JFK’s final hour, in the words of his widow and other eyewitnesses

The Kennedys ride in Dallas, in the moments before the president was assassinated.
The Kennedys ride in Dallas, in the moments before the president was assassinated.
Image: AP Photo/Jim Altgens
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Politics may have killed John F. Kennedy just as surely as the bullets.

On Nov. 22, 1963, Air Force One delivered the president and his wife, Jacqueline, to Love Field in Dallas, Texas just before 11:40 am. The 13-minute flight covered the 30 miles from Fort Worth, a distance that could have been traveled by car.

The photo opportunity that would unfold as the couple stepped down the stairs at 11:44 was too good to pass up. Democrats in vice president Lyndon Johnson’s home state were splintering a year ahead of the next presidential election. A show of unity over two days in Texas was necessary if Kennedy had any hope of winning again in 1964. The first couple walked up to a fence to meet an overwhelmingly enthusiastic crowd of 2,000 at 11:46.

Fifty-five years ago today, at 11:52, the motorcade carrying the Kennedys, governor John Connally and his wife, Nellie, in an open-top Lincoln Continental departed for the city’s Trade Mart. The president had insisted on riding without a protective bubble top, all the better to see and be seen.

The Trade Mart, where Kennedy was to speak, was just three miles from the airport. The motorcade, though, took a 10-mile route through downtown “in order to maximize Dallas’s exposure to the president,” as Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis wrote in their book Dallas 1963.

The fatal shots were fired into the limo at 12:30pm on Elm Street in Dealey Plaza.

The incredible exuberance surrounding Kennedy’s last moments alive gave way in an instant. Here is how those who witnessed the scenes at the airport and along the motorcade route recounted them in the years after the assassination.

The outpouring at Love Field: “Just vivacious”

The Kennedys meet well-wishers at Love Field.
The Kennedys meet well-wishers at Love Field.
Image: AP Photo

Clint Hill, the Secret Service agent assigned to Jacqueline Kennedy, spoke to the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza for its oral-history project:

We left Washington on Nov. 21 on Air Force One. We flew to San Antonio, then to Houston, then to Fort Worth and stayed overnight. And then we boarded Air Force One again and flew from Carswell Air Force Base to Love Field. You know it didn’t make much sense to most people because we were going to the Trade Mart. We could have driven faster.

But instead of that we drove out to Carswell, took off, flew to Love Field, then drove through the city. We could have probably made it faster in a car. But they wanted a photograph of president and Mrs. Kennedy coming off the rear of Air Force One here in Dallas at Love Field.

And that’s what they got.

Jacqueline Kennedy testified about the final minutes of her husband’s life for the Warren Commission on June 5, 1964:

We got off the plane. The then Vice President and Mrs. Johnson were there. They gave us flowers. And then the car was waiting, but there was a big crowd there, all yelling, with banners and everything

High-school student Rose Marie Simmons, who went with her father and friends to Love Field, hoping to see the Kennedys up close, spoke for the oral-history project:

There were really more people at Love Field then I had anticipated… The pink she wore was just so bright and she had a hat on to match and it was just exciting to see her come down the stairs… He had her go first because she was so popular and the crowd really wanted to see what she was wearing.

Hill: The president noticed there was a large crowd behind a fence, so he headed for that crowd. Mrs. Kennedy normally wouldn’t do that. But she went right along.

Jacqueline Kennedy: And we went to shake hands with them. It was a very hot day. And you went all along a long line.

Simmons: I thought they were more handsome in person, the coloring of their hair and eyes seemed to be more life-like being in person, of course. But they just seemed to be taller and bigger and just vivacious. Just really a great couple that had a rapport with the crowd…

I had a little piece of paper in case I saw him and he was able to give me his autograph… I reach out and shake his hand and I tell him my history teacher Miss Callahan wanted me to get his autograph so I could be excused from class. And he said, in his Boston accent, that I can’t because there’s too many people here and he would have to give autographs to everybody. So he asked that I write his personal secretary… and that she would send me an autographed picture and that would be my excuse for history class.

