The Day They Shot Our President in Dallas
The other day, while sitting home alone, and channel surfing, I came across a program on The History Channel about the assassination of JFK in Dallas. It seems that in the cycle of news stories, this subject comes up every few years, and I realized while watching it how little I really knew about this historic event.
It happened on November 22nd, 1963 so that figures out to a little over forty-seven years ago and anyone younger than that won't have any direct memory of it at all. I was probably in the fifth grade that year so all of my memories are from the perception of an elementary school student.
That year, according to the calender, the 22nd fell on a Friday. The shots were fired at 12:30 PM, and he was pronounced dead at 1:00 PM. That being a Friday, I was naturally in school, and over the noon hour typically at lunch. My elementary school, however, had been built without any facilities for eating. There were no commons areas, no kitchens, and no room large enough to accommodate all students at one time except for the gymnasium where eating was prohibited. This had been done purposely since the building housing the high school had a fully furnished lunchroom, and it was a relatively short walk of two or three blocks away from the elementary school. So this walk was a daily routine for us and that Friday was no exception.
Adjacent to the school yard, was a private home owned by an older couple. In the fashion that was held to during the fifties and sixties, we students were taught that although no fence existed there, nonetheless it was a boundary that was not to be breached. Even the sidewalk beyond the school yard was off limits unless we were on our way to or from lunch. That sticks strongly in my mind, as upon our arrival back from lunch that day, a hand-full of older students met my class at that corner of the school yard. It was there that I first heard our president had been murdered.
As an adolescent, I wasn't fazed much since the full import was beyond my understanding. I knew it was serious, but on an academic level, neither I nor my contemporaries were capable of keeping up with the months of investigation, news reports and so on. Also, shortly after Lyndon Johnson took office, the Vietnam Conflict grew and intensified, soon taking over the news broadcasts except for an occasional mention of Kennedy or his family. Even this was outside the understanding of fifth grade students who watched their parents go through those difficult times, wanting to understand but unable to do so.
For all these reasons and probably more as well, I really never had a true understanding of all that happened that day. Furthermore, as time went on, the details became blurred until it was just an historical occurrence to be taught to the next generations. Even the conspiracy theories, the assassination of his brother Robert, the marriage of Jacqueline to Aristotle Onassis and the death of Mary Jo Kopechne weren't enough to rekindle interest in the death of JFK in my mind. And it remained that way until last Saturday.
Now I probably should have been interested when Oliver Stone released his movie about the assassination in the nineties. I was busy working, dealing with life, and my wife and I were trying to put three daughters through school. It was that fact that probably should have caught my attention, because although I didn't see a lot of movies, they and their friends did. And I was a surprised bystander to a conversation between two of them discussing conspiracies and details I was totally unaware of. A friend of one of them even told me about Jackie Kennedy, holding tissue from John Kennedy's wounds in her hand. I dismissed the story as something that was probably hyped up in high school discussion groups......until I saw the program on TV.
Still, I'm not really sure what it was that piqued my interest in the program. I watched on Saturday, January 22, and if one doesn't get involved much in college sports, then Saturday's daytime TV line-up isn't always real interesting. For that reason, I spend a lot of time on channels like Discovery, A & E, or Biography. I guess I've rediscovered the joy of mental stimulation and challenge.
Probably what caught my attention Saturday was that instead of the review of events and a lot of black and white clips from news programs of that era, the theme focused on the possibility of more than one person, Lee Harvey Oswald being involved. Still, even with this theme, the discussion of motives and other possible perpetrators was limited. Instead, the program showed experiments trying to recreate the shooting and did so using modern technology that was unavailable in the original investigation. This included the construction, like a crash dummy, of a human body as close to the president's as possible, and the effects of a gunshot based on the calibur, distances, and point of impact to see if the original evidence could be duplicated.
