'I was there when they shot JFK'
By Philip Sherwell Nov 2013
Four people who witnessed President John F Kennedy’s assassination
50 years ago this month explain their theories of who was responsible
The shots that rang out across Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas 50 years
ago were reverberating around the world within minutes, a defining moment
of the 20th century, as television news came of age.
It was with the assassination of President John F Kennedy on November 22,
“Where were you when you heard the news?” The moon
landing, the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the terror attacks of
September 11, 2001 are probably the only rivals for posing that question.
But a small group of people were there that day when the tragedy unfolded
in Texas – not just as witnesses to history, but chance
participants in it.
There was the deputy sheriff who found the rifle that killed the
president; the nurse who checked in vain for Kennedy’s vital signs
when he was rushed into hospital and who offered comfort to his widow; the
television newsman who unwittingly passed the sniper as he fled the scene;
and the car salesman who was late for a date with a girlfriend when he was
hit by debris from a bullet fired at Kennedy and is now a leading JFK
They have all told their stories of that day’s momentous events to
The Telegraph, as America begins a month-long outpouring of remembrances
and a barrage of books is published about the dashing young president cut
down in front of his beautiful, socialite wife, Jackie.
Kennedy had taken office in 1961 with a memorable exhortation in his
inaugural address. “Ask not what your country can do for you
– ask what you can do for your country,” he urged as he
ushered in what his widow later called the “Camelot”
Barely 1,000 days later, he was dead. “We lost our innocence that
day in Dealey Plaza,” said Gene Boone, who was a sheriff’s
deputy when his torch picked out the butt of a rifle stashed between
stacked boxes on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository.
That was 1.22pm on November 22. Less than an hour earlier, he had been
standing outside the sheriff’s department as the presidential
motorcade swept past him, America’s First Couple beaming and
waving just a few feet away.
Surveying the cheering crowd from their open-top car, Nellie Connally, the
Texas governor’s wife, said to her fellow passenger: “Mr
President, you cannot say that Dallas doesn’t love
you.�€9Other vehicles in the motorcade were still passing Boone and
his colleagues when a gunshot punctured the air at 12.30pm. As he dashed
across a street towards the centre of the plaza, two more shots were fired
as he watched the presidential limousine screaming away.
In the chaos, witnesses told him that they had heard shots from a small
green embankment that ran up to a wooden fence next to a freight yard and
the book depository. Some later claimed that they had seen a shadowy
figure there amid bushes when the president was shot.
So Boone scrambled up what became known, thanks to an early wire agency
report, as the “grassy knoll”, words that became
synonymous with the conspiracy theories that would mushroom around the
He found no sign of anything amiss or suspicious there. “Nobody in
the freight yard had seen or heard anything. There were no spent shells by
the fence. The flower beds and the bushes were undisturbed,” he
“By now the search was focused on the depository. Most people believed the shots had come from one of the higher floors, so we were deployed to search the building. The power was off so we were given flashlights and I was assigned to the team to search the sixth floor.”
Stacks of brown cardboard boxes were piled up higgledy-piggledy across the warehouse floor, but by a corner window with a clear view down on to the parade route, another officer quickly found the sniper’s nest. Some boxes had been piled high to partition off a small eerie. Two more were pushed next to the window ledge to form what looked like a gun rest, and spent shell casings lay on the floor.
The policemen then fanned out to search the rest of the room. “We were looking for anything unusual or out of place,” said Boone. And, near the stairwell, he found it.
“There were two stacks of books and the top row of one had been pushed across to create a crevice where you could conceal something. And there it was. I remember I called out to the others: 'Here’s a rifle.’ I kept the area protected and nobody touched anything until specialists had arrived to photograph and dust for fingerprints.”
But Boone inadvertently contributed to one strand of the conspiracy theories that have run rampant for half a century when he said the weapon looked like a Mauser. It actually turned out to be a different bolt-action rifle, an Italian-made, 6.5mm Carcano, and was soon identified as belonging to Lee Harvey Oswald.
