On Nov. 22, 1963, as Jacqueline Kennedy flew from back from Dallas on Air Force One, she sat next to her husband's coffin in the back of the plane. "She wanted to be with Jack the entire time, her hand on the casket," says historian Steve Gillon.
There, as the slain president's closest advisers sat in shock, drinking whiskey, one aide, Larry O'Brien, reminisced about the president's recent visit to the grave of his newborn son Patrick, who had died just two months earlier of respiratory distress syndrome.
According to Gillon, host of the new History Channel podcast 24 Hours After: The JFK Assassination, that's when Jackie quietly mentioned she wanted Patrick to be buried next to the president at Arlington Cemetery.
"She said, 'I will bring them together,'" notes Gillon. "Normally that would not be allowed. But it was important for her to bring them together to a final resting place."
Kennedy Library Jackie Kennedy places flowers on the grave of her husband at Arlington National Cemetery in March 1967. Patrick and their stillborn daughter Arabella lie next to his gravesite.
It's just one of the emotional and surprising stories Gillon shares in the eight-episode podcast, launching today to mark the 59th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The first of an ongoing series that will focus on the immediate aftermath of a historic event.
"What's unique is most of the podcast deals with what happens after the shots were fired," says Gillon, History Channel's scholar in residence and a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma. "For nearly six decades, there has been a fascination with the assassination and who shot JFK, but we are looking at what happened in the critical 24 hours after, focusing on the human response to the horrible events of that day."
According to Gillon, when Kennedy's advisors boarded Air Force One, they were surprised to first see his Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. "Johnson believed that Air Force One had better communications equipment, which it didn't," says Gillon, "but he also said he wasn't leaving without Jackie, and Jackie wasn't leaving without Jack."
When Jackie entered the plane's presidential suite, he says, "LBJ is there. She wants to just wash some of the blood off her face. LBJ apologizes and quickly scurries out of the room. They actually had another dress laid out for her to put on and she refused."
Gillon interviewed two of the surviving witnesses aboard Air Force One that day: Jackie's Secret Service Agent Clint Hill, author of the recent memoir My Travels with Mrs. Kennedy, 90, and White House pool reporter Sid Davis, 95. Both witnessed LBJ's swearing in, a moment seared into memory by the famous photo of Jackie standing at his side.
Gillon describes the moment: a stifling hot plane cabin, sounds of the Kennedy staff sobbing and Jackie's quiet stoicism. "She went out in her blood stained suit and stood next to Lyndon Johnson," he says. "Despite these horrible circumstances, she was willing to stand for a photo because she understood what it meant for the nation to have continuity in government. She understood that she had a role to play in helping the nation transition to a new president."
"They wanted to get those photographs out on the wire services while the plane was still flying back to Washington, to reassure the American people that we had a new president."
Universal History Archive/Getty Lyndon B. Johnson and Jackie Kennedy
"If you think about this day, they're on this plane, and Lyndon Johnson is now President of the United States. It was the greatest fear of Kennedy's closest aides. Going back to the day he had picked LBJ as Vice President, that something would happen to JFK, and that Lyndon Johnson would become president."
The podcast explores some of the dramatic details behind the scenes, including a moment in the aftermath of the assassination when the nuclear codes were temporarily lost.
"The president always has a military aide who carries an attache with all the nuclear codes," he says. "He was in a backup car, and in all the chaos of rushing to the airport, the aide got lost. The codes were soon reunited with the president, but I think that's the only time I know of in the nuclear age where, if the president had wanted to launch a nuclear strike, he would not have been able to because he wouldn't have access to the codes."
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Meanwhile, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy grappled with the shock of his brother's death. "After [FBI Director] J. Edgar Hoover called to say his brother was dead, he's wondering whether his efforts to bring down the mob caused his brother's assassination," says Gillon. "So, his first instinct is to first of all believe it's a conspiracy, and secondly to wonder if he was partly responsible for it, because of his ruthless pursuit of the mob. Or, if it wasn't the mob, then maybe the CIA, or maybe the CIA and the mob were involved. He wonders if it's retribution and at one point, he tells an aide, 'I thought it would be me.'"
It's a line of questioning that gave birth to countless conspiracy theories. "I think he went to his grave with his doubts about who actually killed his brother," says Gillon.
Years later, when Gillon taught the president's son, JFK Jr., at Brown University, the two became friends. According to Gillon, who wrote the 2019 biography of John, America's Reluctant Prince, "John once said something to me that I think about to this day. He said 'Bobby knew everything.' He said it in such a way that Bobby knew things that no one else did."
In the hours after the assassination, Bobby also jumped into action to protect his brother, ordering JFK's files to be immediately secured. "Hoover was known to keep secret files on every major politician in America, and he had files with JFK and various indiscretions and potentially damaging info," says Gillon. "They secured all the material that was in the White House and made sure that Lyndon Johnson didn't get access to any information that could be potentially damaging to his brother."
And it was the attorney general, RFK — whom Gillon describes as LBJ's "mortal enemy" — whom the vice president had to ask when he should take the oath. "It was a call between two enemies," he says.
Looking back, he says, "it was a day of incredible drama, and historic importance. In the midst of the chaos and grief, there are two people who never lost focus on what was best for the nation — and they were Jackie Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson."