Kennedy’s assassination remains a puzzling memory

You either remember or you don’t.

I do. Mrs. Komp, my fourth-grade teacher at Spokane’s Jefferson Elementary School, walked us to the cafeteria. A radio was on. Teachers were crying. They sent us home early.

Similar memories are shared by an entire generation of Americans, kids of the 1960s.

Gary Clark remembers, too. No kid, he was a 21-year-old airman at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Mont., on Nov. 22, 1963.

“That day,” as Clark calls it, left the 67-year-old Marysville man with a memory no one else shares. Clark said he was ordered, in his country’s dark hour, to pass along news of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy to others where he worked for the 24th North American Air Defense Command, known as NORAD.

Last week, Clark described his Air Force job as an interceptor director technician. He worked in a Semi-Automatic Ground Environment building on the base, where huge computers were used to track aircraft.

The Cold War system, split into sectors around the United States, aimed to counter the Soviet threat by intercepting any enemy bombers. “We were constantly on guard. Anybody who was going to fly down from Canada was not going to make it,” he said. “We practiced all the time.”

In the “blue room” where Clark worked, in tandem with an officer, unidentified planes showed up as dots on a huge screen. Those planes were nearly always American commercial airliners, off course in a jet stream.

Workers in the football-field sized building could send messages that resulted in F-101 interceptor jets taking off from the base to get a look at whatever plane the system detected. “We’d push a button, and within a couple minutes you could hear planes start to roll down the runway,” said Clark, whose Air Force discharge papers show he served from February of 1962 until January of 1966.

On Nov. 22, 1963, a Friday, Clark said the room’s quiet was disturbed by the different-sounding ring of a call from NORAD headquarters. He said he watched as a senior director and his staff, seated at a raised dais, listened and verified the phone message using a cryptographic process.

What happened next, he said he’ll never forget: An officer he recalled as Maj. Van Quill “looked around the room and spotted me sitting by myself.”

The officer, he said, called him crisply by name — “Airman Clark report” — and told Clark he was about to learn something very important, and that he was to go around the room and inform everyone else of what he had heard.

Clark said he can still hear those words, “President Kennedy has been assassinated,” and that Van Quill also told him “assassins” had fired from an overpass. Also, Clark said, the officer told him the U.S. government did not believe the killing was an attack by any foreign country.

In delivering the message, Clark said he was met with various reactions — hostility, shock and disbelief.

With his order completed, Clark said he reported back to the major, who suggested he sit down for coffee in a break room. There, a TV was tuned to a game show, Clark said, and civilian workers were eating. It wasn’t until several minutes later, he said, that a news bulletin came on TV reporting the president had been shot — there was no news yet that Kennedy had died.

“I always found it interesting that NORAD knew President Kennedy was dead almost immediately, and that it took 15 to 20 minutes or more for the news to react to it,” Clark said. “That day lingers in my mind as if it happened this morning.”

After leaving the Air Force, Clark returned to his native California. He earned an education degree at what is now San Jose State University, and worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs before retirement.

For 46 years, he said he has puzzled over the words “assassins” and “overpass” in that stark message. Neither fit the official explanation of what happened in Dallas that day. Yet Clark doubts that either NORAD nor the major, who had flown B-24 bombers in World War II, would be careless or make errors with such fateful news.

“There are so many theories about the Kennedy assassination,” Clark said. “I only know what Major Van Quill told me. And to this day, I believe him.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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