- Historic Sites
“We Heard the Shots…”
November/December 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 6
“I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. So help me God.” It was 2:38 PM Central Standard Time, Friday, November 22, 1963, when Lyndon Johnson, right hand raised, repeated those words in a stuffy, cramped compartment aboard USAF 26000, Air Force One, in Dallas, Texas. Nearby, President John F. Kennedy’s body lay in a bronze casket. His widow stood next to Johnson.
Less than three hours earlier, Vice President Johnson and President Kennedy were cheerfully campaigning in downtown Dallas. The 46-year-old Kennedy and his glamorous wife, Jacqueline, were in the rear seat of an open limousine; the Texas governor, John Connally, and his wife Nellie, sat in front. On orders from President Kennedy, the plastic bubble-top from the dark blue Lincoln Continental and Secret Service agents had been forbidden to ride on the car, as they usually did. The President wanted the crowds to see him and Jackie. The vice-presidential limousine carrying the Johnson followed directly behind.
I was about seven car lengths behind the presidential limousine aboard Press Bus Number One, among a score of White House correspondents who regularly accompanied the President on the road. I represented the Westinghouse Broadcasting Company.
Suddenly, at 12:30, three rifle shots burst out. We heard the shots aboard our press bus. Some thought they were motorcycle backfires, but Bob Pierpoint, of CBS News, insisted it was gunfire. The commotion in the crowd, police officers running with pistols drawn, parents shielding their children revealed the worst. Something terrible had happened. The presidential limousine put on speed until our bus could not keep up. The driver took us to the Dallas Trade Mart, where several thousand people were waiting to hear the President’s luncheon speech. I raced for a phone and filed a report saying that the presidential motorcade had been fired on. Then I ran into the street, waving my Olivetti portable typewriter to flag a car. A white Cadillac swerved over and screeched to a halt. A black gentleman looked out at me. He had heard the news. “You a reporter?,” he asked. “I’ll get you to the hospital.” We took off like a rocket.
Merriman Smith, “Smitty,” of United Press International, the famous dean of the White House Press Corps, Charles Roberts of Newsweek, and I attended the briefing at 1:33 PM at Portland Memorial Hospital, where Assistant White House Press Secretary Malcolm (“Mac”) Kilduff told us the President was dead. Mac had met with Johnson in the emergency room a few minutes earlier, asking permission to announce Kennedy’s death. Johnson said to wait until he had left the hospital: “We don’t know whether it’s a communist conspiracy or not. I’d better get out of here and back to the plane.” As soon as Johnson departed, Mac dashed to the crowded nurses’ training room where we reporters were waiting.
Red-eyed and choked by grief, he struggled to speak. “President John F. Kennedy died at approximately 1:00 PM Central Standard Time here in Dallas,” he said. “He died of a gunshot wound in the brain.” We ran for the phones. It was bedlam. While we were filing, Smith, Roberts and I were nabbed by a White House official, Edwin Fauber, who told us were to be the pool reporters who would witness the inauguration on Air Force One on behalf of all the members of the press in Dallas. We were herded to an unmarked police car, then driven through Dallas’s streets at speeds of up to 70 miles an hour, running red lights, heading for Love Field, where the swearing-in was to take place. Police-car radio silence was being maintained in case there were conspirators about, but we heard a headquarters transmission that a suspect had been apprehended in a theater.
At Love Field a hearse from Oneal’s Funeral Home was parked beside Air Force One. Secret Service agents and Kennedy aides had just finished loading the 800-pound casket into the rear of the plane. The agents had deliberately ignored a demand by the medical examiner’s office that the body be taken to the local morgue; instead, agent Andy Berger, driving the hearse, had sped directly from the hospital to the airport. Mrs. Kennedy, who rode with the casket, had made it clear: she would not leave the hospital or Dallas without the President’s body.
The plane had been sitting under a glaring sun, its shades drawn. The cabin was stifling as we stepped aboard. We found Johnson, his wife, Lady Bird, and others waiting in the presidential conference room amidships. I counted 27 people crowded into the compartment. Many were close Kennedy staffers – Kenny O’Donnel, Lawrence O’Brien, Dave Powers, and military aide Maj. Gen. Ted Clifton – and some were Johnson’s friends, Jack Valenti and Bill Moyers among them.
On the phone with the Justice Department earlier, Johnson had been told by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the President’s brother, to take the oath before getting airborne. Federal District Judge Sarah Hughes of Dallas had been summoned. Johnson asked an aide to see if Mrs. Kennedy would stand with them. From her vigil beside the casket, Mrs. Kennedy sent word that she wished to attend but needed a few minutes to compose herself.
She entered the compartment, still in the two-piece pink wool suit she had worn in the motorcade. Johnson took her gently by the hand, placing her to his left. Mrs. Johnson stood on his right. The room fell silent. Mrs. Kennedy stood with her eyes wide, unblinking. I saw heavily congealed blood on her stocking, blood caked on her right hand and on her skirt.