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, officials 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 Friday 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 officials 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.