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Word for Word: Former deputy sheriff recalls lax JFK security during Tampa stop

Daryl May was a rookie deputy with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office when his captain assigned him to a special detail on Nov. 18, 1963. He remembers his boss asking, "You want to help guard the president?"

A Marine helicopter flew President John F. Kennedy that afternoon into the baseball stadium at Al Lopez Field in Tampa, where Kennedy addressed a crowd of 10,000. It was the first time a president had visited Tampa.

"Security was lax, even though the word was out that an attempt might be made on his life," May said. "No one asked us for ID. No one checked us at the security gate. And I was packing a .38 Smith & Wesson."

Kennedy spoke for 30 minutes, then strode to the stands to shake his supporters' hands. "He was so close," May remembers, "I could smell the cigar smoke on his jacket."

As he left the ballfield, Kennedy climbed into a Lincoln Continental convertible. His motorcade threaded down Dale Mabry Highway, through downtown, covering 20 miles in 45 minutes. The longest U.S. motorcade of his presidency.

Four days later, Kennedy was dead. Assassinated in Dallas. In the same car that had carried him through Tampa.

"That haunted me," May said. "It made me so angry. Someone should have protected that man more."

On Dec. 2, 1963, May wrote a seven-page letter to his parents, talking about the president he had been so close to, so close to the day he died.

Last summer, he found the faded letter in his dad's desk. May is 74 now. But on every anniversary of Kennedy's death, he still feels helpless. "At that moment," he said, "our nation lost its civility."

Following is an excerpt from May's letter to his parents in Illinois:

Lane DeGregory, Times staff writer, and Natalie Watson, Times news researcher

Dear Folks,

The 18th of November, the sheriff sent seven deputies to Tampa to help guard Kennedy. Before we went, they said we were to be the guards but I thought they'd put us on the street corner.

Myself and two other deputies escorted a motorcade from St. Petersburg to Tampa across the new Howard Franklin Causeway to the Al Lopez baseball field where Kennedy was to make his first speech. We had 10 big Greyhound buses and about 150 cars — approx. 1,200 to 1,500 people.

I knew the exact route over there but when we arrived there was no one there to show us where to park. So we had about two miles of vehicles lined along the highway and no place to put them. Finally we ran them onto the parking lot and after we had them parked learned that we had put them in the wrong spot — mercy!

After we finished with the escort we had been told nothing specific to do so the three of us just walked through the security gate and got right up next to the speaker's stand and looked important. And we weren't ever asked to do anything or move.

A sergeant with the Tampa police department came around just before Kennedy arrived and told all deputies not to take our eyes off of the crowd when JFK got off the 'copter.' They told us not to take our hats off during prayers or to salute when the National Anthem was played.

Two big Marine 'copters landed and were loaded with Secret Service men that added to what were already there — then HIS 'copter came in and the crowd went crazy!

He looked just as he did on TV — maybe a little heavier. The Secret Service men between him and the crowd and most of us deputies kept close to Kennedy. Only deputies were in the ballpark — Tampa police and Florida Highway Patrolmen were lined along the motor route he would take later to the hotel where he would make a speech at lunch.

During most of the time he was in the ballfield I stood about 10 yards from the speaker's spot. (At the department shooting range I can shoot 10 shots at 15 yards and create a pattern not wider than two inches at the bull's eye!) What I'm trying to point out is that NO ONE checked us out and we were all armed. I know I could have gotten two shots off before anyone had gotten to me — so all that crap you read about how particular they are in guarding the President was a lot of B.S. When he got off the 'copter I got the jitters because I realized how easy it would be for some screwball to get to probably the most important man in the world. People tried every way under the sun to touch him.

After the speech he walked over to the crowd (which he wasn't supposed to do) and the Secret Service men went wild! The majority of the crowd was behind a 4-foot steel mesh fence but there were about 300 special guests down on the field. And when he came down off the speaker's stand we had to hold back the crowd. You should have heard those security men talking to the special guests, "I'm only going to tell you once to SIT DOWN!"

He then got into THAT Lincoln convertible and drove very slowly towards the exit. When he passed by me he was shaking the hands of people I was holding back and if I'd have been Lee Oswald I could have pushed the muzzle of my .38 right up against him.

He was a wonderful man and I had the chance of a lifetime to see the President of the United States. But life has a strange way of working and I had the feeling that I had lost some part of my family when I heard he was murdered the following Friday.

The thing is, it could have happened in Tampa!

Word for Word is an occasional feature excerpting passages of interest from books, magazines, websites and other sources. The text may be edited for space but the original spelling, grammar and punctuation are unchanged.

Word for Word: Former deputy sheriff recalls lax JFK security during Tampa stop 11/20/10 [Last modified: Saturday, November 20, 2010 3:31am]
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