel a great deal of emotion when you stand here near the airplane,” the 89-year-old former broadcaster said. “I’ve not forgotten any part of what took place on the airplane. It’s as fresh in my mind today as it was back then because I’ve been asked to tell the story so often.”
MEET THE HISTORIC PLANE
What you should know about the Air Force Museum’s iconic Air Force One
Davis, who grew up in Ohio and now lives in Bethesda, Md., was in Dayton to speak to the Dayton Council on World Affairs. Although the SAM 26000 has been temporarily closed to visitors, access was granted to Davis, one of the few survivors left who were on the plane that day.
“I never believed when I was a young reporter in Youngstown, Ohio that I would ever cover a story of this magnitude,” Davis said Monday.
He flew aboard the plane with three presidents: Kennedy, Johnson and Richard M. Nixon. The SAM 26000 served eight presidents, from Kennedy to Bill Clinton.
The jet held a power and presence to those who waited for its arrival around the world, Davis said.
“There’s a magical thing about Air Force One wherever it goes,” he said. “You see the crowd starting to applaud as soon as that airplane appears in the sky and its wheels touch down. It’s unbelievable.”
That day in Dallas
Davis was riding on a press bus in Kennedy’s motorcade when he heard three gun shots ring out and witnessed commotion in the presidential limousine rolling through Dallas.
Spectators scattered to find a safe haven.
After a whirlwind trip to Parkland Hospital, where Kennedy was declared dead, Davis said he was literally pulled by his suit collar off the air by a White House official and told to join two fellow pool reporters for the swearing in. They would witness the president’s casket hoisted aboard Air Force One and Johnson’s swearing-in ceremony in a cramped compartment on the jetliner on the tarmac at Love Field.
When Kennedy’s bronze casket arrived, Secret Service agents took an ax to chop the handles off to make sure it fit through a hatch, Davis said.
Jackie Kennedy sat with the casket until Johnson’s secretary asked her to stand with the vice president for the swearing-in ceremony.
She agreed, wearing the same blood-stained, raspberry-colored two-piece suit she wore when her husband, the president, was shot next to her as they sat together in the limousine under a clear blue sky with thousands watching the motorcade pass.
When Johnson was sworn in, Jackie Kennedy wanted people to see the scars of the assassination, but also show the transition of presidential power recorded for history, Davis said.
“And I realized what she had endured,” Davis said Monday. “She kept up her courage. ….I think she realized the gravity of the situation and the importance of her being in that (swearing-in) photograph which for all eternity tells you the whole story.”
Davis remembers 28 people standing in a conference room on Air Force One while Johnson took a 28-second oath of office.
The radio broadcaster would brief the press on the transition of power at the Dallas airport after Air Force One took off for Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
“It’s an enormous responsibility when you’ve got a story of that size and there’s no one to turn to and say, ‘Did you see what I saw,” he said. “… I think I did a pretty good job remembering and writing down all the pertinent facts of the story. I did not say to myself how could this have happened? I didn’t question how it happened. I just wanted to make sure because it happened I had to remember everything that I saw so the report I gave was without emotion and without any opinions of my own and I think I was able to handle that pretty well.”
The flying White House
Davis often flew with the press pool that accompanied Johnson.
One day, Johnson hastily gathered the press to fly to New Orleans in the midst of a hurricane.
“We flew into New Orleans and the storm was still there and we were thrown all over hell and we were at 500 feet and just being bounced all over the place in the airplane,” he recalled as he walked through the tight confines of the jetliner. “It was dark and still raining from the hurricane and he wanted to see the devastation and he wanted to talk to the people while it was still fresh in their minds.”
LBJ would hold press conferences on the plane — known as the flying White House — and the plane sometimes took off while the president and the reporters were still standing, Davis said.
“That violated every rule in the books, but he was unafraid to fly,” the former reporter said. “He would fly through anything. He had so much faith in his pilots and the aircraft and the mission, it never fazed him to go anywhere at any time.”
Thank you for reading the Journal-News and for supporting local journalism. Subscribers: log in for access to your daily ePaper and premium newsletters.
Thank you for supporting in-depth local journalism with your subscription to the Journal-News. Get more news when you want it with email newsletters just for subscribers. Sign up here.