The day JFK died: Fifty years on, the assassination still haunts Americans

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

The murder of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, on Nov. 22, 1963, forever changed America. I was 16 years old when it happened, and still haven’t fully come to terms with it. The indelible sense of loss and still-unanswered questions — How it could have been allowed to happen? Who was behind it? — drew me to Dallas nearly half a century later.

The trees in Dealey Plaza, where the killing took place, have grown taller, but the landmarks that appeared in the news broadcasts 50 years ago are immediately recognizable: the former Texas School Book Depository at 411 Elm St., which now houses a museum; the small sloping hill called the grassy knoll, with a stockade fence along its top; the triple underpass; and the concrete abutment midway down the slope, from which businessman Abraham Zapruder recorded “the saddest and most expensive 26 seconds of amateur film ever made.”

Contemporary additions can be seen as well. In the center lane of Elm Street, two white letter X’s have been painted, about 30 meters apart, to mark the approximate spots where JFK was struck by a sniper’s bullets.

Standing there in mute contemplation, my thoughts drifted back to the day JFK died. Just before 2 p.m., Mr. Thomas’ 11th grade English class in Fayetteville, North Carolina, was interrupted by noisy static, followed by a radio news bulletin — the announcer caught in midsentence — piped through the PA system. The first impression was that someone in the office was playing a prank. Our nervous giggles, however, soon metamorphosed into a sense of increasing disbelief. Texas? What the hell was the president doing in Texas? Within the half hour we were informed that America’s charismatic, 46-year-old leader had been shot dead, leading one or two students to blurt out remarks such as, “It must have been those damn communists.” But most of us, thunderstruck by the gravity of the occasion, sat through the day’s final class in shocked silence.

In Japan, Nov. 23, 1963, was to be a special day: live broadcasts from North America via the Telstar communications satellite had been scheduled to commence. The initial broadcast was to include a recorded message by Kennedy himself. Instead, those who tuned in that morning saw news reports of his assassination.

The next three days went by in a blur. Cut down on a Dallas street on a Friday afternoon, JFK’s body was flown to Washington aboard Air Force One. After two days of lying in state, his flag-draped coffin was marched through the capital in a solemn military procession, followed by his grieving widow, JFK’s two brothers and other members of the Kennedy family, U.S. government officials and dozens of world leaders. When the bugler at Arlington Cemetery stumbled with a mournful “broken note” while playing “Taps,” his instrument seemed to sob for the entire nation.

While mourners poured into Washington, Dallas’ reputation as a violent city was to receive a boost. On Nov. 24, JFK’s accused assassin, a 24-year-old former U.S. Marine and self-proclaimed Marxist named Lee Harvey Oswald — arrested in a movie theater about 80 minutes after the shooting — was shot dead while in police custody, before a nationwide live TV audience, by a nightclub owner with alleged connections to organized crime.

It was Texas politics that drew Kennedy to Dallas. Having barely eked out a victory in the 1960 election, JFK needed Texas’ 25 electoral votes to win reelection in 1964. The liberal and conservative wings of the state’s Democratic Party, however, had been feuding bitterly, and it was hoped his visit to the state would mend fences. He was accompanied by his wife, Jacqueline, making her first public appearance since the death in August of a prematurely born son who had lived for only two days.

Rain had fallen earlier that morning, but the weather turned sunny and a decision was made to leave the transparent “bubble top” off the presidential limousine during the motorcade through downtown Dallas en route to a luncheon at the city’s Trade Mart. At approximately 12:30 p.m., after the car made an agonizingly slow turn from Houston Street onto Elm Street, the crack of a gunshot was heard.

According to the voluminous report (www.archives.gov/research/jfk/warren-commission-report) issued in October 1964 by the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy (usually referred to as the Warren Report, after its chairman, Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren), Oswald fired three shots from the sixth-story window of the Texas School Book Depository, one of which missed. (“The evidence is inconclusive as to whether it was the first, second or third shot which missed,” the report reads.) The shot that most believe to be the second — referred to in conspiracy books as the “magic bullet” — struck JFK in the upper back, exited his throat and went on to strike Texas Gov. John Connelly. Inexplicably William Greer, the Secret Service driver, reacted to the shots by slowing the car instead of speeding up. As Greer glanced back over his shoulder at the wounded president, what was believed to be the third shot struck JFK in the rear of the head and exited his right temple, resulting in a massive, fatal wound.

The filmed sequence, blocked for several seconds by a road sign, was shot by Dallas businessman Abraham Zapruder using an 8mm home movie camera. In ghastly color, at 18 frames per second, Zapruder captured the death of the president. His film serves as a visual timeline for the slaying that has been used to trump inconsistent and sometimes contradictory statements of numerous eyewitnesses.

Last December, I spent three days in Dallas taking in the historic sites related to the assassination. My guide was Glenn Davis, a long-term Japan resident and native Texan who has spent more than two decades researching the assassination, particularly as it relates to Oswald’s military service in Japan from 1957, where he worked as a marine radar operator at Naval Air Facility Atsugi.

