DALLAS, LUZERNE COUNTY (WBRE/WYOU) — It was an unbelievable opportunity for a young serviceman to be assigned to follow the President of the United States around Germany.
The President was John F. Kennedy and the photographer was a soldier from Northeastern Pennsylvania who would later work for decades in TV news.
Charles “Cholly” Hayes Jr. found the direction he needed when he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1961. He found out about a military position he didn’t know existed: Battlefield photographer, although he did not end up on the battlefield.
“So, I got sent to Kaiserslautern, Germany U.S. (Army) Pictorial Center, 69th Signal Company photo,” said Hayes, a U.S. Army veteran.
Kaiserslautern is about 400 miles from Berlin, a divided city that would see the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. Just two years later, Hayes was tasked with the military photography assignment of a lifetime.
“I just came out of the company commander’s office. I was just assigned there to Kennedy, to photograph Kennedy,” recalled Hayes.
President Kennedy visited West Germany in June 1963 at the height of the cold war and the new frontier. Hayes was one of six U.S. Army photographers assigned to capture still images of the Presidential visit.
“American soldiers here and some of the french he’s shaking hands with,” described Hayes.
Photographing Kennedy’s arrival, Hayes would pick military bases for the bulk of the photos he took of the President which led to an up-close encounter on a day that went down in history.
“I took that picture there. He’s headed towards the mess hall,” said Hayes.
Taking photos from atop the building, Hayes caught the attention of the 35th President.
“He saw me up there and he said ‘Stand up there, soldier. What’s your name?’ and I said, ‘PFC Hayes, Mr. President,’ and he said ‘Well, PFC Hayes, have you had breakfast yet? Would you care to join us?'” recalled Hayes.
Hayes and the five other army photographers sat down with the 46-year-old Kennedy.
“He asked all our names. He interacted with us like we’re just, like you and I are just talking now,” described Hayes.
Hours later, President Kennedy traveled to the Berlin Wall.
“When he got up there, they roared,” said Hayes.
Kennedy delivered, perhaps, his greatest speech ever.
Hayes referred to this as “the experience of a lifetime.” When asked if he realized that he was capturing history, Hayes responded “Nope, never thought of it.”
Now, some six decades later, Hayes reflects on his service to our country and to that summer of ’63 just five months before Kennedy’s untimely death.
“Kennedy is still, I weep sometimes. Even now,” stated Hayes.
Hayes would go on to work 46 years in television news at WBRE-TV in Wilkes-Barre. Even though his professional work had him cover a half-dozen other presidents, he says photographing Kennedy tops all of his experiences behind the camera.