The Assassination of John F Kennedy

Dealey Plaza The 22nd of November 2013 was the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most shocking events of the twentieth century, the assassination of President John F Kennedy. I personally expected a deluge of TV documentaries about the assassination but in fact on UK TV there really weren’t that many. A re-showing of the Oliver Stone movie, JFK. A documentary about media response to the assassination which was really the media looking at themselves. But that was really it, there were no probing or investigative programmes, perhaps in 2013 it was far too late for that.

In 1988, twenty-five years after John Kennedy’s death, a veritable wave of documentaries were broadcast on British television, including a rare showing on channel four of the 1966 film of Mark Lane’s ‘Rush to Judgement’. On ITV a documentary by producer Nigel Turner called ‘The Men who Killed Kennedy’ was aired, claiming fantastically that assassins from the French underworld killed the President. That particular film, which had its merits despite its incredible conclusions, was similar to many other films, books, and articles, in that they all challenged the establishment view, framed in the report of the Warren Commission, that the lone killer was a man called Lee Harvey Oswald. In 1995, BBC TV’s ‘Timewatch’ gave us a view of Oswald that brought us full circle. Heavily influenced by the book ‘Case Closed’ by Gerald Posner, the film said look, Oswald really did it after all.  So, have you had your fill of conspiracy theories? Have you heard enough of CIA plots and Watergate and Iran-Contra? Enough of the ‘grassy knoll’, the Book Depository, and Dealey Plaza? Has perhaps our interest in the fate of President Kennedy been diminished by revelations of the apparently numerous indiscretions in his private life?

Whatever the truth of John Kennedy’s private life, his graphic death was the cataclysm of our age, imprinted on the minds of a generation by the flickering incarnation of amateur cine film. For many the case is not closed and has never been even remotely resolved despite two official investigations, the last of which -by the House Select Committee on Assassinations- concluded, ambiguously, that the President was killed “probably” by the result of a conspiracy.

So what are the facts of the assassination? Perhaps the only undisputed fact to emerge from the tragedy was that John F. Kennedy, the thirty-fifth president of the United States, was shot in the head and killed. President Kennedy was hit by rifle fire in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, while riding in an open topped limousine, part of a motorcade that had just turned onto Elm Street by the Texas School Book Depository. Almost every other fact, every statement, every report, every document, every exhibit, every disclosure, is open to question. Were there three shots or four? Were there more? Was the President shot from behind or from the front? Was he shot from the sixth floor of the book depository or from the so called ‘grassy knoll’?  Did  twenty-four year old ex-marine Lee Harvey Oswald fire the shots? Was he alone or were there other assassins? Why did Jack Ruby, a local night club owner subsequently shoot Oswald? Was it to silence him, to stop him from telling what he knew? Did Ruby act out of rage or was he part of a conspiracy? Was he in the pay of the Mafia? Was the CIA involved? The questions are endless, the answers are few.

Image courtesy wikipedia

Image courtesy wikipedia

Lee Oswald was a young man with an extraordinary background.  He was not the ‘lone nut’ as described by the Warren Commission, the investigative body set up by President Johnson to examine the assassination. An ex radar operator at a top-secret US base in Japan, Oswald had spent years in Soviet Russia as a supposed defector. He was known to the FBI and had connections with military intelligence and the CIA. He appeared to be involved in left-wing Cuban politics and supported Fidel Castro. The Warren Commission concluded that Oswald shot the President but failed to answer the important question -why? Why should a left-wing activist shoot a liberal minded president who in the words of his critics had gone ‘soft’ on communism and Cuba? But as we examine the accepted elements of the murder more and more inconsistencies occur. The President was shot at 12.30 pm, but Oswald, who worked at the book depository, was seen by witnesses in the second floor lunch room as late as 12.15, which left him only fifteen minutes to ascend to the sixth floor, produce his rifle and take up position. Of course fifteen minutes might have been enough time for a cool and organised killer, but the President was actually due to arrive at a reception at the Dallas Trade Mart at 12.30, which meant he would pass through Dealey Plaza at about 12.25, giving Oswald only ten minutes to be in place, and he had no way of knowing the President would be late. Immediately after the shooting patrolman Marrion Baker entered the Book Depository, drew his gun and with building superintendent Roy Truly hot on his heels confronted a young man in the lunchroom calmly drinking a coke. Truly explained that this was Lee Oswald, an employee. Had Oswald rushed down from his ‘snipers lair’ on the sixth floor or had he been in the lunch room all the while?