Glenn escorted me to several spots associated with the events of November 1963. Trauma Room 1 at Parkland Hospital, where doctors worked futilely to save JFK’s life, was demolished four decades ago, but a large panel display in the hospital’s administrative corridor commemorates the event. The Texas Theater in the suburb of Oak Cliff, where Oswald was arrested after allegedly shooting Dallas patrolman J.D. Tippit, is still in business. We walked the downtown route of the presidential motorcade, and lingered at the Main Street ramp to the basement of the municipal building, down which Jack Ruby is believed to have walked moments before shooting Oswald.

The highlight of my visit was the Sixth Floor Museum (www.jfk.org). Located in the former Texas School Book Depository and now owned by Dallas County, the museum (adult admission $16) has been in operation since 1989. It features panel displays about the assassination (including a few of the conspiracy scenarios), various historic artifacts, a theater showing documentary videos and a gift shop on the first floor. At the southeastern corner window, perpetually left open in the same position it was on the day of the slaying, book cartons have been positioned to reconstruct the “sniper’s nest” as it appeared in photos taken on the day of the assassination.

Davis remains convinced that Oswald not only didn’t do the shooting, but couldn’t have done it, and gave me an earful of reasons why — starting with the Carcano 91/38 Italian military rifle with a 4X telescopic sight (“a piece of sh-t,” as he described it) that Oswald purchased for $19.95 from a Chicago mail order house the previous March.

Other points of contention range from the rifle’s ballistics and the speed with which Oswald supposedly worked the rifle’s bolt to his ability as a marksman to hit a slowly moving target the size of a human head some 81 meters away.

And for that matter, who was Oswald? Was he, as the Warren Commission stated, a Marxist malcontent with a menial job and a teetering marriage, the sole assassin who acted alone? Or, as he himself claimed before reporters, was he no more than a patsy, framed by the real perpetrator? Or, as some of the more extreme views allege, a patriot and martyr who was manipulated in a web of intrigues by some sinister organization?

The findings of the Warren Commission, rushed into print because President Lyndon Johnson insisted that the investigation be completed before the 1964 presidential election in November, have been challenged repeatedly — even, it was revealed years later, by several of the commission’s own members.

In 1979, the U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations examined new evidence and testimony, including a controversial recording from a motorcycle policeman’s radio, of what may have been four gunshots in Dealey Plaza. The committee concluded that Kennedy was “probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy,” but ruled out foreign governments, organized crime and U.S. government agencies as the perpetrator, all the while acknowledging the possibility of members of these groups acting as individuals.

Nevertheless, the declassification of thousands of documents in the National Archives has yet to uncover any new evidence of conspiracy. Digital photo enhancement, acoustical analysis, lasers and other state-of-the-art technologies have been harnessed to reexamine existing photographic and acoustic evidence, and test various hypotheses, but the results have been infuriatingly inconclusive.

As author John McAdams cynically postulates in his “First Law of Kennedy Assassination Motion,” “For every bizarre contradiction there is an equal and opposite ‘innocent explanation.’ “

As things stand now, we are left with two choices: either the killer was Oswald acting alone, or the crime was perpetrated by person or persons unknown, lurking somewhere in what the late author Norman Mailer described as “an incredible morass of possibilities.”

Vincent Bugliosi, a former Los Angeles prosecutor and author of the seminal work “Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy,” believes that Oswald is the killer. “There has not been one scintilla of proof tying the assassination to anyone but Oswald,” Bugliosi has been quoted as saying. “There have been theories, but no evidence.”

On this point, I believe Bugliosi is essentially correct. Oswald is linked to the murders of both Kennedy and Tippit not only by eyewitness testimony, but also by an overwhelming body of anecdotal, forensic and circumstantial evidence. Most of this evidence — such as how he landed a job paying $1.25 an hour in the Texas School Book Depository six weeks before the assassination — is simply too random to suggest the machinations of a brilliant master hand.

It is known, for example, that on the morning of Nov. 22, Oswald left behind most of his money ($187) and his wedding ring before leaving for his rendezvous with fate. Given that the previous night he had quarreled bitterly with his wife, Marina, it’s entirely possible his decision to go gunning for the president — or possibly Texas Gov. Connelly, who a few researchers have suggested was his real target — was not made until the same morning. A co-worker who drove Oswald to work on Nov. 22 told police that Oswald brought with him a bulky, elongated package, long enough to contain a rifle, that he explained was “curtain rods.” (No curtain rods were found, nor would have Oswald needed them since the window at his rented room in Oak Cliff already had curtain rods.)

Even Oswald’s elder brother, Robert, who visited Lee at the police station the day before he was killed, is convinced his brother was guilty. “I would love to be able to say that Lee was not involved in any way whatsoever, or much less to the extent that I believe that he was,” he told a PBS interviewer in 1993.

If the odds of Oswald being the sole assassin, as unlikely as many suggest, are weighed against the various other scenarios, Oswald not only comes out on top, but does so by a considerable margin. And nearly 50 years of research has yet to absolve him conclusively or produce a credible alternative suspect.

Many of the thousands flocking to Dallas on the weekend of Nov. 22-24 to commemorate the tragic event will be attending forums that seek to debunk the conventional wisdom, and I, for one, will be listening to what they have to say with great interest. But it’s unrealistic to anticipate any new revelations that alter the official findings.

Fifty years on, Dealey Plaza has yet to give up its enigmatic secrets.

  • Roan Suda

    I was eighteen, two years older than Mark Schreiber, when I heard the news…The memory is painful beyond all politics…This is one of Mark’s best articles–and the competition is stiff.