In Dealey Plaza, it’s forever 1963: The assassination of John F Kennedy - 50 years on

For the people who were there that day, the assassination of President John F Kennedy looms large in their lives 50 years on

Tim Walker
Sunday 17 November 2013 19:04
RIP JFK: the stockade fence that surrounds the Grassy Knoll is covered with messages and drawings left there by visitors
RIP JFK: the stockade fence that surrounds the Grassy Knoll is covered with messages and drawings left there by visitors

Many of those who converged on Dealey Plaza that hot, bright day in November came hoping for a story to tell their children. Not James Tague.

Then 27, Tague had driven into downtown Dallas simply to take a cute redhead on a lunch date. And yet, half a century later, he is still telling the story, over and over and over again. Standing on what is now known as the Grassy Knoll, he points towards the spot beneath the triple underpass at the west end of the plaza, where he found himself stuck in traffic just before 12.30pm on 22 November 1963. “My first thought was that there had been a bad automobile accident,” he says.

“I got out of my car, walked four or five steps, looked up at the intersection and noticed a crowd and a limousine coming through with flags on the front fender. I remembered reading that President Kennedy was going to be in town, so I thought, ‘OK, I’ll watch him go by’. No sooner did I have that thought than I heard what I thought was somebody throwing a firecracker. Then came the ‘crack, crack’ of two more rifle shots and I felt something hit me in the face, stinging.”

Tague had been nicked on the cheek by what investigators later surmised was a bullet fragment or a sliver of concrete shrapnel, making him the third man wounded during the shooting, along with the Texas Governor John Connally and US President John F Kennedy, whose motorcade sped up and out of the plaza beneath the underpass.

“Across the street on the Grassy Knoll a policeman had stopped and was talking to another man,” Tague says. “I crossed just in time to hear the man sobbing, ‘His head exploded’. The policeman said, ‘Whose head’? And he replied, ‘The President’s’.”

Dealey Plaza is more a traffic intersection than a public square and significantly smaller than it seems in the extensively studied home-movie footage of the Kennedy assassination taken by Abraham Zapruder. The plaza is an accidental monument in a city that never welcomed the association. Tourists jog on to the asphalt, oblivious to the threat of oncoming cars, to be photographed beside the white X that marks the spot where the fatal bullet struck America’s 35th President. On the stockade fence that lines the Grassy Knoll, people have scrawled tributes, accusations and cod philosophy. The official Kennedy memorial is tucked away in a neighbouring square, but attracts few visitors by comparison.

Gary Mack is the curator of the Sixth Floor Museum, which is devoted to the assassination and located on the sixth floor of the book depository building, from which Lee Harvey Oswald fired the fateful shots. “Day in, day out, people come to Dealey Plaza,” Mack says. “They walk around, scratch their heads, point. It never stops.” Mack’s museum maintains the official record of events, but the plaza below is where the conspiracy theorists ply their trade, flogging $5 (£3) pamphlets about “what really happened”. Tague is convinced that the assassination was the result of a plot involving Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B Johnson, and has just published a book to that effect, LBJ and the Kennedy Killing. He married the cute redhead, raised a family and had a successful career as a car salesman. “But in the back of my mind, I always knew I would write a major book,” he says.

The day began very differently, says Pierce Allman, who was a 29-year-old reporter for a local radio station. He was sent to the airport at Love Field to cover Kennedy’s arrival. Like the rest of the crowd gathered beside the runway, Allman was captivated by the charm and charisma of the President and First Lady.

At the time, the outside world considered Dallas a cauldron of right-wing extremism, the only city in Texas to vote against the Democrat at the 1960 presidential election. During that campaign, LBJ, Kennedy’s running mate, had visited Dallas and been spat on in the street. A month before the President’s doomed visit, UN ambassador Adlai Stevenson was struck on the head by a placard-wielding Dallas housewife. Kennedy had warned Jackie: “We’re heading into nut country.”

But the couple’s welcome was joyous. Around 200,000 people – almost a quarter of the city’s 1963 population – lined the sidewalks to see them. As the motorcade progressed down Main Street, Connally’s wife turned to Kennedy and told him, above the cheers of the crowd: “Mr President, you can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you.”

Allman had been so impressed by the President that, after wrapping up his report, he strolled the few blocks from his workplace to Dealey Plaza, to watch the motorcade come through. He was standing on the intersection opposite the book depository as the President’s car appeared. “Jackie was radiant,” he says. “Kennedy looked great, too. I called out something like, ‘Welcome to Dallas, Mr President’ as they rounded the corner in front of me. And then, boom.”