Oswald, 24, a former US Marine and trained marksmen, had defected to the Soviet Union in 1959, only to return to the US in 1962 with a Russian wife, and he had begun work at the depository a few weeks earlier. He was identified by a series of government investigations as a lone, disgruntled killer. Oswald protested his innocence and was gunned down two days later by Jack Ruby, a nightclub owner.
A majority of Americans have consistently believed that Oswald was part of a bigger conspiracy. And some have contended that the Carcano was planted, or later swapped for a Mauser, to incriminate Oswald. Boone debunks that. “There was no switch, no change,” he said. “There is no question in my mind that this was the weapon used to assassinate the president.”
Meanwhile, the presidential limousine that Boone saw speeding away had arrived at 12.38 pm at Parkland Memorial Hospital, its occupants, interior and windscreen all splattered in blood and brain matter.
There, Phyllis Hall, a nurse in the outpatient clinic who happened to be talking with a friend who worked on the triage desk in the emergency ward, was about to be swept up in the whirlwind of history. “The supervisor said there had been a call to say there was an accident in the president’s motorcade,” she said. “The words were hardly out of her mouth when the doors burst open.
“Among the first in was Lyndon Johnson, the vice president, who was very pale and sweating heavily. Then I heard the groans of someone calling out in grave pain. It was Governor John Connally, who was seriously injured in the attack.
“Then they carried in a second stretcher. I could just see a man from his waist down as there was a lady lying across his head and shoulders.
“A doctor told me: 'We need you here.’ We were whisked into the Trauma One room, where it was immediately clear that this was President Kennedy.
“I started to feel for his vital signs. I couldn’t find any, there was no pulse. His eyelids were half-closed, his pupils were fixed and dilated, and his skin was blueish-grey, indicating that no oxygen was circulating.”
As the doctors worked frantically to resuscitate their patient, Mrs Kennedy stood next to her husband, her right hand on his left foot.
“We were desperately searching for any sign of life, but there was nothing,” said Hall. “The treatment the president received that day was outstanding but futile. I believe he was dead when he arrived at the hospital.”
At 1 pm, Kemp Clark, a senior surgeon, pronounced the president dead. Mrs Kennedy did not flinch. “There was no response,” said Hall. “I have never seen anyone in such profound shock in my life. She had the same blank look on her face. She just looked down and stared blankly.”
James Tague never meant to be in Dealey Plaza but ended up so close that he was, he believes, wounded by the debris from a bullet intended for the president. The car salesman was late for a lunch date with a “pretty redhead” who would become his wife, so he was frustrated when he found himself stuck in traffic at a standstill.
Only after leaving his vehicle to look for the cause of the hold-up did he see a motorcade ahead and recall that the president was in town that day. Seconds later, he heard what he thought was a firecracker, followed by two more cracks, clearly gunshots now, and a sharp sting to his face.
Tague ran over towards what was to become known as the grassy knoll. “There was a man there sobbing and telling a policeman: 'His head exploded,’” he said. “The officer asked 'Whose head?’ and the guy said: 'The president’s.’”
It was then that the sheriff noticed blood on Tague’s right check and he explained that he had felt a sting as the shots rang out. The two men walked back to where he had been standing, saw a fresh gouge in a street curb and concluded that Tague had been hit by a fragment of concrete from a shot fired at the president.
Tague was one of the last witnesses to testify before the Warren Commission, the first investigation panel that concluded that Oswald was the solo gunman and acted alone. Tague said that he soon developed doubts about the commission’s findings. But, for much of the next four decades, he was focused on his career and family.
In later years, he has become obsessed with the assassination and has just published a new book that he claims “reveals all”. In LBJ and the Kennedy Killing, he calls it a “coup d’état” organised by Vice President Johnson and covered up by FBI chief J Edgar Hoover.
“The public may have loved Kennedy, but he was a hated man in Washington,” said Mr Tague.
The Johnson-Hoover government conspiracy is one of the most popular among those who do n
ot believe the “lone nut” explanation of events, and was the scenario used by the director Oliver Stone in his film JFK. Other theories blame organised criminals, the Soviet Union, Cuban leader Fidel Castro (seeking revenge for the Bay of Pigs invasion) or anti-Castro Cuban exiles.
