JFK assassination remembered 50 years later

The United States solemnly marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination Friday with subdued remembrances at Kennedy's grave and the infamous site in downtown Dallas where the young, glamorous president was gunned down in an open-top limousine.

Kennedy's death recalled in Canada and Japan; memorialized throughout U.S.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. This photo was taken moments before Kennedy was assassinated. (Reuters)

The United States solemnly marked the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination Friday with subdued remembrances at Kennedy's grave and the infamous site in downtown Dallas where the young, glamorous president was gunned down in an open-top limousine.

Flags flew at half-staff, and moments of silence were planned for the hour when Kennedy was shot riding in a motorcade. The quiet reverence extended across the Atlantic Ocean to his ancestral home in Ireland.

Shortly after sunrise, Attorney General Eric Holder paid his respects at Kennedy's recently refurbished grave at Arlington National Cemetery, where a British cavalry officer stood guard, bagpipes played and a flame burned steadily as it has for the last half-century.

About an hour later, Jean Kennedy Smith, 85, the last surviving Kennedy sibling, laid a wreath at her brother's grave, joined by about 10 members of the Kennedy family. They clasped hands for a short, silent prayer and left roses as a few hundred tourists watched.

Dallas was bitterly cold, damp and windy, far different from the bright sunshine that filled the day Kennedy died.

About 5,000 tickets were issued for the free ceremony in Dealey Plaza, which is flanked by the Texas School Book Depository building where sniper Lee Harvey Oswald perched on the sixth floor.

A stage for the memorial ceremony, just south of the depository building, was backed with a large banner showing Kennedy's profile. Video screens showed images of Kennedy with his family.

CBC's Lyndsay Duncombe reported from Dallas on Friday that it's the first time the city has officially commemorated the assassination. 

She said organizers consider it a chance for a younger generation to learn about the JFK presidency, particularly his call to service.

People began assembling for the event hours ahead of time.

"President Kennedy has always been kind of revered in our family," Colleen Bonner, 41, of suburban Hurst, said. "I just wanted to honour his memory, and I wanted to be a part of history."

The U.S. Naval Academy Men's Glee Club was to perform at the ceremony in a nod to Kennedy's military service, and an Air Force flyover was planned. A moment of silence was set for 12:30 p.m. local time, when the president was shot.

Numerous events were held around Dallas this year to mark the anniversary, including panels of speakers who were there that day, special concerts and museum exhibits.

Ireland honour guard

Earlier Thursday, in Dublin, a half-dozen Irish soldiers toting guns with brilliantly polished bayonets formed a guard of honour outside the U.S. embassy as the American flag was lowered to half-staff. An Irish army commander at the embassy drew a sword and held it aloft as a lone trumpeter played The Last Post, the traditional British salute to war dead. A bagpiper played laments including Amazing Grace. A U.S. Marine raised the flag again as the bugler sounded an upbeat Reveille.

More than a dozen retired Irish army officers who, as teenage cadets, had formed an honour guard at Kennedy's graveside gathered in the front garden of the embassy in the heart of the Irish capital to remember the first Irish-American to become leader of the free world.

Together with Irish Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore and embassy staff, they observed a minute's silence and laid two wreaths from the Irish and American governments in memory of JFK.

The former cadets invited by Jacqueline Kennedy to serve as the graveside honour guard described the awe — and fear — they experienced as they travelled to the United States 50 years earlier.

"We were young guys, all pretty much 18. We had no passports, no visas. None of us had flown before," said retired Col. Brian O'Reilly, 68. "We were told on the Saturday night we were wanted for the funeral. The next day, we were on the plane with our own president [Eamon de Valera] heading for Washington."

The day was crisp and windless, with trees full of autumn leaves and a cloudless blue sky, the sun blindingly low on the horizon.

Canada remembers

In Canada, men and women across the country still recall the precise moment at which they heard that U.S. President John F. Kennedy had been struck by an assassin's bullet.
Dealey Plaza in Dallas is seen from a roailroad trestle looking towards the spot where the President John F. Kennedy was shot in 1963, as people gather at the site to commemorate the 50th anniversary. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

Times, places events and emotions remain as vivid today as they did when they unfolded 50 years ago, they said.

Rodger Campbell, 64, distinctly recalls the flu that kept him back from work that day. From a couch in his Toronto home, Campbell said he unwittingly wound up watching history unfold in something very close to real time.

"I was watching television just idly and feeling miserable, all of a sudden they broke into the news and it was Walter Cronkite talking about the fact that Kennedy had been shot," Campbell said in an interview.

Phyl Good was a seven-year-old student in Calgary, but said her youth did nothing to dim her memory of a day that traumatized nearly every adult around her.

Good recalls watching her usually stoic mother become visibly upset as she watched the non-stop television coverage of Kennedy's death.

The event itself made an impression on Good despite the fact that she believed the fallen politician to be the leader of Canada.

The Cuban Missile Crisis had loomed large in children's lives just a year before, she said, adding she and her classmates had even undergone practice drills to teach diligence in the face of an attack.

She said Kennedy's involvement in that saga had been enough to force the American president into the orbit of even the youngest and least politically astute Canadian.

"President Kennedy was already in my consciousness at the time because we knew that was a tense and scary thing too, and he was associated with that," she said. "That obviously made quite an impression on me."

Fans in Japan

Japanese fans of Kennedy took photos with his portrait, folded paper cranes and watched his inaugural ceremony on a monitor Friday to express admiration for the president.
Gilbert Guindon of Quebec City, Canada, stands on the spot where the Zapruder film was made overlooking Dealey Plaza. (LM Otero/Associated Press)

"If he had lived longer, things might have been different," said Teruo Nasu, 70, a retired printer, reaching up to point to an excerpt from his speech lining the walls at a commemorative event in Tokyo.

"I wish I could show that to a Japanese prime minister. His idea of taking up challenges is still needed."

The event, drawing a small but steady trickle of people to a corner of a shopping mall, was organized by travel company Toptour, which is planning a tour of special Kennedy spots — Boston, Washington D.C. and Dallas, according to spokesman Hajime Kitta.

Japanese have long held special feelings for Kennedy, whom they see as a hero standing for the ideals of freedom and forging a trans-Pacific U.S.-Japan friendship.

His daughter Caroline Kennedy recently arrived to an enthusiastic welcome as ambassador to Japan. She is thronged by cheering crowds everywhere. A carriage carrying her to meet the emperor at the Imperial Palace drew throngs fitting of a rock star.

The people at Friday's event said they wanted to come just to show they cared. One woman fell to her knees before his portrait, flanked by the flags of the U.S. and Japan.

Some said they were stunned to see the TV news of his assassination when they were children, and remembered the loss they felt. The younger ones said they learned about him in school.

"He was brave. He devoted his entire life for America," said Naoki Saito, 25, whose rapper name is Naite, as he struggled to fold a paper crane.

"I love people like this, who are so pure and determined."

With files from CBC News and The Canadian Press


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