Wednesday, October 30, 2013
The mysterious journey of JFK's body on the evening of Nov. 22, 1963...
by Douglas Horne
At my request, a friend of mine, psychologist Steven Kossor of Pennsylvania, recently used the sophisticated audio equipment he employs in his hobby as an audiophile to create an enhanced excerpt for me of the key passages in the Clifton version of the “Air Force One Tapes” (the GPO/NARA version released to the public in 2012, based on the Clifton version of the AF1 conversations, which is about 27 minutes longer than the version previously released by the LBJ Library), pertaining to the selection of JFK’s autopsy site (Walter Reed Hospital vs. Bethesda Naval Hospital); and the mode of transportation to be used to move JFK’s body from Andrews Air Force Base to the autopsy site (a mortuary style ambulance vs. helicopter).
Those portions of the AF1 tapes have always haunted me, since a tug-of-war was clearly going on between major actors onboard Air Force One, and major actors at the White House Situation Room (“Crown”), regarding where JFK’s autopsy would be performed, and how the body would be transported there. Many people who have studied these conversations have undoubtedly wondered the same things: “What was being planned — and why — and how did those plans change after AF1 landed at Andrews AFB — and why?” This rather lengthy and detailed essay will share with its readers my considered opinions after ruminating about this subject off and on for 32 years, since 1981 — when I first became aware of the LBJ Library version of the AF1 tapes by reading David Lifton’s forensic thriller about the JFK assassination, Best Evidence.
Context is everything
Everything in this essay is grounded around one basic, undeniable fact: that the heavy, bronze, reddish-brown ceremonial casket from Dallas, in which JFK’s body was taken aboard AF1 at Love Field in Dallas, was empty when the public saw it unloaded from Air Force One on live television shortly after 6:04 PM on November 22, 1963, and placed into a light gray Navy ambulance. We know this is so because President Kennedy’s body arrived at the Bethesda morgue twenty minutes BEFORE the motorcade from Andrews AFB, transporting the Dallas casket in a light gray Navy Pontiac ambulance, arrived at the front of the Navy hospital. If the timeline that supports the above conclusion can be trusted, then the only conclusion possible is that JFK’s body had been removed from the Dallas casket onboard the airplane, prior to the arrival of Air Force One at Andrews, and somehow spirited to Bethesda Naval Hospital before the Andrews motorcade arrived. It is essential that the reader review the basic facts proving that the body’s chain-of-custody was broken enroute the autopsy, before we move on to the principal topic of this essay, which is “What do the AF1 tapes reveal about what was intended that night; what actually transpired; and how did those events deviate from what had been planned, and why?”
The timeline can indeed be trusted, and I shall demonstrate why. Two Navy enlisted men, Dennis David and Donald Rebentisch, were part of the working party that unloaded JFK’s body at 6:35 PM at the Bethesda Naval Hospital loading dock that evening. Mr. David was a First Class Navy Corpsman serving as “Chief of the Day” at Bethesda, and was instructed by the Secret Service detail (which had literally taken over Bethesda that afternoon) to assemble a working party of sailors, so that the President’s casket could be unloaded, and taken into the morgue, when it arrived in a vehicle at the Bethesda morgue’s loading dock. HM1 Dennis David was the supervisor of the working party, and Donald Rebentisch was a member of this working party. As reported in Best Evidence, both men, in the early 1980s, had independent and identical recollections of offloading a cheap aluminum shipping casket from a Hearse (a black Cadillac mortuary-style ambulance built specifically for the funeral trade) at the morgue’s loading dock, and of taking the casket into the morgue, and setting it down, before being dismissed. Dennis David’s best recollection when interviewed by the ARRB staff in 1997 was that this event occurred at about 6:45 PM; the precise time of the event was fixed with precision in 1997 when the ARRB staff acquired the November 26th, 1963 typed after-action report of USMC Sergeant Roger Boyajian, whose Marine Barracks security detail had provided physical security during the autopsy. (Mr. Boyajian still had an onionskin carbon copy of the report in 1997, and sent the ARRB a high-quality photocopy, which he authenticated by letter.) In his after-action report, which pertained only to the physical security provided for President Kennedy’s autopsy, Boyajian wrote: “At approximately 1835 the casket was received at the morgue entrance and taken inside.” This pins down much more accurately Dennis David’s estimate to the ARRB staff that the shipping casket event had taken place at about 6:45 PM. The military time of 1835 hours (6:35 PM civilian time) in Boyajian’s report, which was a contemporaneous document typed four days after the autopsy, trumps Dennis David’s estimate in 1997 (very accurate, as it turns out) of 6:45 PM, and can be authoritatively considered the true arrival time of the shipping casket. Later on, during the night of the autopsy, after the autopsy had been concluded, in response to a question from HM1 Dennis David, Dr. J Thornton Boswell, one of the three pathologists who had conducted JFK’s autopsy, confirmed to David that JFK had indeed been in the shipping casket his working party had unloaded from the Hearse at the morgue loading dock hours earlier. [David told Lifton in 1979 that both Dr. Humes and Dr. Boswell (the two Navy pathologists who participated in the autopsy) had been present on the loading dock, along with their commanding officer, Captain Stover, and what he believed to be the Surgeons General of the Army and Air Force.]
