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JFK in Key West, Nov. '62


Tim Gratz
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Below is the text of articles from Mark Howell and me (published in the Nov. 26 2004 edition of Solares Hill) regarding JFK's Nov. 26 1962 trip to Key West, in which he was accompanied by every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. See our previous post "Missiles of Key West." One point I did want to make re the supposed "security stripping" of the JFK motorcade in Dallas is that I have seen the photograph of JFK riding in an open Lincoln convertiible down the main street in Key West iand believe me there appeared to be no greater security than in Dallas (and there were a few tall buildings) so I wonder about the proposition that security was deliberately relaxed in Dallas.

Kennedy Visits Key West

‘The Most Dangerous Days America Has Faced’

by Tim Gratz

At 3:35 in the afternoon on a clear fall day in the Florida Keys, 42 years ago today, military personnel at the Naval Air Station on Boca Chica stood in pristine military formation.

The huge plane came in from the Northeast, a Boeing 707 bearing the words “United States of America” and the presidential seal. Aboard Air Force One were President John F. Kennedy, his long-time secretary Evelyn Lincoln, Florida Governor Farris Bryant, two Florida congressmen and the commanding officers of the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines (the joint chiefs of staff).

The Cuban missile crisis had ended one month earlier, and the President and the military brass were visiting the Keys to inspect the military installations hurriedly installed at the Boca Chica NAS and in Key West in response to the crisis. The President also came to thank personally the soldiers in the Keys who had served through a crisis in which the world teetered on the brink of a nuclear exchange.

Two superpowers, the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R., had faced off over the placement of Russian missiles in Cuba. Historians cite Kennedy’s negotiation of a peaceful resolution to the missile crisis as his greatest accomplishment. But several of the Joint Chiefs traveling on Air Force One with Kennedy to Key West that day had strenuously argued instead for a military invasion of Cuba.

Kennedy and his entourage were met at Boca Chica by Key West Mayor C.B. Harvey, Monroe County Sheriff Jack Spottswood, the Key West Chief of Police, the local FBI agent, the Key West Customs agent, and a member of military intelligence. The Customs agent, Cesar Diosdado, it has subsequently been revealed, was on the CIA payroll and responsible for supervising part of the CIA’s secret war against Castro that was launched from the Keys.

Shortly after the passengers from Air Force One had disembarked, a navy jet arrived, carrying White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger and 75 members of the White House press corps.

At Boca Chica NAS, Kennedy and the Joint Chiefs inspected several Air Force F-104 fighter jets; the Marine Air Group 14 FSU aircraft; and the Navy P2V, S2F and WF2 aircraft; and he greeted the crews of the planes. At 4:15 p.m, Kennedy presented presidential citations to the Navy and Marine Light Photographic Squadrons. In his remarks, Kennedy stated that the reconnaissance flights over Cuba launched from the NAS at Boca Chica “played the most important and most critical part in the most dangerous days America had faced since the end of World War II.”

The presidential party then boarded 10 vehicles for the half-hour trip to Key West. Passengers in the lead car included the police chief and Sheriff Spottswood. The second car, carrying President Kennedy, was a white Lincoln Continental convertible lent by a Miami Lincoln-Mercury dealer. Accompanying Kennedy in the Lincoln were Admiral Robert L. Dennison, supreme allied commander and commander of the Atlantic fleet, and Rear Admiral R. Y. McElroy, commander of the base. The motorcade was followed by several police vehicles and two buses containing the press.

In Key West, the President inspected several Hawk missiles installations. Back on October 20, 1962, just two days before Kennedy announced the quarantine on Cuba, the 65th Artillery, based in Fort Meade, had received orders to relocate with its Hawk missiles to Key West. By October 29, 1962, the Army’s Air Defense Command Post and four firing batteries were ready for action in defense of Key West.

