Alumnus, Marine One Pilot remembers JFK assassination

“It was a very hectic day. A day that is burned in all my memories.”

For many people across the globe, November 22 is a day to be remembered, with recollections of where they were the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Fifty years ago Lieutenant Colonel Vance Huston was tasked with clearing up the chaos that ensued on the day his beloved leader was killed.

Huston entered the U.S. Marine Corps in 1955 and served for four years on Marine Helicopter Squadron One (Marine One), the helicopter transport of the President of the United States, flying Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson. He came from humble beginnings, equipped with the upbringings of a modest family from California and a degree from Pasadena College.

After serving his nation for 23 years in the Marine Corps, Huston reflects upon the memories he has of President Kennedy and the honor he still feels towards that President.

Remembering the Kennedys and feeling like a part of the family.

One time after we landed at Camp David I was standing there at the bottom of the stairs waiting for them to unload Marine One and go off to their cabin which is called Aspen. All sorts of people were moving cargo and unloading luggage. Now the President is not doing any of that and John John (his son) was not being watched. And he was two years old. We had a little two year old boy at the time too and four other children. So while he’s being unattended to, he takes off on a dead run to come back to our helicopter and he had on short pants and we’re standing there at the bottom of the stairs. And he got about six feet away from me and fell down. So the natural thing, to make sure he didn’t hurt himself, I just went over there and picked him up and checked him out. I dusted off his knees to make sure he wasn’t bleeding. And the next thing I heard was a man’s voice and he said, “Captain do you realize you’re flying my son’s favorite toy?” And I looked up and there was the President two feet away. And I handed him back his son and he said, “Thanks very much.”

And I thought about that later, because President Kennedy was not into people serving him, he was not a dictator, not an autocrat. And he looked around and his boy had just taken off and he was the only one who wasn’t doing anything, so it was a natural thing for him to walk over there and retrieve his own son. But then he did it in such a way that after I handed him back his son he said, “Thank you Captain.” And I said, “You’re welcome Sir.” And he turned and walked away.

So needless to say when John was killed in that aircraft crash at age 38, it really tugged my heart strings, because I had held that young man in my arms, I had become a part of the family. There’s a sense that I had a personal attachment.

Remembering the assassination and how it affected the military community.

It was a very hectic day. A day that is burned in all my memories. Around the squadron area it was very very somber, because we were involved in the transportation of people to and from Dallas that day. We were just a very very small part of that day, I consider us high price taxi drivers. We were grief stricken and many of us had has these personal experiences and so I suppose when I stand by the eternal flame (a presidential memorial at the gravesite of President Kennedy in Arlington National Cemetery) and saw the President’s flame and Jacqueline Kennedy’s grave here, the grave of their little boy there… it probably impacts me in a different way than it would other people because I feel like I’ve really known those people in a very personal way. There were things that impacted and overlapped our lives.

Remembering the President and continual grief.

When he was assassinated, Jacqueline Kennedy, who we had had personal experiences with, as one of the most gracious women I had ever met, she sat down after her husband was assassinated and she wrote a little card, in her own handwriting, to every crew member that had ever flown with her husband. Probably 200 to 250 personal notes. And she went to the trouble to get all our personal addresses and when I was living in Quantico (a Marine Corps base in Virginia) I got this little card. And I opened it up and it has his picture on it and it has a black borer around it and it says, “Thank you for everything you did to help the President,” signed Jacqueline Kennedy. So I walk by those pictures in my living room and that means a lot to me. I don’t know how to express it any other way than to say I feel a loss every time I walk by his picture in my living room.