“We were, on November 22nd, on our way to the annual gathering of the U.S. and Japanese Cabinets,” President Kennedy’s Labor Secretary Willard Wirtz recounted in a 2008 memoir, which Labor Department senior adviser for communications Carl Fillichio came across as he prepared materials for the department’s centennial commemoration this year.
The group, Wirtz wrote, included Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Treasury Secretary C. Douglas Dillon, Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman, Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, Council of Economic Advisers chairman Walter Heller, Treasury undersecretary Henry Fowler and other officials and spouses. (Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy was at his home in McLean at the time, having lunch with Robert M. Morgenthau, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.)
“We had left Washington on the 21st and had spent the night in Honolulu,” Wirtz, the last survivor of the Kennedy Cabinet, recalled. “A relatively early start the next morning had put us near Wake Island,” some 6,700 miles from Washington, “when Dean Rusk was called hurriedly to join the crew in the cockpit. He came back in about ten minutes, carrying a long sheet of yellow telegram paper.
“”The President,’ he told us, ‘has been shot in Dallas. We don’t know the details or whether he is alive or dead. The message that has come through on the radio is all garbled.””
A second report didn’t clarify things, wrote Wirtz, who continued on as President Johnson’s Secretary of Labor and died in 2010 at 98 years old. The uncertainty continued for about half an hour.
“Then the left wing of the plane dropped, and we knew we were starting back. That the president was dead.”