Friday 24 November 2017

My dad protected the most famous man in the world

Army outriders commanded by the father of Don Lavery were prepared to shoot to protect JFK.

MONTHS before the fatal shots rang out in downtown Dallas taking the life of John F Kennedy, similar fears haunted his Irish visit.

His security detail was warned of a possible sniper on a roof as his motorcade swept into Dublin.

They included the Irish presidential motorcycle escort – commanded by my father, Captain Jim Lavery – who were given briefings that threats had been made against his life.

Dad, commanding motorcyclists from the then 2 Motor (now Cavalry) Squadron, and other officers were issued with live ammunition.

In black-and-white footage and photos from the visit to Dublin, my dad is the nearest security officer to Kennedy, riding his motorcycle right beside him.

He would have been among the first to react if an attempt had been made on Kennedy's life.

Despite the threat, Kennedy rode in an open-topped car, which was to prove his undoing in Dallas on November 22.

But such threats did not make the newspapers or the new TV station, RTÉ.

The country was swept away with the glamour and prestige of the most powerful man in the world coming home.

Kennedy and his beautiful wife Jackie were the power couple of the early 1960s, though she did not visit Ireland on that occasion.

My twin Mike and I were young schoolboys in short pants and scabby knees but keenly aware of what was happening in the world – without the benefit of the internet or the 24-hour news cycle.

Newspapers, radio and television were the main sources of news.

And because of our dad's career in the army, news took a very personal twist for us.

We were there when he left for the Congo in 1960; we were there when it was mistakenly reported to our mother, Nancy, that he had been killed in the Niemba ambush.

We were aware his battalion was held back in Ireland on a second tour of the Congo when Kennedy faced down the Russians in the Cuban missile crisis.

Like most people, we were thrilled when Kennedy, who had just made his famous speech in Berlin – "Ich bin ein Berliner" ("I am a Berliner") – arrived in Ireland a day after the Berlin visit.

All we knew was that the most famous man in the world was coming to visit the birthplace of his ancestors.

We proudly knew that dad would welcome him as Gaeilge and present his squadron escort to him.

As the officer commanding the escort, which regularly accompanied de Valera, dadwas also responsible for escorting and protecting other VIPs, including Princess Grace of Monaco, and Cardinal Agagianian.

The lives of both Kennedy and our dad crossed briefly in that bright hot summer of 1963 when Camelot came to Ireland.

Both were of a similar age, in their forties, and both had seen war.

Kennedy, in his famous PT-109 episode in the Pacific when his boat was sunk by a Japanese destroyer during World War Two, and our dad, in the Congo.

The President had received the Navy and Marine Corps medal for his bravery; our dad the Distinguished Service Medal for his bravery and leadership during the Battle of Kipushi.

His medal citation read: "Captain Lavery led the advance of the Irish troops on Kipushi and displayed courage and leadership in the handling of his armoured cars, disregarding his own safety to direct and control their fire.

"His handling of a team charged with attending to the problem of 15,000 refugees, solved the problem in a matter of days, mainly through his efficient leadership."

Mum took us up to the Phoenix Park to see JFK – with dad alongside him – driving into the Áras with the roads thronged with well-wishers.

Later in the visit, when huge crowds overwhelmed Kennedy's security outside the Department of Foreign Affairs, dad drove his motorbike into the crowd to get to the President and ensure his safety.

When Kennedy was leaving Ireland he presented dad with a gold tie pin of his boat, PT-109, to say thanks for protecting him on his visit.

Some historians today dismiss the visit as a political stunt, with Kennedy appealing to his Irish-American constituency.

A letter from Jackie to de Valera after the assassination may be closer to the truth.

She wrote that JFK's visit here meant more to him than any other in his life.

Irish Independent

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