Robert F. Kennedy’s body was loaded onto the front of the Air Force jet early in the afternoon of June 6, 1968. His family, holding hands, surrounded the coffin while it was hoisted up. Meanwhile, the various Kennedy friends, relatives and aides who had assembled at Los Angeles International Airport boarded from the stairs at the rear. At one point, D. Paul Sweeney, the Secret Service agent standing by the back door as people filed in, peeked to his right, and spotted something quite extraordinary: Midway down the aisle, America’s three most famous widows were conversing. They spoke only briefly, maybe five or 10 minutes. But they were there, together. Then, for the next 4½ hours, Ethel Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy and Coretta Scott King shared a flight over their grieving, wounded, troubled country.

Robert Kennedy’s final flight is less famous than his final train ride, the one that took him from New York to Washington before the final leg to Arlington National Cemetery. But what Sweeney witnessed that day appears to be the only time throughout the aftermath of Kennedy’s death when the three women actually talked to one another. What they said can only be surmised: None of them wrote about it afterward. Nor did any photographer preserve the moment; there were none aboard the plane.

Little about the flight was ever preserved. In America’s minutely recorded assassination chronicles, it remains a black hole. Only three reporters were aboard that day, and they had been invited as friends, not chroniclers. Two of them, the columnists Joseph Kraft and Rowland Evans, said next to nothing about it afterward. But fortunately for history, the third, Sander Vanocur of NBC News, didn’t feel so constrained, or couldn’t keep a good story to himself. Minutes after the plane landed in New York, Vanocur was on the air, describing what he had just seen.

Up until the moment he boarded the plane in California, Vanocur had been working. He had been tracking down rumors that the family patriarch, Joseph P. Kennedy, had died upon learning about his third son. Then, shortly after Air Force One had arrived from Washington to fetch everyone, Vanocur had stood in front of the empty aircraft and reflected on the journey to come.

“It somehow seems ironic that on afternoons very much like this, Air Force jets bear the bodies of male Kennedys out of the West back to their resting place in the East,” he had said. “Also on board today will be another widow, Mrs. Martin Luther King Jr., whose husband went to his grave on a mule train. And it really doesn’t make any difference, I suppose, by mule train or by jet, the fact that somehow and in some way, we seem to be sending a great many of our young leaders to their early graves.”

Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) was shot and killed in 1968, while running for President, but 50 years later, doubts linger on who pulled the trigger. (Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

An unwritten Kennedy code

Other factors accounted for the blackout. Many of the 70-odd other passengers, exhausted after consecutive sleepless nights — the night Bobby Kennedy had been shot, followed by the night he died — passed much of the flight sleeping, experiencing little and remembering less. Those managing to stay awake followed an unwritten Kennedy code, disclosing nothing about it either after the plane landed or for the next 50 years. Now, there’s nearly no one left to remember it or, in the case of the Kennedys themselves, willing to relive it.

Thanks to a Kennedy advance man named Murray Richtel, who picked up a copy of the flight manifest that day at LAX, we know who was aboard. Among the Kennedys were not only Ethel and Ted, but Ethel’s three oldest children: Kathleen, then 16, Joe, 15, and BobbyJr., 14. Two Kennedy sisters, Eunice and Jean, were also on hand, along with their husbands. So were Jacqueline Kennedy’s brother-in-law and sister, Prince Stanislaw and Lee Radziwill.

There were key aides from Kennedy’s campaign — his press secretary, Frank Mankiewicz, and the speechwriter Richard Goodwin — and from Kennedy’s days as attorney general, Burke Marshall and John Seigenthaler. Joining them were old Kennedy friends such as Andy Williams, Rosey Grier and Rafer Johnson. Also on hand was yet another person touched by assassination: Charles Evers, whose brother Medgar, an NAACP official in Mississippi, had been gunned down five months before John F. Kennedy. Supervised by a veteran agent named Darwin Horn, a five-man crew from the Secret Service, Paul Sweeney among them, was also present, protecting someone already past protecting.

