Retired air force officer remembers death of RFK

June 5, 2008

Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination still moves a retired air force officer.

John E. Norvell
Guest essayist

In 1968, I was a brand-new Air Force second lieutenant newly arrived in Washington, D.C.

On Jan. 23, 1968, the USS Pueblo, a Navy vessel on an intelligence mission off the coast of North Korea, was attacked by North Korea. One man was killed and 82 crew members were captured. This news touched close to home.

On March 31, 1968, in the Washington National Cathedral, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a sermon titled: “Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution.” I was there in the congregation to hear him preach.

On April 4, 1968, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., and the city of Washington erupted in riots and fires. It was not safe to drive or go into many areas of the city for several weeks.

These things alone would be major reasons to remember 1968. It was, however, the death of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy that touched me in an even more personal way.

On June 5, 1968, Sen. Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles; he died the next day. I heard the news of the shooting while working my shift in the Air Force Command Post at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington. For any person of my generation, the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Dr. King were numbing events. I sat at my desk and could not believe my ears.

As the story unfolded, it was announced that RFK’s body would be flown back to New York for his funeral on June 8, and plans were made to bring his body to Washington, D.C., by train for burial in Arlington National Cemetery near his brother’s grave.

I went down to Union Station to be there when the train arrived. It was dark and late on a Saturday night and I climbed up on a wall to see the limousines, hearse and media move through the darkened city on the way to Arlington. The streets were lined with spectators, all seeking as I was to somehow be part of this moment, to share in the loss and mourn.

On Sunday, June 9, 1968, I decided to go to Arlington to visit the Kennedy gravesites. It was a warm, sunny morning and despite all the recent events of the previous days, the area around the graves was deserted.

I climbed the hill to the graves to spend a quiet moment and pay my respects. As I turned to leave, there, to my surprise, were Jacqueline Kennedy, John Jr. and Caroline coming up the hill. The Kennedy family had come at this quiet moment to visit JFK’s grave and pay their respects to Bobby. Jackie and the children walked to President Kennedy’s grave, knelt down, prayed, and then moved slowly to Robert’s freshly dug resting place. Jackie carried a single rose, which she placed on the grave, and then turned and left, passing not more than a foot from where I stood.

Many people remember 1968 for many reasons. It was this quiet moment that I shared in a special way with the Kennedy family that I will never forget.

Norvell, of Canandaigua, is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel.


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