Allman heard Jackie scream as the President’s car raced away. He ran across the street to where a couple were lying flat on the pavement with their children. Bill Newman and his wife, Gayle, were the closest civilian eyewitnesses and would later give evidence to the Warren Commission. As Allman remembers it, Newman turned to him and said, “They got the President”. He says: “My first thought was, ‘I’ve got to get to a phone’.”

As he dashed up the steps to the lobby of the book depository, “The door was half-open, and there was a guy standing there. I asked him to show me to the nearest phone and he jerked his thumb and said, ‘In there’.”

Allman’s was the only on-the-scene report of the shooting. He stayed on the line to the radio station for the next hour, relaying the news when a rifle was found stashed among boxes upstairs. Three weeks after the assassination, the young reporter was interviewed by the Secret Service.

“They asked me about the guy in the doorway of the depository: what did he say, what were his gestures? We went through it all five or six times before they finally asked, ‘Are you familiar with the testimony of Lee Oswald after his arrest? He stated that, as he was leaving the book depository building, a young man with a crew cut rushed up, identified himself as a newsman and asked him where the phone was. That’s obviously you’.”

As Allman brushed past Oswald into the book depository building, Kennedy was being rushed to Parkland hospital. Nowadays it is a medical metropolis, but in 1963, Parkland was a single building surrounded by fields. Nurse Phyllis Hunt had recently transferred from the emergency room to the outpatients’ clinic to avoid the gruelling night shifts, but during her lunch break on 22 November, she popped across to see an old colleague.

“Doris Nelson, the head nurse, came hurrying from her office and said, ‘There’s been an accident with the President’s motorcade and they’re on their way’,” says Hunt, who was 28 at the time.

“She’d barely got the words out when the doors to the hallway exploded open.” When Hunt got to Trauma Room 1, she says, “I went over to the carriage that Kennedy was on. I couldn’t find a pulse. I noticed the huge head wound. His hair was full of brain tissue. Working in emergency I would see wounds like that all the time... I knew it was the President, but I was just focused on him as a patient that needed help”.

The doctors went to work, battling the inevitable. “We didn’t have all those good things they have today like respirators, but we couldn’t have done anything for him anyway,” Hunt says. “The security services and the media were pouring into the hallway outside the trauma room. They got really loud and profane, pushing around and scuffling. Mrs Kennedy just stayed at the end of the carriage with her hand on his left foot. Doris asked her whether she’d like to have a seat in the hallway, but she declined. The only thing I heard her say was, ‘No, I’m going to stay with him’.”

Kennedy was declared dead at 1pm, 22 minutes after arriving at Parkland. “Sometimes it seems as if it was no time at all,” Hunt says. “And sometimes it feels like it was forever.”

Though the hospital lost the President, it saved the Governor, who had been gravely injured. But two days later, after being shot by Jack Ruby, Oswald also died at Parkland. In the months that followed, the US media dubbed Dallas a “City of Hate” and the ill-feeling pursued Hunt personally. She and some of her fellow nurses received threatening letters, accusing them of involvement in a conspiracy.

“The following summer my family and I drove to see my mother in Illinois, in our brand-new Ford Falcon,” Hunt says.

“We stayed at a motel in Arkansas, and when we told the owner we were from Dallas, he said to put the car out of sight because otherwise someone would vandalise it. The next day we stopped for gas in Missouri, someone put sand or sugar in the tank, and we had to get rid of the car.”

Mack, who was a high school senior in Denver in 1963, watched the day’s events unfold on television with his father, who had been a pilot during the Second World War. “I had never seen my dad scared before,” Mack says. “But he was frightened: he thought the Russians were responsible and that World War Three was about to start.”

It wasn’t until the Zapruder footage was first broadcast in 1975 that Mack became obsessed with the assassination. The following year he moved to Dallas for a job in radio and took up with the theorists behind some of the better-known works in the JFK conspiracy canon. But over the years he gradually modified his views until they matched, for the most part, the official version.

“The conspiracy folks get really mad at me because I changed my opinion,” he says.

The Sixth Floor Exhibit opened in 1989 and the city assumed it would be temporary. Two years later, Oliver Stone’s movie JFK was released and visitor numbers soared. Now the museum is permanent and Mack has been its curator since 2000. Allman’s is the voice of its audio tour.

For several years, Dallas retained the stigma of the assassination – that was finally dispelled by the success of the city’s NFL team, the Dallas Cowboys, which won its first Super Bowl in 1972, and by the TV soap, Dallas, which debuted in 1978.

The trauma unit where Kennedy was declared dead is long gone, replaced by a radiology waiting room. But Dealey Plaza remains and what took place there is still fresh in the minds of those who witnessed it first-hand. “When I come down to Dealey Plaza,” says Allman, “it’s forever 1963.”

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