When Robert Kennedy was shot in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel just after midnight on June 5, 1968, Jacqueline Kennedy was in London and Coretta King was in Washington. But both instantly knew where they wanted, and needed, to be. “When I walked in, Mrs. King was sitting before the television set, weeping copiously,” Stanley Levison, a key adviser to Martin Luther King who’d seen her a few hours after Bobby Kennedy had been shot, remembered. “She said, ‘You know, I have almost never been able to cry about Martin because I couldn’t permit myself to . . . but now, I don’t have to restrain myself, and I can’t control my feelings.’ ”

Robert Kennedy had played a crucial role following the death of her husband: He had arranged to have Coretta flown from Atlanta to Memphis to retrieve King’s body, and then been a conspicuous and comforting presence at his funeral. She and Ethel Kennedy had even gotten together in the interim, for a “Poor People’s March” in Washington. She wanted to reciprocate. “It was a very easy decision for me to make,” she later said.

Jacqueline Kennedy, meanwhile, flew from London to New York. From there, the private jet of IBM chief Thomas Watson carried her to California. The FBI, which had tracked death threats against King (and, to a much lesser but still significant degree, against Bobby Kennedy) for years, now monitored and transmitted the uniquely American reunion to ensue.

“PIERRE SALINGER advised that Mrs. JOHN F. KENNEDY is to arrive Los Angeles International Airport by private plane 5:30 PM today,” went a memo to the Los Angeles office on June 5. “Los Angeles Police Department is to meet Mrs. KENNEDY and bring her to Good Samaritan Hospital.” The same memo reported that, also according to Salinger, Coretta King would arrive a half-hour earlier from Washington, to be met by one of Kennedy’s black aides, Earl Graves. “Further plans of Mrs. King unknown,” it stated.

King’s widow reached the hospital first. “ ‘Mrs. King!’ several women in the crowd said, but not that much in amazement, for little these days amazes,” the New York Post reported. An hour and a half later, the former first lady arrived — “wearing dark brown, or black — no one could tell for sure because she rushed by so quickly.”

Slowly but inexorably, Robert Kennedy’s life receded. As his condition changed from “critical” to “extremely critical” to “extremely critical as to life,” there was little to do but wait. Ethel Kennedy stayed by his bedside. Meanwhile, Jacqueline Kennedy and Coretta King, along with Pierre Salinger’s wife, Nicole, remained in a room nearby. She watched the two widows converse and, recognizing their unique bond, left them alone. What struck her most that night was how dark and silent the room was: For all the two widows shared, what was there, really, for them to say? At one point, all three were summoned for a last look at Robert Kennedy. “I don’t think he was totally dead yet, but not far,” she recalled.

A plane's burden

At 1:44 on the morning of June 6, Kennedy died. Fifteen minutes later Mankiewicz, still wearing a Kennedy pin on his lapel, announced it to the world. He did not waste words, adding only that Robert Kennedy was 42 years old. Standing outside the hospital, Roger Mudd of CBS News speculated that the funeral would be held in Washington, and that to get there, the Kennedys might favor a smaller, private plane, the better to keep off reporters clamoring for places on Robert Kennedy’s last journey. But by Ethel Kennedy’s decree, the funeral would in fact be in New York, where his constituents and parish church — the Church of the Holy Family on East 47th Street — were.

The requiem Mass would be held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The force behind that choice, Vanocur speculated to his NBC colleagues, was Stephen Smith, Kennedy’s brother-in-law, money man and protector. “He felt that Senator Kennedy ought to be a figure in his own right,” Vanocur explained, commemorated somewhere besides Boston or Washington, as prior Kennedys had been. It would also address an image problem Bobby Kennedy had never fully shed. “There was a good deal of talk about Senator Kennedy being a carpetbagger in New York,” Vanocur said. A Manhattan funeral might help settle that once and for all.

One of Kennedy’s most dogged detractors, President Lyndon B. Johnson, furnished the plane. With UNITED STATES OF AMERICA emblazoned on it, it was one of three jets designated “Air Force One.” It was the same plane that had been ferrying Dean Rusk, Salinger and others to Japan on Nov. 22, 1963, only to turn back over the Pacific once the news from Dallas of John F. Kennedy’s assassination reached it.

“Will Mrs. Martin Luther King be considered one of the friends who will travel with the family?” Salinger was asked at a briefing shortly after Kennedy died. He said she would. Coretta King spent part of that night attempting uplifting thoughts: that the legacies of both Robert Kennedy and her husband would be strengthened by their premature, unnatural deaths. When day broke, she issued a statement. “We must put an end to violence or violence will put an end to us,” she said. “Surely the tragic and untimely death of this brilliant and dedicated leader must cause each one of us to ponder our sense of responsibility in bringing an end to this kind of insanity.”

