- Historic Sites
The Day Kennedy Was Shot
A routine chore for JFK’s official photographer became the most important assignment of his career. Much of his moving pictorial record appears here for the first time.
November 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 7
The last color picture Stoughton took in Dallas caught the four members of the Newman family, who had been watching the procession and had dropped to the ground when the shots sounded.
Stoughton had no time to take other pictures of the area. As soon as he realized that the President’s car was not nearby, he shouted to the driver, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
They drove directly to the Trade Mart, knowing only that something highly unusual had occurred back at the plaza. Stoughton remembers people yelling toward the car as it sped through the Trade Mart, “He’s at Parkland!,” which meant nothing to Stoughton, but Clint Grant, a local photographer on board, said, “God, that’s a hospital. Let’s take off!” Stoughton’s car arrived near Parkland’s emergency entrance at about the same time as the other two camera cars. Grabbing his 35mm camera, loaded with a fresh roll of Tri-X, Stoughton made two quick shots of the emergency entrance. Later he took two more pictures of the area, but from a different angle, showing agents putting the plastic bubble top and fabric cover over the convertible. In these photos the trunk is open and a metal bucket is on the ground next to the President’s door. Stoughton recalls that a man was washing the seat “with a cloth and a bucket. There was blood all over the seat, and flower petals and stuff on the floor.” Stoughton entered the hospital. By this time he knew that the President Weis seriously wounded.
When they were an arm’s length away at the Dallas airport, he made his last picture of them.
Signal Corpsman Art Bales “handed me a phone at a critical time when he had just touched base with the White House switchboard. He had an open line and had to go do something else, and he asked me to hold this phone and talk into it so that the operator would not listen in, find nobody there, and cut the connection. Just as he handed me the receiver, I saw Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird pushing through the ‘out’ door, and 1 asked, ‘Where’s he going?’ and Bales said, The President is going to Washington.’ I knew then that Kennedy had expired, and I said, ‘So am I,’ and handed him back his phone.”
He heard three shots and at first thought this must be some kind of Texas welcome.
Stoughton was not quick enough to catch a ride with the small, fast-departing entourage. Just after the Johnsons left, however, Thomas L. Johns, a vice-presidential Secret Service agent, arrived, having also missed their departure. Johns obtained a police car and driver, and with Stoughton and two Johnson aides, Cliff Carter and Jack Valenti, they made for Love Field. Stoughton remembers the ride as “hairy and fast.” The driver did not know how to get to the plane and found himself on the opposite side of the tarmac. “Hell,” shouted Johns, “we’re on the wrong side of the airport! Let’s shoot the runways.” Leaving behind airport rules, common sense, and security dictates, they managed to reach their destination.
President Johnson had decided to travel back to Washington on board Air Force One, with its more sophisticated communications system, rather than on Air Force Two. But he did not want to depart until he had taken the oath of office and until the deceased President and his widow were also aboard. Back at Parkland, the assistant press secretary Malcolm Kilduff made the public announcement of the death of President Kennedy at 1:33 P.M. A Dallas undertaker arrived at the hospital with a four-hundred-pound bronze casket into which the President’s body was placed. The casket left the hospital in an ambulance-hearse at about five minutes after two.
His own shock had kept Stoughton from taking photographs of the confused and devastated staff inside Parkland’s corridors. Aboard Air Force One, however, he saw the ambulance arriving, and from the forward port side of the Boeing 707 he made a series of ten shots with his 35mm Alpha, finishing off the black-and-white roll he had begun at Parkland’s emergency entrance.
The series of pictures begins with the ambulance’s arrival near the rear gangway of Air Force One. In the next grouping of photographs, Stoughton captures agents struggling to get the almost six-hundred-pound load up the narrow metal gangway. Many hands attempt to help with the burden, while on the tarmac below, the military aides Chester V. (“Ted”) Clifton, Jr., and Godfrey McHugh, Mrs. Kennedy, and members of the slain President’s inner circle watch with stricken faces. A uniformed Dallas police officer a few paces behind the melancholy gathering is seen in three subsequent frames, taking off his hat and holding it to his heart in a private salute until the casket is aboard. The last three frames in the sequence follow the former First Lady walking up the steps, forlorn and disheveled, with blood on her skirt and stockings. Behind follow Larry O’Brien, Ken O’Donnell, and Dave Powers.