Senior Page: Harwich Resident Recalls Time In Kennedy White House

By: Debra Lawless

Topics: Aging , Politics

Harwich resident Norman Katz. COURTESY PHOTO

When Norman Katz, 84, was a young man straight out of Northeastern University, he was chosen to work in a clandestine position in the White House Continuity of Government Special Operations Division.

In that capacity he was present during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 and on the day of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963.

“I’m the last one left in the world from this whole situation,” he says.

Katz, who has lived in West Harwich since 2018, never spoke about his memories of that period until about 2010, when various documents began to be unclassified. When people asked — even his parents, and children — he said he had a desk job. His actual jobs were with the “Special Operations Division,” a highly classified area of the U.S. government that had him reporting to the chief of the U.S. Secret Service and to the director of the CIA. In recent years he has been giving talks and speaking to the media about his time working in the Kennedy Administration. Last month he addressed the Chatham Men’s Club.

Katz grew up in Malden and participated in ROTC at Northeastern University. He had orders that upon graduation he would be sent to South Korea. But one day two FBI agents visited him and asked if he’d like a “special assignment,” location undisclosed. He agreed to it because he was engaged, and the agents said his new wife Myrna could accompany him to the special assignment.

“I have no idea why they picked me,” he said during a telephone interview last week. After his wedding, he was trained and commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Army Signal Corps in Georgia. A couple of months later the couple packed up their Volkswagen and headed to Winchester, Va. He soon found himself employed at “the Mountain,” 48 miles from Washington, D.C.

Mount Weather Emergency Operations Center, as it is now known, was completed in 1959. In the event of a national disaster, civilian and military officials are evacuated there. As such, it is a part of the U.S. Continuity of Operations Plan, which is what brought Katz there during the Cuban Missile Crisis that began a couple of weeks after he assumed his new job.

“We were a hair away from a nuclear holocaust,” Katz says.

Inside the Mountain are a reservoir, a fully-staffed hospital, a mortuary, a full White House and a cafeteria. “They would prepare the finest meals like in the finest hotel,” Katz remembers. A full roast beef dinner cost 50 cents. Yet as a young person, he ordered sandwiches.

The Mountain could take a direct nuclear hit and everyone inside would remain safe. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Katz recalled telling Myrna to fill the bathtub with water in their apartment (so she would have drinking water in the case of a nuclear attack) before he reported to work at the Mountain.

Katz was again at the Mountain on Nov. 21, 1963, when Kennedy went on a campaign tour in Texas. During Kennedy’s time in Texas the team in the Mountain monitored his every move. Shortly after noon on Nov. 22 Katz had wandered from his office and headed to the cryptography department. “I thought it was going to be a normal day,” he recalls. By this time Myrna worked in the Office of Emergency Planning. She caught him as he was walking down the hall and said, “I just heard that the boss has been shot.” His secretary soon informed him that they “had a DEFCON” meaning that the U.S. military was on alert. She confirmed that the president was shot.

“Your stomach sinks,” Katz says. One of the secret service agents had “made a thumbs down sign” at some point so “we knew pretty quickly he was brain dead.”

Later that day, when Air Force One landed at Andrews Air Force Base with the Johnsons, Jacqueline Kennedy and the coffin, Katz accompanied three other officers who met the coffin and followed it to Bethesda Naval Hospital.

Katz says the details of that evening remain vivid in his mind. “I remember the gray-colored Pontiac ambulance,” Katz says. “I stood under the tail wing of U.S. One.

“You never expect to lose a president.”

On the advice of the Mountain’s psychiatric department, Katz did not attend Kennedy’s funeral, which he had helped to plan, but watched it on television.

He remained in his job during Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency, but then called it quits. Myrna wanted to return home to Massachusetts to start a family. The couple moved to Sharon where they raised their two children. Katz continued in the military reserves, and was promoted up to a full Colonel. He served as selectman and police commissioner in the town for 32 years.

Katz says his experiences as a young man have colored his entire life. He was unable to visit the John F. Kennedy Library for 18 years, and when he did, he had to take a Valium beforehand. Nothing in his later life ever approached the intensity of working in the Kennedy administration during the Cuban Missile Crisis and assassination.

“Was it Camelot? Absolutely,” he says. “It was beautiful – and poof.”