image courtesy wikipedia

image courtesy wikipedia

Perhaps the strongest evidence linking Oswald to the murder was the supposed murder weapon, a 6.5 mm Mannlicher-Carcano bolt-action rifle, a World War II vintage carbine found on the sixth floor of the book depository at 1.22 pm, almost an hour after the assassination. The rifle had been purchased mail order by an ‘Alek Hidell’ and sent to Dallas post office box number 2915, rented by Oswald. When arrested, Oswald was carrying an identity card in the name of ‘Hidell’. To this day there is dispute over whether Oswald’s palm print was found on the rifle. All pretty damning you might think, but the officer who first found the rifle, Deputy Constable Seymour Weitzman, identified it as a 7.65 mm Mauser, and was confident enough to make a sworn affidavit to that effect. The day after the shooting, November 23rd, District Attorney Henry Wade also described the weapon as a Mauser at a televised press conference. How then does a 7.65mm Mauser become a 6.5mm Mannlicher-Carcano? I personally know nothing about guns at all but I have seen enough war films to know that a Mauser is German, and stamped clearly on the side of the Mannlicher-Carcano are the words ‘MADE ITALY’ and ‘CAL 6.5’. And surely a police officer, particularly an American policeman, would know what he was talking about concerning guns?

Abraham Zapruder, a local businessman took his cine camera to work that day to film the Presidential parade but what he recorded instead was a Presidential murder. In doing so he contributed arguably the most important piece of evidence in the whole case. His film gave investigators a filmed record and a timetable for the shooting. Examination of the film by FBI experts revealed the time between the first shot to hit the President and the shot that struck his head was 4.8 to 5.6 seconds. It was first thought that there were four shots, one shot hitting Kennedy in the throat, a second completely missing and hitting the kerb, a third hitting Governor Connally also seated in the Presidential car, and a fourth shattering Kennedy’s skull. Given that it takes 2.3 seconds to operate the bolt action rifle, four shots will not fit the time frame for one assassin and one rifle so the Warren Commission came up with the so called ‘magic bullet’ theory, that the second of three shots hit both Kennedy and Connally. This view has been blasted from a number of angles, firstly the bullet itself emerged as almost completely pristine, while one which had passed through the flesh and bone of two human bodies would have been severely deformed. Secondly, in the Zapruder film Governor Connally is seen to turn around as Kennedy is hit then appears to be hit himself as he turns to face front again.

Expert riflemen were called in to test the murder weapon. They were unable to duplicate Oswald’s supposed feat of marksmanship and complained of difficulty operating the rifle’s bolt mechanism and even the trigger. The telescopic sight could not be properly aligned and had to be rebuilt with metal shims added to make it accurate, which means of course that the rifle was tested in a configuration not available to Oswald. Also, test firing was done at still, rather than moving targets. The assassin would also have had to track the President as he passed behind an oak tree, resight his target and then shoot. So did Lee Oswald really do the shooting? What about the shot to the Presidents head which knocked him back and to the left indicating a shot from the right front -the grassy knoll area? And what about the bystanders who rushed up the grassy knoll including a motorcycle patrolman who tried to ride his bike up there? They felt the final shot came from the knoll as did railroad workers on the triple underpass, as did Abraham Zapruder the amateur cine cameraman, as did Mary Woodward of the Dallas Morning News, as did Lee Bowers positioned behind the grassy knoll atop a 14-foot railroad tower, as did many others. So, if other gunmen were involved, who were they? Who paid them? Who organised them? Who stood silently in the wings and watched while the President was killed?

