Photo courtesy of the Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections, Chester Fritz Library, University of North Dakota.
On September 25, 1963, President John F. Kennedy visited the University of North Dakota as part of a five-day tour across the United States.
The school's Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) was in charge of crowd control for the President's visit to campus, linking arms to create a barricade between President Kennedy and the thousands of spectators outside the UND Fieldhouse that day.
Jim Brosseau, an ROTC student of the time, shares his recounting of the event in this essay, read aloud by Glen Phillips.
This is an excerpt from The Great American Folk Show, Episode 8.
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In January of 1962 my mother took me to the County Courthouse to register for the military draft. I had just turned 18, and all 18-year-old boys had to do that. Mom was pretty blue that day — in part because I was a senior in high school and would soon be moving away to college. But she was also worried, because there was trouble in Southeast Asia and many young men were being sent there to fight in a war none of us could relate to. I know she felt the same way when my brother had to register the following year.
My dad was worried, too. He had fought long and hard in World War 2 — “The” war, as we still called it — and he didn’t want either of his boys to have to go through what he went through. But it was our duty to register for the draft and go and fight if we were called. No one in our family thought it would be right to resist.
Since I was in good health, I got a 1A classification, meaning I was fit to go off to war if called. However, our President then was John F. Kennedy, and he had proclaimed that young men could get a deferment from the draft if they stayed in college and kept their grades up and got their degrees. That meant at least four years, and surely the fighting in Southeast Asia would be over by then.
Everyone loved President Kennedy. We all called him JFK. He had been in “the” war. He had written a book that we all read in high school, called Profiles in Courage, about great American heroes. He had started the Peace Corps and had recruited role models such as the Olympic champion Rafer Johnson to inspire young people to do great things. And we were all inspired by JFK.
So I went off to college at the University of North Dakota with my draft card in my wallet. It said I was now 1A-D, meaning I would be deferred from the draft as long as I was making progress in college. But I would still have to check in with the draft board every year.
Once in college, all freshmen boys were required to enroll in ROTC — the Reserve Officers Training Corps. We called it "Rot-C," and we had to take it for at least two years. We were issued uniforms, and we had to learn how to march and shoot an M-1 rifle. Twice a week, we took classes on such things as map reading and military tactics. We were taught the chain of command and told what was expected of us if we were ever taken prisoner by the enemy.
Our instructors were veterans of the Korean War, where they had all been “non-coms” — non-commissioned officers — and none of them had ever been to college. They were skeptical of us young college kids, especially to think that if we did go into the service we would go in as second lieutenants. They were skeptical of our ability to lead other soldiers in combat. All of us in ROTC were skeptical of that, too. But most of us did not foresee that we would actually be called to serve once we finished school.
Some of my classmates were more inspired by the thought of military service, and they stayed in ROTC for their junior and senior years also. They became “platoon leaders” for the underclassmen. Most of these upperclassmen entered the military right after college, and many were sent directly overseas.
So that’s how it was in September of 1963, when I was just starting my sophomore year at UND, when we heard that the President of the United States, JFK himself, would be coming to UND and speaking in the Fieldhouse on campus. Tens of thousands of people were expected to be present in hopes of catching a glimpse of JFK. And all of us ROTC students were going to be part of his security team! We were to be in charge of crowd control!
When I think about it now, putting 18 and 19-year-old college boys from North Dakota in charge of anything seems ludicrous. And we were going to be helping to protect the President of the United States! That’s almost in the realm of fairy tales.
When the big day came, all of us gathered outside the Fieldhouse to get our assignment. The President and his entourage would be coming in by helicopter and landing on the softball fields adjacent to the Fieldhouse. A thousand boys, all dressed up like little toy soldiers, would be linking arms and surrounding the field and pushing back against the throngs of spectators. We were told to keep our backs to the crowd, and under no circumstances were we to allow anyone to cross our line. It was critical that we not break rank, for that might allow the crowd to swarm the President. No one imagined anyone would want to purposely harm JFK. The worry was that he’d be hurt by someone who loved him too much.
