Not only Americans mourned President Kennedy's assassination a half a century ago. I was the first person in Europe to read of President Kennedy's assassination. On that fateful day, I was a young editor in the London bureau of United Press International, then a major world-wide news agency, and standing over the teletype feeding news from the United States. The news business has certainly changed since then.
UPI's legendary White House Reporter Merriman Smith played a major role that day, with an assist from the late Helen Thomas, who later became well known as the dean of White House correspondents.
I was a few hours into my shift on UPI's European desk, standing over the chattering teletype from New York, impatiently waiting for a response to a message I had sent half an hour previously to New York seeking additional information to flesh out an earlier middle east related story by Helen Thomas.
Suddenly the teletype's bells started ringing. Then came the "flash" from Dallas that President Kennedy had been shot. Smith was in the motorcade, saw the shooting and grabbed the press car phone first to dictate the story, beating out his frustrated rival, Associated Press reporter Jack Bell. Smith, a tough competitor who died in 1970, had scored a major scoop, for which he won the1964 Pulitzer Prize.
As soon as Smith's flash started hammering in over the main teletype from New York, I shouted loudly to the British teletype operator sitting near me: "break, break, flash. Kennedy shot." I remember waving my right arm for emphasis.
In those days, long before computers,the internet and web sites, news agencies transmitted stories by teletype machines. When stories came in on the teletypes from other parts of the world or by cable or were handed in by the bureau's reporters, those of us on the desk would edit it or rewrite the stories as necessary. We would then put the story in the stack of earlier stories, often shuffling their priority. The teletype operators then typed the stories on a keyboard that perforated tape that in turn fed into a teletype.
Typically the operators would punch up the tape a yard or two in advance, sometimes longer, especially if they wanted to get up from their teletype machine for a minute or two. When a bulletin or flash came in, the chief editor on duty would tell the operator to break the tape and start a new story. Sometimes the British teletype punched up a big ball of tape with a half hours' worth of stories, so they have a cup of tea from the urn against the back wall of the large dingy office. I had been in London only six months and sometimes thought the British operators were a bit lazy and lacked the professional pride in accuracy that characterized the operators in the Washington Bureau where I had worked for four years. But this time they snapped to it.
The European desk, where I was assigned, relayed stories from all over the world to UPI's clients in Europe. Smaller bureaus in Frankfurt, Paris, the Hague, Stockholm, etc. then translated the English language stories were stories into the local language. UPI was a large operation in operations in the 1960s, with about 50 editors, writers and specialists in the London bureau, which was the headquarters and main relay point for stories to and from Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
It was an exciting place to work, especially for a 26-year-old journalist from "the colonies," even if most of the time was spent inside the bureau's large newsroom editing stories or turning the raw cables in polished stories. Every once in a while, there were opportunities to cover Parliament and do other reporting.
The Kennedy shooting threw the busy London bureau into frenzy as it did other newsrooms.. Phones were ringing all 40 or so teletypes seemed to be banging away, and colleagues were scrambling for local angles and putting together a European reaction story.
As I was the only staffer on duty who had worked in the Washington Bureau (I had just transferred to London six months earlier, the bureau manager asked me to bring up to date the canned biography of Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson instead of waiting for Washington to send its version over the wires that were crowded with stories of the breaking developments.
Finding a spare typewriter and desk in the back of the large bureau newsroom, I started updating the old bio, which was at least several years old. I had seen Johnson only a couple times when I was a junior staffer in the Washington bureau and spent part of election night covering his Senate office and meeting his daughters. However I had heard many stories from a couple of the UPI "old hands" who covered the Senate. While banging away on an old manual typewriter, freshening up the bio, I distinctly remember shivering as I recalled some of the stories I had heard about Johnson's ego and operating style.
"So this is our next President," I thought to myself. Kennedy's flaws had not yet fully emerged and he was not a completely distant figure to me. I had helped cover the inaugural parade and a couple events after he was elected.
At some point just before I finished the LBJ obit, I looked up and saw Lisa, a New Zealander I had been dating for a couple of months. She has come to the office to offer her condolences to the one American she knew best. She also brought me something to eat. I could only chat for a minute and then had to go back to work. (We got married a year and later.)
After I turned in my story, a new shift of editors came in and suddenly, after the adrenaline rush subsided and I was able to react. Feeling sad and weary, I slowly dragged myself through the dark and chilly night to the nearest underground station to take the train for the half hour ride to my flat.
That was where it really hit me. Inside the tube station the platforms were crowded with people, reading special editions that had just rolled off the Fleet Street presses. They were completely silent, none of the usual late night chit chat. Some of the women's eyes glistened with tears.
One middle age woman heard me speaking in low tones to a colleague and, hearing my Midwest accent, said softly "we're so sorry."
I kept hearing similar word from other Londoners during the next few days. Indeed, to paraphrase Kennedy's "I am a Berliner" words at the Berlin wall, it seemed as if most of the British I knew or talked to a shop or pub during those sad days were Americans.
The writer worked in the UPI bureau London Bureau from May 1963 to August 1968, with time in between for assignments in Africa, before returning to Washington as the Chief Congressional Correspondent. He later worked in Congress and the State Department.