JFK movie poster

JFK movie poster

Oliver Stone’s blockbuster movie from 1991, JFK. was a recreation of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison’s investigation into the murder of the president and before filming had even been completed the US media had begun -if you’ll excuse the pun- to throw stones at Stone. In conclusion the movie offers us the theory that the American ‘military-industrial complex’ was responsible for the crime, the theory running like this; Lyndon Johnson took over the reins of the presidency following JFK’s death. He continued with Kennedy’s cabinet and Kennedy’s policies, all except one -Vietnam. Not wishing to become embroiled in a guerrilla war in south-east Asia Kennedy had already ordered home from Vietnam one thousand troops. Johnson reversed that decision and thus began the disastrous American adventure that was the Vietnam War. Extreme right-wing elements opposed to John Kennedy’s policies of peace ‘removed’ Kennedy in favour of Johnson. Sound fantastic? To be fair to JFK, everything presented as fact was factual, and everything that was conjecture was presented as such, but the real life investigation by Jim Garrison  concluded that the CIA were the real culprits. After the disaster of the Bay of Pigs, the CIA-backed invasion of Cuba by Cuban exile brigades during which the CIA had attempted to force Kennedy into committing American troops into the assault, Kennedy had vowed to splinter the CIA into “a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds”. The CIA had become almost autonomous from the elected government, pursuing its own policies around the globe. It had developed a capability -revealed during the 1970’s in senate hearings- known as ‘executive action’, a capability of political assassination. The ‘company’ as the CIA calls itself, was involved with mafia hoodlums to murder Fidel Castro. Castro is alive and well today, but did the CIA collude with the mafia to murder its own commander-in-chief, the President of the United States?

Jim Garrison’s investigation came to nothing but in 1991 lawyer, writer, and JFK investigator Mark Lane was involved as defence attorney in a libel case instigated by CIA man and ex Watergate burglar Howard Hunt. The hub of the case was a newspaper article claiming Hunt was in Dallas on the day of the Presidents murder. Hunt denied this, claiming to be in Washington at the time. In court Lane introduced testimony that indeed placed Hunt as part of a CIA team in Dallas on the day in question. Leslie Armstrong, forewoman of the jury said afterwards “Mr Lane was asking us to do something very difficult -he was asking us to believe that John Kennedy had been killed by our own government. Yet, when we examined the evidence, we were compelled to conclude that the CIA had indeed killed President Kennedy.” A shocking and significant breakthrough in the JFK murder you might think? Leslie Armstrong went on to call for action to be taken by the proper authorities in the government. Nothing was done. The US Justice Department did not stir, nor has any other organ of the forces of law and order in the United States. The US media continues to ignore the countless revelations that have appeared in the years since John F Kennedy was killed, yet conspiracy theories are abundant in Europe and the UK. Watergate and the Iran-Contra scandals have shown us the dark underbelly of the American establishment, could it be that some secret influence is at work, hidden from public perception, preventing serious examination of the crime of the century?

President Obama has recently been elected to another four years in office, and in accordance with US law they will constitute his last term. Obama’s presidency has been largely unremarkable but he still has a chance to offer something significant to his fellow Americans and to the world. He can appoint a special prosecutor and special investigators and direct the CIA and FBI to answer pertinent questions. Not about how many shots, or from what direction, or any of the other thousand and one questions regarding the minutiae of the assassination but who was responsible? Who gave the orders? Who really killed President Kennedy? Still, perhaps even that would be fifty years too late.


