The 35th President………Honor and Duty and Motor Units…………
It amazes even me sometimes what path some of my motorcycles take me down when trying to write something that you, my history hungry readers would find interesting and maybe at the least entertaining. So there I sat in my bike barn cleaning my 1974 Moto Guzzi Eldorado LAPD bike, and as I polished the chrome siren I thought of the pursuits this bike may have been in and the law and order it helped enforce. Los Angeles had some high profile events going on in 1974 when my bike entered service. Patty Hearst had been kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army and six SLA members had been killed in a shoot out with LAPD. The L.A. Dodgers would win the NL West and John Lennon and Paul McCartney did their first recordings together since the beatles broke up in 1970 in the famous “Lost Weekend” that Lennon spent in L.A. But the biggest story would be the return of the resigned (and soon pardoned) President Richard M. Nixon, who would be escorted by no less than 24 LAPD motor units to his home in San Clemente, Calif. And I thought to myself, was my original LAPD motor unit part of any of this significant history in its service life? Chasing Patty Hearst, escorting the Dodgers bus? or as I like to think, part of the ex president’s motorcade taking Nixon on that long lonely ride home and into history. You see the first images of police motorcycles I remember as a kid were JFK’s motorcades. Kennedy was really the nation’s first “television” president and he knew its value. He was also a very handsome and charismatic leader who knew the crowds loved to see him and that, televisions were in fact flying off the shelves and into voters homes. It was a changing time in America. Crowds at government events were getting bigger, more divided and dangerous.The blue 1961 Lincoln limousine Kennedy rode in would be the last unarmored and unreinforced convertible Presidential limousine ever made.After JFK’s death, it became a very different time in America, it suddenly became much more important to protect the President then to see him. And this my friends is where the local law enforcement motor units come into play. For it falls to the local police departments to assist the Secret Service in protecting a Presidential motorcade,and still to this day the motor unit makes up more than half of the vehicles involved in one.
It was 4 days before JFK would be assassinated at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, the date was Nov. 18th. 1963 when President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s plane would touch down at Mac Dill Air Force Base. He and General Paul D. Adams would sit in the very same Lincoln that he and his wife Jackie would be in on that fateful day in Dallas.The motorcades in Texas needed Jackie. For you see they made an amazingly photogenic couple and the campaign needed the Texas voter. The Tampa motorcade route would begin after a speech at Al Lopez Field. It went south on Dale Mabry then turned east and ran 5 miles up Grand Central Avenue to Franklin Street. Winded it’s way around to Howard Avenue and stopped at the Fort Homer Hesterley Armory where he would deliver another speech. Then back to Grand Central Avenue and west to the International Inn (now the InterContinental). After another 20 minute speech back to Grand Central Avenue and then return to MacDill. In JFK’s entire presidency this would be his second longest motorcade route, eclipsed only by his famous Berlin, Germany trip. On this entire route JFK was guarded front, back and all sides by the Tampa Police Department Motor Officers, 34 motor units in all on that sunny day in November. I recently talked with retired TPD motor officer Russell Groover (who with officer Ronald Barber) were chosen to be the two motor units closest to JFK. The FBI and Tampa Police started recieving threats against the President two weeks before his landing. Two days before the President’s arrival when asked by the Secret Service “If anyone breaks through this perimeter you are to take them out. How would you do this?” Without thinking, officer Groover said “I’d hit them with my motorcycle”. With hands needed to operate the motor unit and the possibility of a stray bullet into the crowd, it was the correct answer. Officer Barber agreed and they had their two “lead” men to the left and right of our 35th President. Officer Groover drew a detailed diagram of the TPD motor unit deployment. It was a very closely spaced diamond of 7 units around JFK’s car and the remaining 23 boxing in that formation. He also commented that in every multi story building along the motorcade there were police or military stationed on every floor and the roof. At Mac Dill, president Kennedy thanked every officer personally and with a handshake, for Tampa did its job well and JFK boarded Air Force One without incident.
The motor units are of immense value in a motorcade due to narrow road lanes and crowded conditions. They can pass, drop back and are a great tool to “push” back an overzealous crowd from the Presidential cars in such limited space. While moving the motorcade along at about 11 mph. And when bracketing JFK’s Presidential limo, they would block dangerous sight lines. I don’t think there’s a shot of Kennedy’s limo in most motorcades that you can’t see 2 or more motor units.