In contrast, both the local newspapers, and a Secret Service report, reported that the light gray Navy ambulance containing the Dallas casket, Jackie Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy, had arrived at 6:55 PM in front of Bethesda Naval Hospital, and newspapers the next day reported it had sat there for twelve minutes, before being driven away to the back of the building (its destination at that time — about 7:07 PM — per the two FBI agents who led the way in their own vehicle, was the morgue loading dock). We have a high degree of certainty, therefore, in both key aspects of this timeline — that is, in the arrival time of both caskets at Bethesda. The shipping casket (which Boswell confirmed to Dennis David had contained JFK’s body) arrived twenty minutes prior to the Andrews motorcade and the light gray Navy ambulance, and furthermore, the Navy ambulance had then (according to newspaper reports the next day) sat out in front of the hospital for an additional 12 minutes before even moving. Dennis David also recalled clearly — in 1979, long before he ever knew about the Boyajian report — that after his working party unloaded the shipping casket from the Hearse, he went to the forward part of the hospital and subsequently watched the Andrews motorcade arrive, about 20 or 30 minutes minutes later, from a second floor office window. As it turns out, his sense of time was quite accurate even many years later in 1979, for the Andrews motorcade arrived exactly 20 minutes after the casket arrival mentioned in the Boyajian report. This speaks highly to Dennis David’s reliability as a witness.
It gets even worse, as far as the body’s chain-of-custody goes. The staff of the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) learned in the late 1970s that the two FBI agents sent to Bethesda to obtain any bullets removed from the body, James Sibert and Francis O’Neill, helped two Secret Service agents (Roy Kellerman and William Greer) offload the Dallas casket (which had to be empty) from the light gray Navy ambulance that had just arrived at the morgue loading dock, using a wheeled conveyance (almost certainly what was known as a “church truck”). This was reconfirmed by the ARRB in 1997 when these two men were deposed; and former FBI agent James Sibert clarified for the ARRB that they set it down in the morgue anteroom. So this second casket entry was quite distinctive from the first one, in that: (1) it was a different casket than Dennis David’s working party offloaded [a heavy bronze ceremonial coffin, as opposed to a cheap, unadorned, lightweight gray aluminum shipping casket]; (2) it was delivered by a different vehicle [by a light gray Navy Pontiac ambulance, as opposed to a Hearse, which was a black Cadillac mortuary-style ambulance]; and (3) different people, or “actors,” unloaded the casket from the vehicle which delivered it [namely, the second casket delivery was offloaded by four Federal agents wearing suits, whereas the first casket delivery was offloaded by Navy sailors in working uniforms]. Based on inferences in an internal FBI interview report, this second casket entry by the four Federal agents occurred at approximately 7:17 PM. Unknown by the two FBI agents at the time, the Dallas casket was empty when they moved it into the morgue anteroom. (The two Secret Service agents had to know otherwise, for they had been onboard Air Force One during the flight back to Washington from Dallas.)
The “French Farce” continued that evening, for there was a second entry of the Dallas casket at 8:00 PM. The Honor Guard, or Joint Service Casket Team, after chasing a “decoy ambulance” into the darkness and getting lost, finally found the Dallas casket sitting out front in a light gray Navy ambulance (which one of the two present that night is unclear), and performed their intended ceremonial function by following it to the back of the hospital, manhandling the heavy bronze casket up the narrow steps leading to the morgue loading dock platform, and by then taking it into the morgue proper. The time of this third casket entry (and the second entry for the Dallas casket that night) was recorded in the after-action report of the Military District of Washington (MDW). So the time of this final casket entry — 8:00 PM — is also unassailable. And its actors are startlingly different from the other two casket entries that preceded it: the Joint Service Casket Team, hastily assembled at Andrews AFB, consisted of members of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard — all wearing the dress uniform of their respective services, and white gloves. [Unlike the Marine Barracks security detail supervised by USMC Sergeant Boyajian, they carried no weapons.] Furthermore, after setting the heavy bronze casket down next to one of the morgue examining tables, they witnessed the casket being opened, and saw JFK’s body removed from the heavy, reddish-brown ceremonial coffin. Those who were playing a “shell game” with President Kennedy’s body that night understood that the mortified and embarrassed Casket Team had to be allowed to perform its ceremonial function — that is, to “find” the casket that they had lost in the darkness; to take it into the morgue; and to see it opened and to be reassured that all was well, and that the slain Commander-in-Chief’s body was inside. The illusion of an intact chain-of-custody had to be created for this most important audience, and for those supervising its performance, General Phillip Wehle (Commandant, MDW), and his aide, Lt. Richard Lipsey. The first two casket entries that night — the shipping casket at 6:35 PM and the first Dallas casket entry at about 7:17 PM — remained unknown to the Joint Service Casket Team, and to Wehle and Lipsey. [Lipsey later freely admitted knowledge of a “decoy ambulance” to the HSCA staff in an interview in the late 1970s, but seemed completely unaware of its implications; presumably, he and General Wehle were given a benign explanation for the “wild goose chase” conducted in the dark by both of them, and by their honor guard that night. Many of the enlisted Navy personnel on duty the night of the autopsy at Bethesda were aware of a “decoy” Navy ambulance, and its existence was even admitted to them by some of the Secret Service agents at the Naval Hospital.]
So — now that the reader understands the context within which we will be evaluating the Air Force One tapes and other critical data — we can proceed to our examination of the initial tug-of-war over the autopsy site, and the mode of transportation for JFK’s body enroute the autopsy. Something was very much amiss that day. It behooves us to try to understand just what was going on: (1) Why would anyone want to remove JFK’s body from the Dallas casket onboard Air Force One? (2) How did JFK’s body arrive at Bethesda Naval Hospital prior to the Andrews AFB motorcade; (3) What plan for the autopsy and the body’s movement was hatched while AF1 was in flight, and how was that plan altered in its execution? and (4) What happened to JFK’s body at Bethesda in-between its early arrival at 6:35 PM, and the official commencement of the autopsy at 8:00 PM before a large audience of at least 35 people at the Bethesda morgue?
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