THE star-crossed Kennedy couple, John Fitzgerald. and Jacqueline, have once again been on my television screen – stars of another documentary about their fateful journey to Dallas. As I watched, memories came flooding back to the night when I first saw the tragedy unfold nearly 50 years ago on a TV screen in the editorial offices of the Tokyo newspaper where I worked as news editor.
The assassination of any president, American or otherwise, is a history making event – to one degree or another. But although I wasn't aware of it at the time, the events I personally witnessed in the editorial offices of the Shipping & Trade News, a Tokyo daily business paper, in the early hours of the morning that long ago November day, was another kind of history changing event. Journalism, especially in the field of foreign news coverage, would never be the same.
It was the satellite that did it!
We had never had a television set in our editorial offices before 22 November, 1963 – in those days it wasn't considered a necessary requirement for an editorial office. A team of reporters covered local news, our own cameramen and photo agencies provided pictures, and a bank of four Teletype machines linked to Associated Press, United Press International, Reuters and the French agency AFP kept us in permanent touch with every corner of the outside world.
The TV set was a temporary fixture to cover a very special news event. This was the day when the Americans would begin broadcasting TV test programmes to Japan and other Far Eastern countries via the Pacific's first satellite. Which is why, on that particular day, after an evening with friends in a club in down town Ginza, I returned to my office just after midnight, ready to write a report on this new development in the world of communications.
Normally, the night shift consisted of two translators who read through the major Japanese morning papers and wrote a digest of all the major stories. There was also a night sub-editor, who was responsible for the back page news page – like the old Times of London our front page was reserved for advertisements. The back page carried the Japanese press digest and the most up-to-date international news – our central Tokyo edition had the latest news deadline of any paper in Japan at that time.
As we waited for the satellite test to begin I checked through the news reports the night sub-editor had prepared for the morning edition. One of the items was a simple brief report from Associated Press informing the world that President Kennedy, accompanied by his wife, had arrived in Dallas, Texas. A straight forward report suitable to fill a short space in the lower half of the page.
Finally, the test began. The cheers of our small team and the excitement that greeted the test proved to be an anti-climax – it was a picture from the Arizona desert. A still picture of cactus plants, rocks and sand. There was not even the movement of a fly. In between helping the night sub editor for an hour or so and casting an occasional glance at the unmoving scene on the TV screen I realised that my report would have to be short and sweet. It was not something that would set the world on fire. I wrote it, gave it to the night sub editor for the back page news round up, and decided to get a few hours sleep in the staff bedroom – a convenient facility for staff members on late night assignments or others who couldn't face the journey home to distant suburbs. It was tucked away in a corner of the business offices on the first floor.
I fell asleep as soon as my head touched the pillow and must have slept no more than an hour when I heard a voice calling over and over again, 'Rick san, Rick san, come quickly!' It was copy boy calling from the doorway of the bedroom. 'President Kennedy has been shot! He has been wounded.'
Two minutes later I was up, dressed and racing down the stairs – and all the way from the bedroom to the editorial office there was a non-stop clanging of Teletype bells, as shrill and crisis laden as ambulances and fire engines in the streets of a blitzed and blacked out London. Veterans of a newsroom in those days could read the sound of the bells as readily as naval commanders read Nelson's flag messages. The bells were different for urgent stories, bulletins, and flash – the latter virtually unused, for the non-stop rapid pulsing of flash bells warned that history might be in the making. As I hurried into the office our bells indicated that we were getting a lot of bulletins, brief one or two paragraph reports.
When I reached the machines I just had time to see that Kennedy was being treated in hospital then the bells paused and were silent for a few seconds as though the machines were seeking new energy. Then they erupted in a frenzy of non-stop sound. The four flash messages were all identical – Kennedy Dead. Just two words.
At that moment the Arizona desert test picture on the TV screen that had remained perfectly still for hours began shaking, then vanished – to be replaced by a clear picture of journalists being briefed by a doctor outside the Dallas hospital where John Fitzgerald Kennedy had just lost his last fight for life.
Then came the first of the repeats of the actual shooting, the pictures that will continue to be shown again and again down the years into an un-knowable future – the wounded man held upright for a time in Jackie's arms; Jackie standing upright for a moment, unsteady on her feet, leaning towards the rear of the car where the Governor of Texas lay wounded; most poignant of all, Jackie holding the President's head on her lap.
And so I witnessed a revolution in the world of journalism and international communications, although as the tragedy of the Kennedy family unfolded I had little time to think about such matters.
I was too busy doing what journalists do at such times – covering the story. Our entire late news page had to be re-done; I edited the copy, found pictures in the files; made arrangements with the printer to set up a thick black border around the page – and re-wrote my short piece about the satellite test that had opened with still pictures from the Arizona desert – and concluded with the most moving pictures of the decade.
It was all done and dusted and our paper distributed in downtown Tokyo in little more than two hours. We had a scoop, of a kind – for we carried the first full English language press reports of the assassination in Tokyo.