Doug Wilhelm can remember exactly where he was the day President John. F. Kennedy was shot. It would be hard to forget, since he was working on Air Force One.
Wilhelm was on duty as an Air Force One mechanic at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland that day.
“It was not a good day,” Wilhelm recalled.
Wilhelm couldn’t leave the base for three weeks after that, and he can remember the somber feeling that swept over the base with the news of the president’s death.
“A lot of people were crying,” he said.
Hand-picked by his superiors to serve as a mechanic on the presidential fleet, Wilhelm was one of several hundred who had the privilege of working on the Air Force One. His work included a high level of security and scrutiny.
“Somebody knew where you were at all times,” Wilhelm said.
Serving as an Air Force One mechanic from 1962 to 1964, Wilhelm remembers frequently seeing Kennedy’s wife, Jackie, and their children, Caroline and John Jr., boarding planes traveling to and from Washington, D.C.
“I saw (President Kennedy) plenty of times, but no one got too close to him,” Wilhelm joked.
A reserved and humble man, Wilhelm joined the Air Force when he was 18, in 1956. Wilhelm can remember exactly how long he was in the Air Force, too – eight years, four months and ten days.
He enlisted because many of his friends had, and he got to travel around the world during his time in service, spending time in the Philippines, Japan and Spain.
“I guess the biggest thing of the whole eight years was the travel,” Wilhelm said.
Because he served during a time of peace, Wilhem enjoyed the pace of his job and diligently performed his duties as a mechanic.
“It was pretty much like a normal job,” Wilhelm recalled.
Wilhelm was charge of keeping the planes in proper operating condition, and he even invented a special hydraulic pump for aircraft jets that quickly became adopted by many other mechanics on the job.
While stationed at the base in Maryland, Wilhelm met his wife, Judy, at a popular off-base hangout. They were married just a month after he was discharged, in 1964, and they have been married for 46 years. They have three children, Douglas, Becky and Terry, and four grandchildren, Hannah, Ben, Connor and Jordan.
The youngest, Jordan, is a third-grader at J.V. Washam Elementary School in Cornelius. She named her grandfather as her hero at the school’s Veteran’s Day celebration in November.
Jordan wanted to honor him because she respects her grandfather and his achievements in the Air Force, and, “Because I love him,” she said. “And I am proud that Papaw invented parts for air planes.”