USS James E. Kyes and President John F. Kennedy


As a teenager growing up on Cape Cod in the mid-1950s, I was well aware of the famous family who lived a couple of towns over…the Kennedys. Little did I know then, that in the summer of 1963 I would be standing face to face with the commander in chief, talking about our neighborhood connection and tragically just five months later, mourning his senseless assassination.

It began with my enlistment in the U.S. Navy straight out of high school and into one of the most humbling experiences of my life, boot camp at Great Lakes Naval Training Center. Next came 28 weeks of electronics school followed by assignment to the destroyer U.S.S. James E. Kyes, DD-787, home ported in Long Beach, CA. I soon settled into the ship's routine, helping to maintain all the vessel's sophisticated electronics equipment. A typical month involved getting underway for exercises a week or two at a time. We operated along the west coast from San Diego to Seattle with an annual deployment to the Western Pacific. Word soon came down that the Kyes would be part of a 13 ship ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) demonstration test for President Kennedy that June. Training began in earnest in April and we spent many long hours at sea, prepping in coordination with the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Kitty Hawk, CVA-63 and 11 other destroyers, frigates, munitions and supply ships, and oilers. The Kyes was outfitted with the latest in ASW equipment including the deadly anti-submarine rocket (ASROC) and remote controlled drone anti-submarine helicopter (DASH).

To my complete surprise, I was one of two men including an officer and an enlisted man, selected from our 150 member crew to be part of a 26-man honor guard for the President. Lt.jg Bitterling (our weapons officer) and I were hi-lined to the Kitty Hawk the day before the exercise and given a rundown on what to expect. I barely slept a wink that night.

The 45-minute ASW demonstration went off like clock work, punctuated by a delicate ballet of high speed maneuvers, exploding depth charges, aerial support from the carrier, and flames licking from the ASROC launch tubes as the missiles roared into the sky. As the exercise came to an end, Officer Bitterling and I and the rest of the honor guard quickly took our places in front of the Kitty Hawk's conning tower.

With a cue from the flight deck coordinator, the military band began playing ruffles and flourishes as President Kennedy strode briskly to the lectern. Tanned, fit, and dressed in a light blue suit, the President gave a stirring speech about the state of the military and our exercise in particular.

He then proceeded to "meet and greet" each of us standing at rigid attention to his left. As he approached, I snapped my best salute, looked straight into his piercing blue eyes and said "Mr. President".

Reaching out to shake my hand, he glanced at my name and home town printed on my nametag. With his clipped Boston brogue the President said, "I ah, see you're from Sandwich. " "Yes sir," I replied.

"You know I ah, have a home in Hyannis," he continued. To which I promptly responded, "Yes sir, I campaigned for you when I was in high school."

Turning briefly to Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Thomas Moorer, the President pointed his thumb and curled index finger at me and said with a broad smile on his face, "This man is going places!" It was a light hearted moment frozen in time and one that I've never forgotten.

I was in Yokosuka, Japan that fateful November day not quite six months later when Lee Harvey Oswald took his life in Dallas. I cried in disbelief as the world mourned.

Three years later, I stood transfixed in the firing room of LC-39 at Cape Canaveral as the first unmanned launch of the Saturn Apollo V roared off the launch pad. By sheer happenstance, I had made way to Florida after my discharge in 1965 and landed a job as a Boeing technician in our country's manned space program.

Working each launch through Apollo 8, I would later watch in awe as Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon in July 1969. Looking back, I had come full circle, a proud and fitting conclusion to my connection with President Kennedy and his legacy.

Contributed by Kurt Volker ETN2, USS James E. Kyes DD-787

"I can imagine no more rewarding a career. And any man who may be asked in
this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think can respond
with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: 'I served in the United States Navy.'"

President John F. Kennedy, 1 August 1963, in Bancroft Hall at the U. S. Naval Academy.