It would be on Nov. 29th. 1963 LIFE Magazine would release 30 still frames of the famed Zapruder film and they would be continuously in the public eye until 1975 when a little known TV host Geraldo Rivera would make history with the first ever network showing of the 26.6 second Zapruder film in its entirety. I was 13 then and the only thing I noticed besides JFKs blue limo in this film is the DPD motor units. You can’t look at the Zapruder, Nix or Willis photos or film or the Tampa motorcade stills of local media legend Tony Zappone and not see a Dallas or Tampa motor unit near President Kennedy. But, on that Black Friday Nov. 22nd 1963, the 22 motor officers of the Dallas Police Department would be front and center of so many different events that it could and does fill books. In the last moments of the President’s life you see DPD motor units leading JFK around the 120 degree left turn towards the Texas School Book Depository, then the 4 motor units behind him, then chaos. It would be DPD motor officer B.W. Hargis who would lay his bike down in a rush to the infamous “grassy knoll”with his service revolver drawn.It would be a DPD motor officer Marion L. Baker who would rush to the Texas School Book Depository and find Lee Harvey Oswald on the second floor only to have Oswald’s supervisor vouch for him as an employee there, and amid all the confusion the officer would continue to the sixth floor looking for the shooter. And it would be motor officer H.B. McClain who at Parkland Hospital would get a grief stricken Jackie Kennedy to release her protective shield of her husband and let doctors remove him from the back seat of the limo and he then would escort her into the emergency room. Even after that day they would figure into the books, investigations and commission reports. A quote from DPD motor officer B.J.Martin “They told us out at Love Field right after Kennedy’s plane landed… Well while Kennedy was out shaking hands with all the well wishers at the airport Johnson’s Secret Service people came over to the motorcycle cops and gave a bunch of instructions. They ordered us into the damdest escort formation I’d ever seen. Ordinarily, you bracket the car with four motorcycles, one on each fender, but this time, they told the four of us assigned to the President’s car there would be no forward escorts. We were to stay well back and not let ourselves get ahead of the car’s rear wheels under any circumstances. I’d never heard of a formation like that, much less riden in one, but they said they wanted to let the crowds have an unrestricted view of the President. Well, I guess somebody got an unrestricted view of him all right. In the 1979 House Select Commitee on Assassinations report (volume 11,pg.529)it stated “The Secret Services’s alteration of the original Dallas Police Departments motorcycle deployment plan prevented the use of maximim possible security precautions. Surprisingly, the security measure used in the prior motorcades during same Texas visit 11/21/63 shows the deployment of motorcycles in Dallas may have been uniquely insecure, and goes on to cite the very secure formations at Tampa, San Antonio and Fort Worth on the days leading up to Dallas. I would like you to know this article isn’t written to stir up conspiracies or create government mistrust, this is a motorcycle article and is not a place for my religion or politics or “theories”. No it’s to show the danger motor units and the officers face and how they think and act. But It’s also about how two motorcade units played a pivotal role in American history that one week in November of 1963. Motorcade escort is not the main duty of the local law enforcement motor units, but it’s the most highly visible service they perform and a dangerous one too. Just in the past few years a motor officer escorting President Bush and most recently Hillary Clinton (in Dallas) were killed in the line of duty. But like mounted officers and K9 units they have a different connection and a different mind set. Motor officers, like us, are exposed to the same dangers. The left turners, rain, snow and wind and they basically ride bikes just like ours. But now, due to budget problems and cut backs, they are becoming an endangered occupation in all but the biggest cities. What is written here are just some facts about how 2 different motorcades being protected by motor officers all did their duty, carried out what they were instructed to do (right or wrong) and put their lives on the line. Just as all police whether on 2 wheels, 4 wheels or 4 legs do every day in cities big and small. To all of you officers out there, thank you and be safe. Oh by the way, remember that road JFK put so many miles on that 18th. day of November, Grand Central Avenue? Well, in 1964 it was renamed by a unanimous vote by the Tampa City Council…..to John F. Kennedy Boulevard or as you may know it as you ride your motorcycle, Kennedy Blvd. As you do ride down that boulevard of memories just remember that sometimes you never know when you are riding into history.
By Robert De Moss
I would like to thank Tony Zappone of Tampa who at age 16 took the pictures of JFKs motorcade in Tampa and has an amazing photo and journalistic career. I urge you to read his Wikipedia bio. and go to his link which contains his story and all photos of JFK’s Tampa visit “JFK, As I remember him” (Type jfktampa1) into your search bar. Also a big thank you to retired motor officer Russell Groover of Brooksville who besides protecting Tampa and training TPD officers for 15 years was located on JFKs left rear fender on that 18th day of November escorting the President’s motorcade. Please look for his book “Tales from the streets of Tampa” about his years as a TPD motor officer and book review coming in Full Throttle.