The program and some of what they showed was a little graphic, but from the forensic standpoint, was vitally important. A man by the name of Abraham Zapruder had taken his movie camera that day, and caught footage of the entire sequence of events. That film was used by the Warren Commission during its investigation, but was not shown to the public until 1975 on a late night ABC program hosted by Geraldo Rivera. When the people of the United States saw it, the outrage led to additional investigations including the House Select Commission on Assassinations or HSCA. They probed the deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in addition to JFK's.
You probably have seen at least some of the Zapruder Film. It shows the impact of the shot that killed Kennedy, and shows blood and tissue being dispersed as a result of the bullet that struck his head. According to the History Channel account I watched, some of that blood and tissue, including gray matter, and bone fragments were found in various locations on the limousine's interior. Unpleasant to think about, but as crime investigators would attest to, important clues for calculating a bullet's trajectory. And all this information was used in the attempted reconstruction of the incident on Saturday's program.
It serves no purpose to drag the reader through all the gore and unpleasantness that was outlined on the program. It is all readily available on the Internet and probably will be rebroadcast on the History Channel as well.Suffice it to say the account of his widow holding some of the tissue in her hand is true. But while the shooting, the Zapruder film, and the apprehension of Lee Harvey Oswald comprise the bulk of the story as most people know it, it is far from being the entire story. And it was at this point my curiosity kicked into high gear.
Dealey Plaza is the location the presidential motorcade was going through when Kennedy was shot. It is basically an open spot where three streets are funneled together. The Texas Book Depository, now a museum, is a seven story building that at the time was used for the storage of school text books and related items. A business of the same name may have operated out of the warehouse as well. It is located at the intersection of Houston and Elm streets and is the location of the assassin's vantage point. In the picture above, Houston street is not visible, but runs across from side to side between the two buildings on the left, and in front of the structures to the right. Elm Street is the curving road on the left, and runs between the red and gray buildings in the center, as well as in front of the depository. The motorcade drove on Houston Street to the corner at Elm then turned left and proceeded down Elm in front of the grassy knoll seen on the left. This grassy knoll was looked at as a possible location for another shooter and is a favorite talking point with conspiracy theory buffs.Some witnesses claimed to have heard shots coming from behind a wooden fence there.
Until Saturday, I had never looked at Dealey Plaza. In fact, I wouldn't have been able to tell anyone if I was asked, what or where Dealey Plaza was. So I started to research it. I wanted to know why President Kennedy was in Dallas, where he was going, and anything else I could find out. Below is a map of the Dealey Plaza area, which is where the focus of the story seems to be centered now, but it is only a small part of the entire account.
Dealey Plaza Map
John F Kennedy served as President during some times that were more fragile and perilous than many of us realize. The Bay of the Pigs operation that was afterwards figured to be an immense Intelligence failure occurred under his watch as did the Cuban Missile Crisis. The world's two superpowers were engaged in sabre rattling, and the Cold War was off to a hot start. The Soviet Union as it was known then was installing nuclear weapons in Cuba, and the Kennedy administration was trying to find a way to eliminate the threat without risking an all out nuclear war which neither side wanted, but was fearing they might be forced into. Ultimately, JFK walked away with the reputation of a hero that had unswervingly demanded the USSR remove the missiles without condition. It was later revealed that he had conceded to an agreement to remove US weapons from Turkey. According to some sources, he was viewed as being too soft.
It was 1963 and an election was coming up in about a year. His win over Richard Nixon in 1960 had not been by a huge margin, so understandably, his campaign was cautious about the upcoming vote. In spite of or perhaps because of his perceived political woes, he made a decision to visit Texas, a state he had not won in 1960, and do some fund raising, while trying to unite the Democrat Party. He made a few stops before Dallas, then came into town landing at Love Field. The entourage left the airfield, following the planned route, and finally coming into downtown Dallas on Harwood Street. The plan was to turn from Harwood onto Main, then proceed to the Stemmons Freeway and finally end at the Dallas Trade Mart, where he would speak at a luncheon.