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Touching The Glass

The 2014 formula one season is well under way and like me, many people must speculate about those who race these incredible machines at such high speeds. Measuring high speed lap times against car control and the desire to go ever faster is the juggling act performed by the Grand Prix drivers every time they step into their high-tech carbon fibre cockpits. The consequences of a mistake can range from an embarrassing spin in the gravel trap to a cruel death.

sennab copyeditbbThis year, 2014, marks the twentieth anniversary of the death of Ayrton Senna, one of the greatest racing drivers of all time. Aryton was killed on the 1st of May 1994 at the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola in Italy. Anyone who knows anything about motor sport can tell you that. The date lingers in the back of the collective mind of all racing fans, along with other tragedies of the sport, like the deaths of Gilles Villeneuve and Jim Clark to name but two. Clark’s death is unexplained to this day. His formula two Lotus left the track at an easy, straight section of road. The facts of Villeneuve’s accident are well known -he crashed into a slow moving car- but his death is perhaps only really explained under close analysis. Villeneuve was on a slowing down lap, on his way back to the pits after a handful of fast qualifying laps but still, he kept the hammer down, his right foot pressed down to the floor when there was no real need for absolute speed. So why? Why was he going so fast?

One answer is simply that was the way he drove; fast. Foot down to the floor. Full stop. Another was that he was still estranged from team mate Didier Pironi, who he thought had unfairly beaten him in the previous Grand Prix at San Marino in Italy. The two had diced together for the length of the race, team leader Villeneuve thought they were putting on a show, Pironi thought they were racing. When Pironi took the chequered flag it was an act of betrayal, or so Villeneuve thought and when they arrived at Zolder for what would be Villeneuve’s last Grand Prix, Villeneuve was still seething. And so perhaps that state of passion was a factor on his last lap.

For Ayrton Senna in 1994 that intense rivalry with a fellow driver seemed to be a thing of the past. Together, Senna, Alain Prost, and Nigel Mansell dominated most of the eighties and early nineties in formula one racing. Mansell had left the stage for Indycar racing in the United States and Prost had retired leaving Senna to take his vacant seat at Williams, or perhaps he retired because Senna had been offered a seat at Williams –it depends on which story you believe. Certainly after the intense animosity that developed between the two at McLaren you can hardly blame Prost for not wanting to work in that same situation again.

So now, the Young Pretender had become the Elder Statesman of Grand Prix motor racing and his two closest competitors had gone. Perhaps he even hoped that he could relax, let up the pace a little bit, just as Prost had thought in 1988 before Senna began to push him harder. But a new phase had begun for Aryton Senna, a new Young Pretender had appeared to challenge him in the shape of Michael Schumacher. Schumacher had won the first two Grands Prix of the year and Senna came to Imola without a single point. “For us the championship starts here” he told the TV cameras, “fourteen races instead of sixteen.” Further pressure mounted on Senna when fellow Brazilian Rubens Barrichello was injured in a crash and then Roland Ratzenberger was killed, the first fatality at a Grand Prix meeting since that of Riccardo Paletti 12 years before.

Many sources have said that after these twin disasters Ayrton did not want to race in the Grand Prix. It is hard to believe, Senna -not wanting to race? The man for whom racing was everything? Could it be that he was finally becoming more like his once deadly rival Alain Prost? Prost had always put his own life before winning motor races and as a consequence had driven a dismal race at the rain soaked 1988 British Grand Prix and completed only a token lap at the similarly affected 1990 Australian Grand Prix. Events may have pushed Ayrton’s thinking from the neutrality and detachment of the past towards a greater concern, a concern beyond the continual winning of races.
Whatever his inner feelings he started the San Marino Grand Prix in his usual fashion, leading into the first corner from pole position. Behind him though, JJ Lehto stalled his Benneton and was hit from behind by Pedro Lamy. Lesser events had stopped races in the past but on this occasion the organisers sent out the new safety car and the grid cruised round after it in formation for five laps while the crash debris was removed.

