BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - There are few people around who have lived the experiences or interacted with the legendary figures Doyle Whitehead has.
“I could probably throw a dart at a map and I’ve been there,” said Whitehead, the 83-year-old teddy bear with a treasure trove of stories.
Whitehead joined the United States Air Force in 1954 and was initially stationed in Charleston, S.C. Thanks to a friend and fellow pilot, he eventually made his way to Washington, D.C. One day in the nation’s capital, Whitehead ventured to watch President Dwight Eisenhower depart on a flight, when two hours before takeoff one of the stewards aboard the plane had a heart attack. Whitehead was then pulled aboard to replace him, as one man’s scary mishap became another’s ultimate opportunity on Air Force One. Whitehead would remain aboard the plane for over a decade and serve three different presidents: Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson.
Whitehead says President Kennedy and his family were very friendly and approachable people. “Whitey,” as he was called, says sometimes he and the iconic JFK would bond over beer and that the president’s favorite was Heineken. One day, Kennedy noticed he was drinking from a 10 oz glass and that the bottles were 12 oz. When he asked Whitehead what happened to the other two ounces, he told Kennedy he threw them away.
“Sure you did,” President Kennedy quipped, and the two shared a laugh.
However, the friendship between the two men would end on one of the darkest days in American history: President Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 23, 1963.
“Unreal,” Whitehead reflects. “We didn’t believe it happened, but it did.”
Whitehead admits he cried and was rather shattered.
“I did, sure did. We got to be extremely close," Whitehead said.
Whitehead was just feet away when Johnson was sworn in as the new president aboard Air Force One returning to Washington, D.C. from Dallas. He and the other stewards did their best to comfort Kennedy’s sudden and shocked widow, Jacqueline.
“Terrible. Mrs. Kennedy sat in the back. We tried to keep her happy. She was very, very, very sad,” Whitehead said.
The transition to President Johnson was then underway. Johnson wasn’t nearly as affable as Kennedy, but Whitehead says the two enjoyed an adequate working relationship.
“He was a Texas rancher, you know,” laughs Whitehead. “He was good., but he had his ways. We had to adjust.”
Whitehead says Johnson requested New York strip steaks from a specific slaughterhouse in Austin, Texas. Once the steaks were prepared, the president proceeded to pour Heinz 57 all over them. Whitehead was a bit incredulous.
“Heinz 57? I could’ve bought you round steak," he said.
“Whitey” eventually left Air Force One, but his encounters with the world famous were hardly over.
Shortly after Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins led America to victory over the world in the race to the moon in 1969, the American government certainly wanted to show off its superstar trio of astronauts. Whitehead planned and orchestrated a victory tour of sorts, traveling with the astronauts and their wives to 25 different countries. He says it took two months to plan the voyage and tackle all the logistics. Armstrong chose the breakfast for the plane every day and every day it was eggs. A request for something different, waffles, French toast, or hash browns, was denied by Armstrong. Whitehead says 2,400 eggs were served on that tour.