But with the vehemence of a true believer, the bluntly spoken Tague now insists that he has provided the definitive account from a plethora of conversations with witnesses at the depository, a former Johnson insider and those whose testimony was ignored by the Warren Commission.
He has concluded that Oswald was an innocent “patsy” and that there were two assassination teams – one that fired from an upper floor of the depository, the other from the top of the grassy knoll, striking Kennedy simultaneously with shots from the front and back. He even names the chief assassin as a now-dead associate of Johnson.
It is a colourful theory that is typical of the conspiracy industry. Hall, the former Parkland nurse, is much less strident but she is also convinced, from the wounds that she saw, that the president was hit from the front and back – meaning that Oswald could not be a lone gunman.
“Oh, I don’t think the Warren Commission got it right,” she said. “I am a big believer in the conspiracy theories.”
There is certainly plenty of material to fuel the speculation. There are clear inconsistencies in the Warren report; the Zapruder film – a silent sequence shot by Abraham Zapruder, a local businessman who unexpectedly captured the only footage of the assassination in the most famous amateur video in history – can be frozen to indicate just about anything; the acoustics of the gunshots were confusing; there seem to be discrepancies in the medical reporting about the location of the wounds; and doubts remain about the official account that a near-pristine shell recovered from a stretcher in Parkland was the “magic bullet” that first hit Kennedy and then Connally.
Then there’s Oswald’s own strange life history, and the fact that he never had his day in court, as he was killed less than 48 hours later by Ruby, who himself died in prison in 1967.
Pierce Allman, another witness to that day’s events, is unswayed. “There is a different theory every day and with the advent of the internet, everyone can push their version of events,” said Mr Allman, who was working at the WFAA television station near the plaza and joined the crowds in his lunch break.
“There was so much anticipation and expectation that day. The Kennedys were the closest thing we had to royalty. The crowds were so exuberant and cheering.”
But as he walked the few city blocks to Dealey Plaza, he had a chilling premonition. “The rain had cleared and it was a beautiful day,” he said. “I kept looking up at the roofs – all the open windows – and I remember turning to my colleague, and saying: 'You know, if there was going to be an assassination attempt, it would be here.’
“The motorcade came by and then 'boom’, the sound that I’ll never forget, then two more shots. I could not tell how badly Kennedy was hit, but I knew I had to get to a phone to call the station, and the depository was the nearest building.
“I ran across the street and there was a couple there and the man said: 'They got away. The president, they blew away the side of his head.’”
Allman raced up the steps of the depository and into the foyer, where he asked a young man where the nearest phone was. “He jerked his thumb and said 'in there’. It was only later, when I spoke to the Secret Service, that they told me the man was almost certainly Oswald, as he told them that a young newsman had asked for a phone just before he left the building.”
Mr Allman’s chance brush with the killer has not imbued him with the conspiracy spirit. “I have read and read and studied this, but I have not seen anyone who has discovered a shred of evidence that Lee Harvey Oswald was not acting alone,” he said.
“I think a large measure of the reason that people cling on to these conspiracy theories is the refusal to accept that someone so inconsequential and so uninspiring as Oswald could accomplish something so horrendous and earth-shattering as killing the president of the United States. That is just impossible for many to accept.”
Boone is also convinced that Oswald was the sole gunman. But, he added, “I do believe that if there was any conspiracy, then it was to get Oswald in the right place at the right time to accomplish the feat. But that’s a big 'if’.
“People want to believe there was a conspiracy as they want to believe it wasn’t just some lone nut. And as there was never a trial, perhaps we’ll never know. But most of these theories belong in the fiction section of the local library.”
Boone's observation is right on the money. “I do believe that if
there was any conspiracy, then it was to get Oswald in the right place at
the right time to accomplish the feat. But that’s a big
Of course it was a big "if" because Oswald was in the right place long
before anyone could have known it was the right place. Oswald's employment
at the TDBD predated the planning of the motorcade that would bring JFK
right past the TSBD. Maybe Jeane Dixon was part of the conspiracy and told
the plotters where to place Oswald.