After viewing the missiles, Kennedy’s entourage drove by the battalion headquarters and barracks located in the Casa Marina Hotel. The empty building had been leased to the Army, at an annual cost of about $63,000, by the Teamsters Union — headed by an old nemesis of the President, Jimmy Hoffa.

From Casa Marina, the convoy of cars traveled down Duval Street where the President was greeted by crowds of onlookers and flag-wavers in a “somber” mood, reported The Key West Citizen, given the serious nature of the President’s visit. A photograph of the Duval Street motorcade is displayed in Clinton Marketplace in Mallory Square.

From Duval, the entourage went to the Whitehead Street entrance to the Naval Air Station Key West, arriving at approximately 5 p.m. At the Key West NAS, Kennedy inspected the members of the Navy’s Underwater Swimmers School, standing in parade formation. Then he briefly boarded the U.S.S. Chopper submarine. The Chopper was launched in 1945 and, after several tours in the South Pacific, was moved from her base in San Diego to Key West. At the start of the missile crisis, the Chopper went to a naval air base in Mayport, Fla. where it picked up members of an underwater demolition team. The Chopper’s mission was to deliver the demolition team to Havana harbor, where the team would swim underwater to sabotage ships. But the missile crisis was resolved before that eventuality, and the Chopper returned to Key West.

Michael Whelan, an electrician on the Chopper, relates an interesting story regarding security at the Key West NAS:

“When we came back [to Key West], to get from the boat to the barracks you had to pass through about four ID checkpoints. These were manned by guys fresh out of boot camp and handed a real weapon for the first time and told to protect the station. They scared me more than the imagined enemy. But with all the security, the Conch Train still had open access to the base.”

(The Chopper was decommissioned in 1969 after she came perilously close to sinking in an exercise off the coast of Cuba.)

At sunset, the President and his party snapped to attention as all the ships at the Key West NAS lowered their flags.

They returned to their cars for the half-hour trip to the Boca Chica NAS. Shortly before 8 p.m., Kennedy, Mrs. Lincoln and the Joint Chiefs were back on board Air Force One as it lifted off for its flight back to Washington.

The whirlwind tour lasted less than two-and-a-half hours. President Kennedy was in the city proper for little more than one hour and 15 minutes.

It was the last time a sitting President, or for that matter the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Key West.

Less than a year later, Kennedy would be dead.

•••••

In researching this story (plus Mark Howell’s Soundings below), we read the 1962 Key West Citizen and Miami Herald coverage of the President’s visit.

One story mentioned that President Kennedy took time out of his busy schedule to chat with Sheriff (later State Senator) John Spottswood about the upcoming movie, “PT 109.” The Warner Bros. film featured Kennedy’s heroics as a PT commander in the South Pacific during World War ll.

An art director from the studio had been roaming South Florida in search of locations for the film when a Key Largo realtor recommended he get in touch with Spottswood in Key West.

Spottswood, a long-time friend of President Harry Truman, owned a key called Munson Island that he and Truman used as a fishing camp. The island was entirely undeveloped except for a wooden outhouse.

Spottswood agreed to let Warner Bros. film scenes for “PT 109” on Munson Island without charge. In June, 1962, the crew began to arrive in Key West. The cast soon followed, including Cliff Robertson (the Big Kahuna in 1959’s “Gidget”) as Lt. Jack Kennedy. Most of them stayed at the Holiday Inn (now Holiday Inn Beachside). The filming on Munson Island took six weeks.

What Spottswood got in exchange for use of the island was a minor part as a Navy chef in “PT 109.” The movie premiered in Hollyood in January, 1963.

The original story of PT 109 was told by John Hersey, author of “Hiroshima,” who had visited Jack Kennedy in a Boston hospital while he recovered from the sinking of the boat. Hersey’s article was published in The New Yorker in March, 1944, establishing Kennedy as a war hero and helping to launch his political career. Hersey himself retired in Key West, where he wrote his last book, “Key West Tales.”

