JFK Assassination: The Facts and Theories
The tarmac at Love Field in Dallas bustled with limousines and police motorcycles on that November morning as the Secret Service and city cops readied what would become the most scrutinized motorcade in American history.
Sixteen cars, a dozen motorcycles and three buses were assembled to carry John F. Kennedy and his entourage to the Dallas Trade Mart, in the heart of downtown, where the president was scheduled to address civic leaders.
Air Force Two, carrying Vice President Lyndon Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, touched down at 11:30 a.m. after the brief flight from Fort Worth. Air Force One followed at 11:40 a.m. On board were Kennedy and his wife, Texas Gov. John Connally and his wife, Nellie, and U.S. Sen. Ralph Yarborough.
On hand at the airport was a small throng, including journalists and key Texas political supporters. Kennedy greeted Texas dignitaries in a receiving line. He made certain to acknowledge well-wishers who lined fences at the airport to get a look at the president and First Lady.
Kennedy was devoting two days to Texas as an early campaign trip that he hoped would rally the Lone Star State's sometimes fractious Democrats around a single cause: his reelection.
The presence of Jackie Kennedy on the trip was carefully considered. Mrs. Kennedy had become an iconic figure in America, with a celebrity that rivaled her husband's. The president's advisors had plotted slow-rolling motorcades in the three largest Texas cities in part to allow citizen-voters a glimpse of America's elegant queen.
The Kennedys left Washington on the morning of Thursday, November 21, and flew to San Antonio. They were met there by Gov. Connally and Vice President Johnson, who joined the president in a motorcade downtown.
That afternoon the president flew to Houston, where another motorcade awaited. He spoke to a large crowd at Rice University Stadium, then attended a political dinner in Houston.
Late Thursday night, the Kennedys flew to Fort Worth, where they spent the night at the Texas Hotel. Friday morning, Kennedy attended a breakfast at the hotel and spoke to a crowd outdoors before leaving for Dallas.
He must have felt ill at ease after the two motorcades on Thursday. At the hotel, the Kennedys and Kenneth O'Donnell, special assistant to the president, had a foreboding conversation about the potential danger of motorcades.
O'Donnell would tell the Warren Commission that the President said, "If anybody really wanted to shoot the president of the United States, it was not a very difficult job. All one had to do was get in a high building someday with a telescopic rifle, and there was nothing anybody could do to defend against such an attempt."
The Dallas motorcade set off from the airport just 10 minutes after the president's jet landed.
The schedule allotted 45 minutes for the 10-mile trip from Love to the Trade Mart. The motorcade route had been well-publicized in the week before Kennedy's visit. The president's political handlers hoped for a huge show of support. That's why he had gone to Texas, after all.
The motorcade left the airport and traveled along Main Street toward the tall buildings of downtown Dallas, where thousands of office workers would be free on lunch hour when the motorcade passed. Warren Commission investigators confirmed the motorcade route was chosen to maximize "participation" from citizens.
And that is what happened. The parade route was mobbed.
Police had manned all bridge overpasses and shooed away unauthorized individuals. But screening the crowd or searching buildings along the route for miscreants was impossible.
The convoy buzzed along Main Street at 25 to 30 miles an hour in the more sparsely populated outer reaches of Dallas. But even there a number of people waited to see the Kennedys, and the motorcade gradually slowed as it headed downtown.
The first car in the convoy, known as the "pilot car," carried Dallas police officers. It stayed a quarter-mile ahead of the political parade that followed and was assigned to report signs of trouble.
Next came six motorcycles, then the "lead car," an unmarked Dallas police vehicle driven by Police Chief Police Jesse Curry and occupied by Dallas County Sheriff J.E. Decker and Secret Service Agents Forrest Sorrels, of the White House detail, and Winston Lawson, special agent in charge of the Dallas office.
According to the Warren Commission report, "The occupants scanned the crowd and the buildings along the route. Their main function was to spot trouble in advance and to direct any necessary steps to meet the trouble. Following normal practice, the lead automobile stayed approximately four to five car lengths ahead of the President's limousine."
The presidential car, a specially designed 1961 Lincoln Continental convertible, was fitted with a futuristic plastic bubble that could protect the occupants from rain while allowing people along the motorcade route to get a good look at their dashing president and his lovely wife.
But the weather was fair, so the bubble had been removed. The plastic was not bullet-proof, in any case.
Kennedy sat in the right rear seat with his wife to the left. John and Nellie Connally were seated in front of them in a jump seat, with Nellie on the left.
Secret Service Agent William Greer drove the car, and Agent Roy Kellerman, head of the White House detail, rode shotgun. The limousine was fitted with running boards that allowed agents to ride beside the president, but Kennedy preferred to give citizens an unobstructed view during motorcades.
Four more motorcycles flanked the president's car to keep the crowd back. Again, Kennedy had asked that the cycles lag back to give people a good view.
Behind the presidential limo was a 1955 Cadillac that carried eight armed agents—four inside, four on the running boards. O'Donnell and another aide rode in that car, as well. The agents on the running boards were assigned to hurry up to the presidential car any time it slowed to a stop or a walking pace.
Next in line was the vice president's car, a four-door Lincoln convertible that carried the Johnsons, Sen. Yarborough and a Secret Service agent. A Texas highway patrolman drove.
Behind Johnson's Lincoln was a car driven by a Dallas cop that carried three more agents and Clifton Garter, assistant to Johnson.
And this was followed by the rest of the motorcade, including five cars with the Dallas mayor and other Texas politicians; the president's physician, Admiral George Burkley; telephone and Western Union vehicles; a White House communications car; three cars of press photographers; a bus for White House staffers, and two press buses.
A Dallas police car and three more motorcycles brought up the rear.
In downtown Dallas, the motorcade slowed to 10 mph as the Kennedys and Connallys smiled and waved to the masses lining the route, a crowd estimated at a quarter-million. At Houston St., the motorcade turned right off Main, then left onto Elm to allow quick passage through Dealey Plaza to the Stemmons Freeway for the final leg of the trip.
At the corner of Houston and Elm stood a seven-story building leased to the Texas School Book Depository, which shipped schoolbooks in the southwest.
As the motorcade moved toward the Book Depository, Nellie Connally turned and remarked about the greeting that the Kennedys were receiving.
The governor's wife said, "Mr. President, you can't say that Dallas doesn't love you."
Kennedy replied, "That is very obvious."
These were John Kennedy's last words.