Another wait ensued: Superfluous as it seemed, the coroner conducted an autopsy. Meanwhile, Jacqueline Kennedy spoke to Mankiewicz. “She commiserated with me as to what a tough job I had, which is an odd thing to say,” Mankiewicz later recalled. “And then she said, ‘Well, now you know about death.’ She said, ‘The Church is a marvelous thing at a time like this. It’s really at its best only at the time of death. The rest of the time it’s often rather silly — little men running around in their black suits. But the Catholic Church understands death.’ ”

“I’ll tell you who else understands death are the black churches,” she went on, according to Mankiewicz. “I remember at the funeral of Martin Luther King I was looking at those faces and I realized that they know death. They see it all the time and they’re ready for it. They’re prepared for it in the way in which a good Catholic is.” And then, Mankiewicz continued, “She said a thing which just absolutely chilled me. She said, ‘Well, now we know death, don’t we, you and I? As a matter of fact, if it weren’t for the children, we’d welcome it.’ ”

On television, Mudd provided a partial list of passengers released by the campaign. The autopsy was completed, and the embalmers went to work. Robert Kennedy would be buried in the dark blue suit and white shirt that John Glenn had retrieved from Kennedy’s room at the Ambassador Hotel. But Glenn had not found a necktie, so Andy Williams removed his — the one he had been putting on for the post-election party when Kennedy had been shot. Kennedy was placed in a casket made of African mahogany that Ted Kennedy had selected, which was then covered with a maroon cloth.

At 12:37 that afternoon, the blue hearse, with Ethel in the front and Ted behind her, headed down Wilshire Boulevard, accompanied by motorcyclists from a suddenly solicitous Los Angeles Police Department. Motorists on the freeway recognized the procession; no sirens were necessary.

Some Kennedy associates, such as speechwriter Milton Gwirtzman and his wife, got to the airport early. As Lisa Gwirtzman stood on the tarmac, another Kennedy aide, K. Dun Gifford, handed her a large paper bag to hold until they were airborne. It was filled with cash — “walking around money” left over from Election Day. Murray Richtel’s fellow advance man, Larry Nagin, arrived with the $50 worth of liquor John Seigenthaler had dispatched him to buy for the flight.

Of the close relatives, only Jacqueline Kennedy boarded from the rear, and only once she had been assured that this wasn’t the jet that had carried her and the body of her husband back from Dallas. She was first in line, making her way down a red carpet strewn with roses and carnations. Linda Deutsch of the Associated Press never forgot the image. “Whether it was a statement about her special position as JFK’s widow or whether she was afraid of hydraulic lifts we will never know,” she said. “But it was dramatic.”

The other passengers followed. When Coretta King boarded, CBS reminded its audience how Robert Kennedy had not just attended Martin Luther King’s funeral but, nearly eight years earlier, had helped spring King from a Georgia jail, a move that had electrified black voters and thereby helped send John F. Kennedy to the White House. Two other black passengers — the Olympic athlete Rafer Johnson and Charles Evers — wept as they boarded. “You are forced to think . . . of what a burden of tragedy this plane carries, what a burden of death and sadness and sorrow,” George Herman of CBS declared. Commentators sometimes stumbled over Bobby Kennedy’s title, calling him “president” rather than ­“senator.”

Solace in the clouds

Like so many others, Vanocur had not liked Robert Kennedy when they met. During the Wisconsin primary in 1960, he had even griped to John Kennedy about how obnoxious his kid brother was. Nor had he been much impressed with his oratorical skills: In fact, Bobby had given the worst speech he had ever heard. “It was just disastrous. He couldn’t speak and he was faltering and sweating and rubbing his palms,” Vanocur later said.

But since Dallas, he, too, had come to see Bobby’s more sensitive, introspective side. “The most vulnerable man I’ve ever known,” was how Vanocur now described him. He had traveled with him in Africa, sailed with him off the coast of Maine, joined him for lousy dinners and bad movies at Hickory Hill. Vanocur remained upstairs in Kennedy’s suite when Kennedy had been shot. He was later asked why he hadn’t followed the senator to the ballroom. “I didn’t want to get bruised or anything,” he explained. “I didn’t want to fight the mob.”

After climbing the steps to the jet, Jerry Bruno, the veteran advance man who had been with John Kennedy in Dallas — and, after that, with Robert Kennedy when he had spoken in Indianapolis following King’s death — surveyed the 2,000 or so people gathered behind the fence. “He would have liked this crowd,” he said. Nearby, Paul Sweeney was checking in the passengers. He had been a last-minute recruit, pulled off a counterfeiting investigation to cover Robert Kennedy — or “what was left of him” — at the hospital.

