DAYTON, Ohio — Many items that make up the searing images from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy — from the ill-fated presidential limousine, to the gravesite eternal flame, to the historic Air Force One plane where Lyndon B. Johnson took the oath of office — are available for public viewing 50 years later.
In some cases, authorities had to scramble to make that happen.
Aboard the plane, now in a hangar at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, visitors squeeze down a narrow walkway to stand where people packed into its sweltering state room to watch Johnson, Kennedy’s vice president, sworn in, with Jacqueline Kennedy alongside in the suit stained by her husband’s blood.
“It’s getting hotter and hotter, people are crammed in, emotions are getting higher and higher,” explained Jeff Underwood, historian of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, reflecting the famous images from the plane.
As on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, it wasn’t clear in the first hours after the shooting what was unfolding, he said. Johnson wanted to show the nation that a constitutional transfer of power had been made, and Mrs. Kennedy insisted upon being there, Underwood said.
Visitors can also see the saw cuts in a rear wall hastily made by Air Force crew members who didn’t want the late president’s coffin carried in the cargo hold. They removed two rows of seats for the coffin, which Mrs. Kennedy sat across from on the flight back to Washington.
Experiencing history in a personal way by being where it happened goes beyond reading it, Underwood said during a news media tour.
“Sometimes I see the looks on the faces (of visitors), and it all comes back to me,” said Underwood, a fourth-grader in 1963. “The story is so visceral.”
The federal spending reductions of the sequester had in May halted shuttle bus trips from the museum to the hangar, but museum authorities decided to resume the tours on a trimmed schedule with the anniversary approaching. The Boeing jet — built specially in 1962 for presidential use — was retired by the Air Force in 1998, having flown eight presidents starting with Kennedy.
Among the other items that were part of the events of late November 1963 on display around the county:
- The eternal flame was recently returned to its spot at Kennedy’s gravesite in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia after months of repairs and upgrades. The flame was on a temporary burner in the cemetery visible to tourists during the project.
- The limousine the Kennedys were riding in when the president was fatally shot in Dallas is at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.
- The flag that draped the president’s coffin and the saddle, sword and boots from the “riderless horse” in his funeral procession are among the artifacts being exhibited for the first time starting Nov. 22 at the Kennedy Library in Boston.
- A drum and drumsticks from his funeral are among items on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington.
- The Texas School Book Depository from where Lee Harvey Oswald fired the fatal shots houses the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza.
- The suit worn by Texas Gov. John Connally, which has bullet holes and blood stains from the shooting that also seriously wounded him as he rode in the limo, recently went on display at the Lorenzo de Zavala State Archives and Library in Austin.
Oswald’s rifle and the blood-stained pink suit Jacqueline Kennedy wore that day are not on display. They are among assassination-related items and documents kept by the National Archives and Records Administration.
Kennedy library spokeswoman Rachel Flor said the whereabouts of Mrs. Kennedy’s hat aren’t known, while the outfit worn by the late John Kennedy Jr. when the toddler saluted his father’s funeral procession has remained with the Kennedy family.