Memorials mark 50 years since JFK assassination

A half-century after the death of the 35th president, the nation pauses to remember one of its darkest hours

The nation solemnly marked the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination Friday with subdued remembrances at Kennedy's grave and the infamous site in Dallas where the young, glamorous president was gunned down in an open-top limousine.

Flags flew at half-staff, and moments of silence were planned for the hour when Kennedy, 46, was shot riding in a motorcade. The quiet reverence extended across the Atlantic Ocean to his ancestral home in Ireland.

Shortly after sunrise, Attorney General Eric Holder paid his respects at Kennedy's recently refurbished grave at Arlington National Cemetery, where a British cavalry officer stood guard, bagpipes played and a flame burned steadily as it has for the last half-century.

About an hour later, Jean Kennedy Smith, 85, the last surviving Kennedy sibling, laid a wreath at her brother's grave, joined by about 10 members of the Kennedy family. They clasped hands for a short, silent prayer and left roses as a few hundred tourists watched.

Speaking with Al Jazeera's Thomas Drayton on Friday, Dean Owen, journalist and author of "November 22, 1963: Reflections on the Life, Assassination, and Legacy of John F. Kennedy," said JFK "changed the face of the U.S. presidency."

"He was America's first television president, he was the youngest president ever elected to office — charismatic, witty, charming," Owen said. "He was a role model for many, many individuals and inspired many young people ... to go into public service."

Dallas was bitterly cold, damp and windy on Friday, far different from the bright sunshine that filled the day Kennedy died.

About 5,000 tickets were issued for the free ceremony in Dealey Plaza, which is flanked by the Texas School Book Depository building where sniper Lee Harvey Oswald perched on the sixth floor.

A stage for the memorial ceremony, just south of the depository building, was backed with a large banner showing Kennedy's profile. Video screens showed images of the president with his family.

People began assembling for the event hours ahead of time.

"President Kennedy has always been kind of revered in our family," said Colleen Bonner, 41, of suburban Hurst. "I just wanted to honor his memory, and I wanted to be a part of history."

The U.S. Naval Academy Men's Glee Club performed at the ceremony, in a nod to Kennedy's military service. An Air Force flyover had to be canceled due to overcast weather. A moment of silence was held at 12:30 p.m., marking the time when the president was shot.

Numerous events were held around Dallas this year to mark the anniversary, including panels of speakers who were there that day, special concerts and museum exhibits.

Doctor: I knew he was dead

Drs. Ronald Jones and Robert McClelland were young surgeons at Dallas' Parkland Memorial Hospital when Kennedy visited the city. Friday, Nov. 22, was a day that began like any other, but it quickly changed after lunchtime.

"The president has been shot, and they're bringing him to the emergency room, and they needed doctors right away," Jones told Al Jazeera's Heidi Zhou-Castro while recounting the moments after Kennedy was shot. 

"I saw Mrs. Kennedy sitting on a folding chair outside trauma room one, and so then I was horrified to realize that it was just what they had said it was, that the president had been shot," McClelland said. 

JFK was covered in blood on a gurney, with his arms spread, eyes open.

"I couldn't get any sterile gloves," Jones said. "I opened the tray and (bare-handed) did a cut down and got an IV going in his left upper arm." 

McClelland was the first to see Kennedy's head wound.

"The back half of the right side of his brain was gone," he said. "And as I stood there, the cerebellum, the lower part of the brain, fell out through the hole onto the cart. So this was obviously a fatal wound, nothing could be done about that." 

Jones recounted to Al Jazeera how he was asked to deliver the fateful news.

"The Secret Service man came up with a badge in his hand," said Jones, "and identified himself and said, 'I need to call (FBI Director) J. Edgar Hoover and tell him the condition of the president,' and right behind him was Secret Service, and they said, 'I need to call Joseph Kennedy and tell him the condition of his son.' And right then I realized that Joseph Kennedy is going to get bad news, the whole world was going to find out that Kennedy was dead."

But Jones faced a dilemma. Jacqueline Kennedy had asked doctors to delay the death pronouncement until after the president, a Roman Catholic, received his last rites.

"So I told them he was not doing well, but I knew he was dead," Jones said. 

Moments later a priest arrived, and Mrs. Kennedy entered the room. McClelland witnessed her goodbye to her husband.

"She stood there, she was very self-contained, stood there for a moment and exchanged a ring from her finger to the president's finger, and a ring from his finger to her finger," he said. "She leaned over and kissed his right foot and walked out."

Less than 48 hours later, both doctors would be operating on a dying Oswald. The men say they just did their jobs, while history unfolded on their operating table.

JFK remembered in Ireland

Click here for more on JFK: 50 years later.

On Thursday in Dublin, a half-dozen Irish soldiers toting guns with brilliantly polished bayonets formed a guard of honor outside the U.S. Embassy as the American flag was lowered to half-staff. An Irish army commander at the embassy drew a sword and held it aloft as a lone trumpeter played "The Last Post," the traditional British salute to war dead. A bagpiper played laments including "Amazing Grace." A U.S. Marine raised the flag again as the bugler sounded an upbeat reveille.

More than a dozen retired Irish army officers who, as teenage cadets, had formed an honor guard at Kennedy's graveside gathered in the front garden of the embassy to remember the first Irish-American to become president of the United States.

Together with Irish Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore and embassy staff, they observed a minute's silence and laid two wreaths from the Irish and American governments in memory of JFK.

The former cadets invited by Jacqueline Kennedy to serve as the graveside honor guard described the awe — and fear — they experienced as they traveled to the United States 50 years earlier.

"We were young guys, all pretty much 18. We had no passports, no visas. None of us had flown before," said retired Col. Brian O'Reilly, 68. "We were told on the Saturday night we were wanted for the funeral. The next day, we were on the plane with our own president (Eamon de Valera) heading for Washington."

The day was crisp and windless, with trees full of autumn leaves and a cloudless blue sky, the sun blindingly low on the horizon.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press 

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JFK 50 Years Later

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