At one point Sweeney sneaked a glance to his right, and saw the three widows. Two of them — Ethel and Jackie, he thinks — were seated, and the third standing alongside them. “They were consoling one another, I guess, but I don’t know that, because it was at the back of the plane,” he recalled. “I wasn’t concentrating on them.” The doors closed at 1:20. Edward Kennedy briefly reemerged at the front to retrieve a wreath, then placed it atop his brother’s casket. By 1:38 they were airborne.

“The body left here today with a planeload of family, friends, staff, including Mrs. John Kennedy and Mrs. Martin Luther King,” David Brinkley said on “The Hunt­ley-Brinkley Report” that night. “So, in one airplane, three widows of three American public figures murdered by assassins.”

Oddly enough, the atmosphere aboard the plane wasn’t especially funereal. “I remember Jack Kennedy telling me once that he never worried about a situation over which he had absolutely no control,” Rowland Evans later said. “This is a philosophy that really, I think, goes to all of them. Bobby was shot. Bobby was dead. Nothing could possibly change that fact, and it immediately became an accepted fact and they dealt with it.”

“There was grief to begin with,” the writer George Plimpton, another passenger on the flight, recalled. “I remember looking back down the aisle just after the plane had left the Los Angeles airport. One of the Kennedy aides in back of us was crying.” But as the plane banked over the Pacific and rose above the clouds, something else seemed to lift. “I think as the earth fell away, so in a sense did that cloaking sense of depression and gloom,” Plimpton said. “After we got 10 or 15 minutes up in the air, the natural esprit of those people who surround Ethel and the senator began to break out.”

Jacqueline Kennedy, Vanocur reported, had spent most of the flight talking with Prince Radziwill and Burke Marshall. But “for a long while,” he said, she spoke to Coretta King as well. Jackie and Ethel also talked, for a half-hour or so. “And then, after that was over, Mrs. Robert F. Kennedy walked down the aisle, stopping with various people along the way,” Vanocur said. “I used the word ‘joking’ with them, because that’s what she did. She was in remarkably good spirits. I suspect she’s been under sedation for the last 24 or 25 hours. I suppose everybody was trying to keep her mind off what had happened.”

“It wasn’t that [she was joking],” he later elaborated. “She was trying to make people feel better. She was the one who was trying to psych people out of their gloom.” Plimpton noticed the same thing. “Everyone saw that she was trying to put a face on all of this, and it gave them a release, I think, and they were able to start functioning,” he said. Good cheer, or at least stoicism, was the thing. “Listen,” a Kennedy friend snapped at someone crying by Kennedy’s casket. “If the family can take it and the kids can take it, then you shape up!”

Coretta King remembered going up to Ethel Kennedy and then how, after a time, Ethel had come back to visit her. “She seemed very strong and really bearing up very well, I thought,” she recalled. The two, she said, spoke “woman to woman.” “There are a lot of things you can’t put into words; you sort of communicate,” she said. “I hope that I was able to give, in part, some strength to her because I was far enough removed from my own situation that I felt that I could be, in that situation, stronger.”

But for her, there was no getting around the all-pervasive gloom. “You know, everybody was . . . well, depressed — the same kind of feeling that people around my husband had at the time of his death, the kind of feeling of, ‘What do we do now? We’ve lost our leader.’ ” But at no time during the flight, at least from the fragmentary reports available, did the three widows ever regroup.

Under such circumstances, something concrete — such as planning Kennedy’s funeral — provided a blessed distraction. Ethel wanted to use the phrase from Aeschylus that her husband had quoted in Indianapolis on the Mass card, but wasn’t sure where it could be found; Jacqueline Kennedy told Mankiewicz she might have it somewhere in her library in New York. Dave Hackett walked up and down the aisle with a yellow pad, asking passengers to suggest those people close enough to Kennedy to stand vigil by the casket in the cathedral.

'Enough is enough'

Edward Kennedy remained by his brother throughout the flight. Vanocur watched him oscillate between grief and anger. “I might as well say it: He’s mad,” he said. “He’s mad at what happens in this country. He does not know whether this is the act of a single person or if this is the act of a conspiracy. . . . But from him, from others in the plane, one got the impression — it’s no more than that — that there’s kind of a pattern . . . faceless men — that’s the phrase I heard.”