Motorcading Through Dallas
The route went as planned. Kennedy ordered the car stopped on two or three occasions to get out and shake hands with some of the people he saw while riding. The crowd was cheering and supportive of the President, and probably relishing this "once in a lifetime" experience. One minor change in the planned route had been made at the last minute, and is another arguing point for those who think a conspiracy is involved here. It was discovered that at the point where Main and Elm streets merge together, access to the northbound lane of Stemmons Freeway was only possible from Elm Street since the streets were divided as they passed beneath the railroad tracks. Therefore a change was made that rerouted the motorcade from Main to Elm via Houston Street, taking Kennedy's car directly past the Texas Book Depository. Had the motorcade been able to continue on Main, the president would have been somewhat farther from the window in the depository, but a shot may have still been possible. The question asked by those supporting a conspiracy suggest that the shooter may not have been able to learn about the change in time to plan for the assassination. That would suggest perhaps someone familiar with the route change may have been involved in the plot to kill him.
Regardless, that is irrelevant since the change was made and the assassination occurred. The Zapruder film shows Jackie Kennedy climbing out of the car and onto the trunk reaching for what was reported to be a chunk of bone and tissue from the wound. At the same time a Secret Service Agent from a following vehicle manages to climb on the back of the Kennedy's car, and pushes her back into the seat. He then attempts to cover them with his own body. The driver slows at the first shot and nearly stops, then speeds up considerably. The president was rushed to Parkland Hospital. By some reports, he was still alive when they arrived, but he was pronounced dead at about 1:00 pm.
Texas School Book Depository
Lee Harvey Oswald was born in New Orleans in 1939. His father, Robert, died prior to his birth and his mother, Marguerite raised him, his brother and his half brother alone. For a little over a year the children lived in an orphanage since their mother could not afford to care for them properly. His childhood was punctuated with problems concerning obedience and education. He dropped out of school in the tenth grade, and made plans to join the military.
In 1956, the family moved to Fort Worth, Texas, and later that year, Oswald joined the Marines. His training included Radar Operation and he was placed in a program conducting aircraft surveillance. Also, like other Marines, he was taught to use a rifle and scored rather high in the tests. It was also during his military service, he revealed his leanings toward communism.
In 1959, after being disciplined for misconduct in the Marines, Oswald requested and was granted a hardship discharge. He attempted to defect to the Soviet Union, and although he was allowed to live and work there for a few months, he made the decision to return to the United States and did so with his wife and baby daughter. They settled in the Dallas area near where his mother and brother were living. By then it was 1962.
In 1963, by mail order and using an alias, he purchased a 6.5mm rifle, and a .38 calibur handgun. Later that year, he moved to New Orleans and worked at a couple of jobs before returning to Dallas in October. He took a job at the Texas School Book Depository and stayed at a Dallas rooming house, while his wife and family stayed with friends in Irving. Typically, he would stay in his rented room through the week, and commute with a neighbor back to Irving for the weekend. On the day before the assassination, he went back to Irving, saying he needed to bring in some curtain rods, and then returned to Dallas the day of the shooting with a long paper wrapped package. Reportedly, he left his wedding ring and some money in Irving.
A witness inside, placed Oswald on the sixth floor of the Depository about thirty minutes before Kennedy was shot. Witnesses outside claimed to see a rifle aimed out of a window on the sixth floor. About ninety seconds after the shooting, a supervisor and police officer encountered Oswald on the second floor in a lunchroom. The supervisor identified him as an employee, and since he seemed normal and not out of breath or nervous, drew no suspicion. He was then able to exit before the Secret Service sealed the entrances. It was later noted he was the only employee to leave the building.