Munson Island was later sold to a group of investors who developed it as the upscale resort known as Little Palm Island. The developers saved Spottswood’s outhouse, now called the Truman Outhouse and used as a phone booth, since cell phones are prohibited on the island.

•••••

From Mark Howell’s “Soundings”

Deployed in the Lower Keys at the time of President John F. Kennedy’s visit in 1962 (and manufactured by Raytheon) was the Hawk missile. One of the design engineers of the Hawk was Jack Ryan.

Ryan later married Zsa Zsa Gabor (briefly) and designed the very first Barbie doll for Mattel.

•••••

President Kennedy hobnobbed with a number of notables on his Key West visit 42 years ago, including Gen. Maxwell Taylor, Gen. Curtis LeMay (“Five Days in May,” anyone?) and U.S. Rep. Dante Fascell, but perhaps none quite so memorable as the mayor of Key West, C.B. Harvey, husband of county mayor-to-be Wilhelmina Harvey.

Harvey, who already had given the Key to the City to two sitting Presidents, Truman and Eisenhower, gave Kennedy a bent key. It was a symbol of the damage done to the Keys’ economy by the Cuban Missile crisis, said the mayor.

Kennedy told Harvey he hoped the Presidential visit would make a difference. Harvey told the press he thought the President’s tour would do “a world of good for Key West.”

•••••

One of the men serving in the Hawk squadron of the 6th Battalion, 65th Artillery in 1970 was a young sergeant named Doug Sheehan, who went on to TV superstardom in the 1980s as Joe Kelly in “General Hospital,” then as Ben Gibson in “Knots Landing,” plus other continuing roles.

•••••

The purpose of the Army’s Hawk missiles in the Lower Keys was to defend Key West and the Naval Air Station from attack by low-altitude aircraft during Kennedy’s standoff with Kruschev over the quarantine of Cuba.

The Hawk missiles were a couple of days late in arriving here from Fort Meade due to “poor performance by the rail carrier.” They continued on their journey from Homestead Air Force Base by road.

The heat and salt air of the Keys led to serious moisture contamination and corrosion problems in the Hawk system. Attempted solutions included “changing desiccant, adding desiccant, coating parts with rust-resisting solutions, taping missile openings and seams, and various other methods, none of which was successful” (this from missilesofkeywest.com).

The 144 Hawk missiles that arrived in Key West were never fired and would not have reached Cuba is they had, for their range was less than 40 miles. They departed the Keys 17 years later, “restationed” to Ft. Bliss, Texas.

The fact is that the Hawk missile, though deployed during conflicts in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf, has never been fired in combat by the United States. Its first combat use was in 1967 when Israel fired Hawk missiles during the Six Day War with Egypt. The Hawk was not used by the coalition during Operation Desert Storm but it did see action during the Persian Gulf War when Kuwaiti air-defense units downed about 22 Iraqi aircraft and one combat helicopter with Hawk missiles during the invasion of 1990.

•••••

Each of the four Hawk batteries in the Lower Keys were eventually named after local lads killed in Vietnam.

Alpha Battery, located on Fleming Key, is the Eckwood Solomon missile site, after the soldier killed near Pleiku in 1966 who was born in Key West in 1940, entered the Army in 1959 and was the first American to attend the Philippines Military Academy.

Bravo Battery, abandoned at the end of Government Road, is the Richard A. Recupero site, after the St. Augustine native who lived in Key West for 15 years, entered the service in 1965 and was killed near Tay Ninh Province in 1966.

Charlie Battery, originally on Boca Chica and then moved to Bay Point on Saddlebunch Key, is the Florentino R. Roque site, after the soldier who was born in Key West in 1945, lived here until he enlisted in 1963 and was killed near Ong Tauong Village in 1966.

Delta Battery on Boca Chica is the Peter S. Knight site, after the soldier born in Key West in 1935 who lived here until he enlisted in 1957 and was killed near Binh Duong Province in 1966.

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