At the end of the fifth cruising lap the safety car pulled off, the lights turned to green and Senna, Schumacher and the rest floored their throttles. The Williams was not handling well and it felt nervous through Tamburello, that evocatively named but most dangerous of corners. Still, Senna kept ahead of Schumacher, he kept the hammer down. On lap six the Williams entered deep into Tamburello and Schumacher saw the spray of sparks as the car bottomed out and side stepped slightly. Senna caught and corrected the Williams and throttled onwards for the charge down to Tosa, the next bend. Both Senna and team mate Damon Hill knew their cars were nervous and to a certain extent unsuited to the bumpy surface at Imola. Someone like Alain Prost might have eased off slightly, settled for second or third, collected some points, and used the rest of the San Marino Grand Prix as part of a learning curve, collecting mental and electronic data to develop the car into another Williams race winner. For Ayrton Senna, a third defeat by Michael Schumacher was not acceptable. Putting points on the scoreboard held no interest for him either, except for the ten points that came for a win.

The next time round Ayrton entered Tamburello at 192 mph. We know his exact speed from his car’s electronic management system, which records such data. Tremors went through the car as it bottomed out again on the undulating track surface. This time Senna couldn’t catch the Williams, or perhaps something failed on the car. Later on the steering column was found to be fractured. Did it fail before the crash or was it damaged in the impact?. Some have speculated that his tyres were not up to pressure after many laps circling the track at low speed. We will never know. Whatever happened, the car went straight on towards the tyre barrier masking the concrete wall that lay behind. Senna’s last act was to slow the car down to 131 mph, but it was not enough.

I have never met Ayrton Senna. The last time I had seen him, in person, was at the Silverstone tyre tests of 1991 and even then he was a blur of yellow in the red and white of his McLaren. To understand someone we have never known is not an easy task. Sometimes we can only do so by looking into ourselves and searching for similar experiences. A long time ago, I must have been eight or nine, my Mother took me to visit my Grandmother. Sitting alone in the lounge while the two women gossiped in the kitchen, I became fascinated by my Grandmother’s new fireplace. It was a coal fire and the fire glowed dormantly behind a glass door. A real fire was not new to me, indeed we had one at home but the glass door seemed to attract me, so much so that I reached forward and held my hand a fraction of an inch from the glass. On an impulse I reached out further and put my hand on the glass. As you can imagine, I recoiled in agony having burnt my hand.

That moment, in 1994, as I watched my television images in disbelief, I came to think of that small boy, reaching out towards the glass door that enclosed a coal fire almost as one with Ayrton Senna, reaching towards the barriers of absolute speed, touching the zenith of his car control and going ever so slightly over his limits. He had done it before and had come back from the brink. Indeed it may have even been vital to him to occasionally push and go over his limits just to fix in his own mind where those limits lay. Ayrton was a man who could learn from his mistakes and could go on to better and faster things, but on that tragic day fate stepped in and stopped the process. A suspension arm crushed in the impact sprang back and hit Ayrton, piercing his most vulnerable point, the visor of his helmet.

sennab copy

Senna at the German GP 1988. Photo by the author.

Prost and Stewart, two of the all time greats of motor sport were men who came closer than anyone to touching the glass -without ever being burned. Perhaps that was their secret. Stewart was a man in absolute control of his skills as a racing driver, both on and off the track. After three world championships and twenty-seven grand prix wins Stewart was able to say goodbye to it all without ever looking back. What other driver can boast of doing that? Schumacher retired again after a disappointing comeback only for tragedy to strike while skiing. The careers of both Nelson Piquet and Gerhard Berger fizzled out inconsistently at Benneton. Mansell called it a day after joining McLaren and then realising that their epic run of success had run out of steam. Alain Prost retired after cantering to his fourth championship. It was clear that in Prost’s final year he was no longer willing to push hard. The motivation of his youth had evaporated with the grand prix seasons and with the relentless high-speed sprints of formula one. The day had arrived, as it will no doubt one day arrive for Hamilton, Alonso, and Vettel, when he was no longer trying to touch the glass.


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