Former Secret Service agent, Gerald S Blaine, was on the Kennedy Detail when JFK came to Galway. Here he looks back at that famous trip to Ireland and gives some fantastic insights into the occasion in 1963 from his unique viewpoint. From circling over Ireland in the helicopter, to the warm céad míle fáilte the President received, we uncover new information about what he describes as the President’s “happiest visit of his entire thousand days in office”.
Jerry entered the Secret Service in 1959, protecting President Eisenhower, President Kennedy and was later assigned to President Lyndon Johnson following the assassination of JFK in Dallas.
“When I was discharged from the military after four years, I attended the University of Colorado and applied for the Secret Service at the end of my Junior year. It takes a year to do the clearance for the job, so I was appointed after I graduated. I started in the Denver office and three months later, I was assigned to the White House Detail protecting President Eisenhower. I was transferred to the Kennedy Detail the day he was elected.”
He was 31-years-old when he arrived in Galway with President Kennedy. The excitement of the Ireland trip was already starting to build in Berlin.
“President Kennedy’s visit to Berlin and Germany was an overwhelming success and one of the highlights of his presidency. He made a comment leaving Berlin that he was looking forward to his visit to the mother country, where he could relax and have fun. With him on the visit were Dave Powers and Ken O’Donnell - his ‘Irish mafia’ as they were called. All three were elated. The whole mood turned to a festive one and did not change until we departed Ireland. I would venture to say that it was the happiest visit of his entire thousand days in office. The festivities included Irish singers, dancers and a great deal of Irish humour,” he says.
While travelling in the helicopter across Ireland, they had a bird’s eye view of the landscape and shared great moments. Even en route in the air, the President made time for the people who had come out to see him.
“President Kennedy travelled by helicopter throughout the whole country. I was fortunate enough to ride with him. It was an amazing trip viewing the emerald green grass and the castles and landmarks. The President was constantly requesting the pilot to circle around particular areas and the helicopter was identifiable by its military green bottom and the white top. People below were waving and the President would ask the pilot to circle them. He had a wonderful time viewing his ancestral homeland,” he explains.
For Jerry, the welcome for the President was “marvellous”. The Irish people, he said, were “as overjoyed as the President” to see him and “everyone in the President’s party felt they were Irish during that visit”. “I do not remember a moment,” he says, “ that he was not smiling and happy as can be. He was surrounded by people that he understood and were part of his roots”.
Jerry already had a picture painted of the country through the “Irish songs, stories and folklore imbedded by Irish immigrants” in America, and of “Galway Bay in particular”.
“I loved Ireland and have been there a few times after the Kennedy visit. I have a portion of Ireland in my blood stream, so I took to it like a duck does to water. Everyone on the Detail loved it. The people were fun to talk to and to see the joy in their faces was something I could not forget. It was the happiest trip that I took with the President. Most of them were nothing but hard work and increased paranoia. It was not the case in Ireland.”
There were no specific threats against President Kennedy during his Irish tour and, as such, no special security arrangements had to be put in place. The measures taken were the same as every city visited. However, at one point in Dublin, the excited crowds circling the motorcade meant that an agent ended up in the President’s lap!
“Special Agent Robert Burke and a couple of other Irish descent agents conducted the security advance in Ireland. They received the greatest support from the law enforcement officials. Ironically, they gave instructions to all of the law enforcement officers who would be working the visit. They were given the ordinary instructions provided to officers in the state and local governments in the United States.
“They were told to keep their backs to the motorcade and survey the crowd, the overhead windows and roof tops. When the President arrived in Dublin, we were in a motorcade and all of a sudden the crowds rushed towards the car, led by police officers seeking an autograph. We were swamped, and one of the agents ended up on the President’s lap. It happened a few times during the visit. In situations like that we were worried about the President being jostled and causing problems with his back. The unfortunate thing about a crowd is that it has no mind or conscience and can often create a real problem. As it turned out, that was not the case in Ireland. There was overall affection for President Kennedy.”
The only concern the security team had here was that of “over affection”. There were five agents with the President while he was travelling and they never let their guard down. Their job was to cover him and evacuate if there were any difficulties. If he was going to a function, an additional five agents were assigned.
He describes the President and Mrs Kennedy as “wonderful to work for”. The President enquired about their families, remembered all of the details and always addressed the agents by their first name. He would take time to joke with them at events and demonstrated enormous respect for their work.
“He never forgot the facts. The President and Mrs Kennedy were wonderful to work for.
“They were both very personable and the first time an agent met the President, he would ask them their name, where they were from, if they were married and the wife’s name, plus the number of children. If he was not involved in state business, he would stop by and relay a joke, or demonstrate his warmth and humour. He respected the Secret Service and we had an affection for him as a man and President.”
He describes how Jacqueline Kennedy valued her privacy and they built their own home away from the White House called ‘Wexford’.
With such a closeness to the clan, Jerry was understandably deeply affected by the assassination in Dallas. He continued to work for President Johnson and left the Secret Service one year later, in 1964. He has written about his experiences in his book, The Kennedy Detail, where he outlines what happened on that fateful day in November, 1963 and its aftermath. It had a dramatic effect upon “what it was like then versus today”.
“We only had 36 agents and drivers on the Kennedy Detail. Today there are considerably more agents, plus bullet and bombproof vehicles, plus magnetometer clearance checks on people invited to a function. It finally became evident to the government after Dallas that we did not have the resources to do the job necessary to protect the government. The information in the book was provided by all of the agents on the Kennedy Detail and their descendents.
Jerry went on to the private sector, as director of security for IBM, ARCO and later Hill and Associates, and retired in 2004, moving to Grand Junction Colorado.
written by Avril Horan