“And I suppose if you were a Kennedy or a Kennedy employee or if you were a Kennedy supporter you would wonder, too,” he went on. “It’s this faceless thing. I’m not trying to suggest something more than exists but I’m telling you as faithfully as I can kind of a feeling aboard that plane.”

Talk of conspiracies kept popping up in the television commentaries. On CBS, Daniel Schorr and Dan Rather discussed how black leaders assumed King had been the victim of one, though nothing supported that claim. For all the grim sameness of the two Kennedy assassinations, there was this distinction: John’s was greeted with sadness and shock; Bobby’s, with sadness, resignation, doubt and fury.

To Vanocur, the scene on the plane had the “feeling of an O’Neill tragedy.” People aboard suddenly realized, he said, that were Ted Kennedy ever to run for president, “he, too, would get killed.” “The feeling was, ‘Enough is enough: We can’t go through this more than twice in a lifetime,’ ” he added. “Nobody was in much of a mood to talk about the future because it didn’t seem like there was any future.”

About an hour out of New York, Edward Kennedy fell asleep beside his brother’s coffin. Ethel came in and followed suit. Jim Whittaker, the mountaineer who’d climbed Mount Kennedy with Bobby, put a pillow beneath her, and brought her rosaries.

Once the descent began, the protective cloud cover evaporated. “We were all insulated . . . I mean with the sky outside,” Plimpton recalled. “But then the insulation began to collapse as soon as the plane started down. We went through the clouds and at the first glimpse of the lights of New York . . . well, that was the end of the conversation. It became so quiet you could hear the plane creak.” The captain asked that Kennedy’s coffin be placed against the bulkhead so that it wouldn’t slide forward as the plane landed at LaGuardia Airport. The weather there was different from what it had been in Washington in November 1963, steamy rather than cold, but the scene, of a grieving Kennedy widow looking on in the dark as her husband’s remains went from plane to hoist to hearse, was eerily familiar.

A newsman's instincts

Then the motorcade carrying the three widows — all 26 cars of it — headed for Manhattan. Once at St. Patrick’s, Vanocur, with his newsman’s instincts, rushed from the limousine to the NBC booth nearby, where he joined John Chancellor and Edwin Newman to describe the scene. His rage was no easier to camouflage than his fatigue. “That’s Mrs. John F. Kennedy,” he said at one point. “She’s seen all this before. Not at this cathedral, but she brought dead Kennedys back from the West before.”

He offered additional tidbits from the flight: that the California Democratic kingpin Jesse Unruh had deliberately chosen to fly commercial, in an effort for it to be said that no politicians had been on board; that the three most roundly disparaged entities on the flight were Mayor Sam Yorty of Los Angeles (with whom RFK had long fought); the ­columnist Drew Pearson (ditto); and the New York Times (ditto: Kennedy was convinced it was anti-Catholic).

Once Robert Kennedy was ­installed at St. Pat’s, where he would lie in state the next day, his entourage dispersed. “Sander Vanocur, how long has it been since you’ve had any sleep?” Chancellor asked. “Two nights,” Vanocur said quietly. “I’m going to say good night.” “Two nights: too long,” Chancellor replied. “I’m glad you were aboard for us and for the audience, Sander. Get some sleep.” Vanocur departed. “Sander Vanocur, who flew back with Senator Kennedy’s body, on his way to bed,” Chancellor remarked as he did. Now 90 years old, with dementia, Vanocur has no more recollections to impart.

Vanocur’s scoop that night ­evidently came at some cost. ­“Everyone on the plane was there on the basis of friendship,” an aggrieved Mankiewicz said afterward. “Nobody was there as a reporter. The plane was private.” At least one, and possibly two, of the widows were displeased. “The grieving Kennedy clan is said to be very bitter,” wrote Herb Lyon of the Chicago Tribune. “Vanocur may be persona non grata with the Kennedys from now on.”

But two nights later, when Robert Kennedy was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery, Vanocur struck a different and less conversational tone. “When they came down to me to narrate, I said nothing,” he recalled. “I think it’s the longest sustained silence on television in television’s history. I identified Mrs. Martin Luther King and Dr. [Ralph] Abernathy and that’s about all I said in a period of fifteen minutes at the grave, ’cause there was nothing to say. A lot of people wrote in to say thank you for saying nothing.”

David Margolick is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and author of “The Promise and the Dream: The Untold Story of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.”