Ten minutes after pulling the trigger, Lee Harvey Oswald boarded a bus, rode for two blocks then got off and took a taxi to his boarding house at 1026 N Beckley, a little over two miles southwest of the assassination site. He was there only for a few minutes, then the housekeeper reported he left, walking toward the bus stop. It appears he never got on a bus however, as about eight tenths of a mile away near the intersection of 10th and Patton, he was approached by a police officer named J.D. Tippit. Officer Tippit probably heard the broadcast description of the shooter and was suspicious of Oswald. The encounter left Tippit dead, shot four times by the .38 caliber pistol Oswald had purchased along with the rifle. Oswald then fled the scene, attempted to hide in different stores, and finally sneaked into the Texas Theatre. He was observed by a local store owner, who advised the ticktet sales person who then called the police. A number of officers apprehended Oswald sitting in the back of the theatre, and after a brief scuffle, took him into custody. One account of the capture claims Oswald attempted to shoot another officer during his arrest, and that accounted for a portion of the scuffle.
Oswald denied being involved or knowing anything about either shooting, although large quantities of evidence implicated him in both. Police were generally unsuccessful in their efforts to question him, and two days later during a transfer from the city jail to the county facility, Jack Ruby shot and killed him. All of Oswald's secrets went to the grave with him.
The Man Accused of Assassinating Kennedy
The Ensuing Years
The best mystery writer couldn't have dreamed up a better storyline to suggest conspriacy or cloak and dagger activities. The timing of events, Oswald's death, Ruby's arrest and then death three years later all sound like a grand master plan. Add a high profile target like an American President, and you can hardly blame people for being suspicions. The televised account I watched also pointed out a little known fact, that someone, either a Secret Service Agent or someone under orders from the Secret Service conducted a partial cleaning of the limousines interior while it was parked at the Parkside Hospital Emergency Room. Other aspersions were cast on the members of the Warren Commission who investigated the incident. Some say the investigation was incomplete, or focused too strongly on Oswald and ignored other possibly involved individuals. None of the evidence, while compelling proves beyond doubt that suspicions are completely unwarranted. The list of groups originally thought to be responsible included both the Cubans and Soviets, former President Johnson and the CIA and organized crime. Then there are people who think his death was ordered and orchestrated by high ranking officials at the Vatican, and one individual I spoke with several years ago told me Aristotle Onassis was to blame. He pointed to a conflict between Robert Kennedy and the shipping tycoon during the early fifties regarding shipping laws as the catalyst. There seems to be lots of conjecture but no answers.
But even more important than these answers is the question of what would have been the nation's and the world's futures if Kennedy had never been shot. What were his plans for the future? Would the world be dramatically different from today? Better? Worse? A short study of JFK's politics indicates he was strongly supportive of social programs, much like Johnson, his successor, but he was beginning to think the Viet Nam conflict was a mistake. Under Johnson it lasted several more years until Nixon withdrew troops in the early seventies. Would Kennedy have withdrawn earlier? His dream of putting a man on the moor within the decade became an actuality, demonstrating the US's ability to succeed, though he didn't live to see it. What would have happened if he had? How would our nation be different from what it is today had Oswald never pulled that trigger.
Another thing to consider, though is the death of J.D. Tippit. Understandably, his dying does not compare to Kennedy's on the same scale, but to his family, it was more important. A father, a husband, taken away from his family in a single act of violence, leaving a woman to care for her children alone, and children to grow up without the love, guidance and support only their father could give them. How would their lives be different today if the Officer conducting his sworn duty had not encountered a misdirected psychopath on that day. Obviously, we may never know.
John Connally survived the shooting, though seriously wounded, and served as Texas Governor until 1969. In 1971, Richard Nixon appointed him as Secretary of the Treasury. Its possible that his influence in the Nixon administration paved the way for the elections of George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush to the presidency.
Marina Oswald remarried in 1965 and in addition to her two daughters, has a son. Marina testified against Oswald before the Warren Commission, and again before the HSCA. In 1981, she expressed beliefs that an impostor was in her former husband's grave and requested an exhumation. In recent years she seems to have changed her beliefs and now thinks Oswald was either innocent or just a small part of a larger plot. One of her daughters reportedly stated she wanted all the records to be revealed. Now nearly fifty years later, most of the people originally involved in the investigation are dead. But with a younger, enthusiastic and vibrant second generation along with the Freedom of Information Act, we may not have seen the end of this story yet.