A mournful America remembers JFK on 50th anniversary of his assassination

President Kennedy five months before his untimely death in 1963. Photo: PA

Half a century ago America experienced one of its darkest days with the assassination of John F Kennedy on 22nd November 1963, in Dallas.

Now the world is peering at that city once again, hungry to know what people saw, what they felt that day and learn how it changed America, because it did.

No President better embodied the country’s strengths and spirit than Jack Kennedy.

These were just some of the thoughts from people I spoke to in Dallas this week:

The Kennedys were just like the King and Queen. It was just a wonderful time.

I think it changed everything. We became aware that we weren’t as safe as we thought we were.

Nobody thought it could happen here but it did.

His murder was a seminal moment in history for the United States.

An event so many can recall, or remember exactly where they were or what they were doing when it happened.

Hugh Aynesworth, a reporter at the time, was the only man to witness JFK’s assassination, the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald and his murder in police custody by Jack Ruby two days later.

Hugh was stood across the street from the Texas School Book Depository on that day. He was just metres from the building where Oswald was positioned.

Ten seconds after the President and the First Lady passed him in the motorcade the first shot rang out.

At first, Hugh thought it was a motorbike backfiring but then came two more.

Former reporter Hugh Aynesworth witnessed both the killing of Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald. Credit: ITV/Daybreak

Everyone started screaming, throwing their children to the floor, throwing up, everything.

But we didn’t know the enormity of it. If I’d looked up I could’ve seen him [Lee Harvey Oswald] in the window.

– Eyewitness Hugh Aynesworth

JFK insisted so often in travelling with the roof off the car, to make himself more visible, more accessible to the people.

“Security was nothing in those days but look how things have changed,” Hugh said.

“He [JFK] promised something great for the future. His heart was in the right place. It was a loss of innocence.”

That innocence was taken by Lee Harvey Oswald.

Clint Hill was the Secret Service agent assigned to look after Jackie Kennedy Credit: ITV News

I spoke to Patricia Puckett-Hall, who’s grandmother was Oswald’s landlady in the six weeks leading up to the assassination.

Pat was 11 years old at the time and describes Oswald as “a very quiet, softly spoken, considerate, young man.”

She’s a woman who still finds it hard to reconcile that man with the dark character capable of murder he also was.

She went on to tell me about a time when her two brothers were fighting on the front lawn and Oswald ran out, broke them apart and sat them down to talk it through.

He gave them advice and said resolutely, “You must never hurt another human being.”

That was two weeks before he murdered the 35th President of the United States.

Kerry Kennedy described her uncle's death as "a loss of innocence". Credit: ITV/Daybreak

But over the course of this past month, having interviewed various figures about Jack Kennedy, the most powerful and the most poignant meeting was with his niece, Kerry, a human rights activist.

Yes, it was a quintessential national trauma, but it was also a family’s.

She told me about many a Friday night waiting for the helicopters to land on the lawn when all the Kennedy children would rush out to get hugs from their fathers.

She recalled memories of playing hide-and-seek in the Oval office - beautiful, childhood moments cherished from within the corridors of ultimate power.

The Kennedys were relatable not remote from the people they represented.

But Kerry nor the family like to commemorate Jack’s death. It’s his birthday they like to celebrate.

Even his daughter Caroline, America’s newest ambassador to Japan, is there today rather than being in America, because being in the US would simply be “too emotional.”

“The reason people remember that moment isn’t because of how he died but how he lived,” Kerry says.

That’s because Kennedy’s presidency represented the rise of youthful idealism in the aftermath of World War II.

He brought America back to life as a compelling, charismatic leader during a period of immense challenge to US politics.

“He knew the pain of war and was horrified by it. He wanted his Presidency to maintain the peace against all odds. He was willing to stand up and speak truth to power.”

He launched America into space, faced down the Soviet Union and Cuba to avoid nuclear conflict, and cast the polls aside to push for the African-American Civil Rights Movement.

It’s those political ideals combined with his dynamism and sense of promise that means he still commands fascination today.

The letter Robert F. Kennedy sent his daughter after the assassination of his older brother. Credit: ITV/Daybreak

He was a man of extraordinary leadership, humour, ease, handsome, young, vibrant but more than anything Americans appreciated the direction he was taking our country.

When he was in the room, magic was in the room.

– JFK's niece Kerry Kennedy

The most remarkable moment in our conversation came when Kerry showed me a letter her father, Robert, wrote to her the very day that JFK was shot and their family was suffering from abject grief:

Dear Kerry, take care of others. Be kind and gentle.

Remember what you owe to your Uncle Jack.

You have a tradition of faith that must be maintained and nurtured for others and your country.

Love Daddy.

Kerry was four. Her father had just witnessed the murder of his brother. This was a family in mourning yet Robert Kennedy still thought of his country, and how best to convey that sense of duty.

“With Jack’s death it was the death of their hope,” Kerry finished.

The Kennedys had a style that became an essential compliment to their substance. What could have been.

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