Our platoon leader, a guy named Phil, told me to stand near the point where the President was to exit the landing field. He did it as a favor to me, and I never knew why.
The President flew into the Air Force Base west of town and came to the campus by helicopter. A few minutes before he landed we could hear the sound of the “chopper” coming in. It was exciting. And it was scary. I was standing next to my friend, Bill, whose dad was a professor at UND. There were thousands of people crowded in behind us. They were already starting to push against the line. We held tight and braced ourselves.
Just one single chopper landed, but it was a big one, and it made a deafening noise. Once it was on the ground, we watched as JFK and his bodyguards got off and were met by local officials and politicians. After a round of handshakes they piled into a couple of Cadillac convertibles and headed right toward where I was standing. JFK ordered the car he was in to stop when they got to our line, then he got out and started reaching across the ROTC guys and shaking hands with some of the spectators. He wasn’t supposed to do that, and the Secret Service guys who surrounded him looked nervous when he did. They were the toughest-looking men I have ever seen.
And there was the President of the United States, just a few feet away from me, reaching out to his adoring fans. It was a beautiful day, but it seemed like the sun’s rays were all focused on JFK. He was all aglow, smiling, and reflecting the light onto the people he touched.
Then, without warning, my friend Bill let go of me and the guy on the other side of him and walked towards the President. It must have looked very suspicious to the Secret Service, and they muscled him out of the way, but not before he shook the President’s hand. I had grabbed the guy who had been positioned on the other side of Bill. We were really straining against the surging crowd, but we held on. And we didn’t let Bill back in line until the President had entered the Fieldhouse. We were all disgusted with him for breaking rank.
Once JFK was inside the Fieldhouse the crowd outside relaxed a bit. But we kept our arms linked, just as we were told to do. There were thousands of people waiting for the President inside the Fieldhouse. They cheered for a long time, and when he spoke they seemed to break out in cheers about every five minutes.
After about an hour, JFK emerged from the Fieldhouse and got into the waiting car, and this time they drove right to the chopper. JFK didn’t shake any hands this time, but he smiled and waved to the people, and they all went wild. Everyone loved JFK — Republicans and Democrats alike.
All of us ROTC boys held strong as the President boarded the chopper and lifted off the field. Then our platoon leader came and told us we could disperse. But the people who had come to see the President stayed for a long time, talking about what they had just seen.
Everyone knew that Bill had broken rank — the only one of the thousand ROTC students to do so. We figured he’d get some kind of punishment, but he never did. And really, what could they do to him? Give him a dishonorable discharge from ROTC? He was a college student! Some of us thought he got off easy because his dad was a professor. Who knows? The worst part was Bill never showed the slightest remorse for his behavior. In fact, he bragged about it! And that’s what I’ll always remember him for. And, yes, I was jealous, too. He had actually touched the President.
Two months later, JFK was riding in another motorcade in Dallas when he was shot and killed by a sniper. All of us who had been on campus when he visited us were appalled. Everyone in the country went into mourning. But we knew that nothing like that could have happened at UND. People from North Dakota would never even think of such a thing.
My friend, the deserter, Bill, was in a bad accident later that year. He was injured to the point that his draft status was changed to 4F. That meant he would never be called to serve.
And Phil, the guy who stationed me where I’d get to see the President up close? He graduated and went into the service. He was sent to a war zone in Vietnam. One day, while he was on patrol, he was shot and killed by a sniper, just as JFK had been. Years later I went to see the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. I knew his name would be engraved there somewhere, but I never saw it. Because I couldn’t remember his last name.
And I guess that’s the way life is. We meet and mingle and laugh together, and sometimes we share momentous experiences. But then we go our separate ways, and a few years later, we don’t even remember each other’s names. And then, like it says in the Whiffenpoof Song, “we pass and are forgotten with the rest.”
Essay by Jim Brosseau