Leaving Love Field.
Leaving Love Field.
Image: AP Photo

Jacqueline Kennedy: I tried to stay close to my husband and lots of times you get pushed away, you know, people leaning over and pulling your hand. They were very friendly. And, finally, I don’t know how, we got back to the car.

The motorcade: “It was terribly hot”

The presidential motorcade on Main Street on its way it to Dealey Plaza.
The presidential motorcade on Main Street on its way it to Dealey Plaza.
Image: AP Photo

Hill: The crowds were large as we drove down from Love Field down into Main Street in Dallas. They got larger and larger. By the time we reached Main Street, they were 10-15 deep on each side of the street. So large that the driver of the president’s vehicle kept the car closer to the left-hand-side of the street as opposed to the right-hand-side of the street because the president was on the right rear. He was trying to keep the president away from the crowd.

That put Mrs. Kennedy right up next to the crowd. So I would get up on the back of the car occasionally to be as close to her as I could.

And I knew the president didn’t like us up on the back of the car. He had told us that the previous Monday in a motorcade in Tampa. But it was necessary for me to do that in order to have close proximity to Mrs. Kennedy.

Jackie Tindel was filming with his home-movie camera at the corner of Main and Harwood, where the motorcade turned toward its final leg down Elm and into Dealey Plaza at around 12:28 pm. From the oral-history project:

The Secret Service man that was on the left-rear-side of the limousine, he was holding on to the handle and there was no one on the right side. Now as they turned the corner, Clint Hill, who was the Secret Service man, he hopped off of the limo and got on the car behind him. Which leads you to wonder: What if there had been someone on both sides of the limo, particularly the right side?

Jacqueline Kennedy: In the motorcade, you know, I usually would be waving mostly to the left side and he was waving mostly to the right, which is one reason you are not looking at each other very much. And it was terribly hot. Just blinding all of us.

Tindel: My wife always contended he [Kennedy] was waving directly at me. But there were rows and rows of people behind me. And he might have been waving at me, I don’t know. I was out in the middle of the street.

Dealey Plaza: “Everything was really slow”

Secret Service agents standing on running boards of a car following the limousine carrying president John F. Kennedy, right, rear seat, and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, left.
Secret Service agents standing on running boards of a car following the limousine carrying president John F. Kennedy, right, rear seat, and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, left.
Image: AP Photo

Bill Newman and his wife, Gayle, had taken their sons, 4 and 2 years old, to Love Field, where they found they all could not get close enough to see the Kennedys. From the oral-history project:

The parade route had been publicized in the paper and so we knew the parade route so we jumped in our car and tried to get ahead of the parade.

Jacqueline Kennedy, describing the conversation as the limo headed toward Dealey Plaza:

Mrs. Connally said, “We will soon be there.” We could see a tunnel in front of us. Everything was really slow then. And I remember thinking it would be so cool under that tunnel… Well, that is when she said to president Kennedy, “You certainly can’t say that the people of Dallas haven’t given you a nice welcome”… I think he said—I don’t know if I remember it or I have read it—”No, you certainly can’t,” or something.

And you know then the car was very slow and there weren’t very many people around.

Bill Newman: When we arrived to the location on Elm Street, we had probably been there five minutes or less, and you could hear the parade coming down Main Street. You could hear the cheering of the crowd.

Gayle NewmanMy uncle Steve Ellis was a motorcycle officer and he was leading the parade through downtown. And the children knew he was going to be riding by, so when I saw him turn the corner and drive towards us, I leaned down and I said, “Well there’s Uncle Steve, let’s wave.”

Clothing manufacturer Abraham Zapruder, standing behind the Newmans, was filming with an 8mm Bell & Howell camera. He was interviewed by WFAA-TV in Dallas the same day:

I got out about a half-hour earlier to get a good spot to shoot some pictures. And I found a spot, one of these concrete blocks they have down near that park, near the underpass. And I got on top there, there was another girl from my office, she was right behind me.

The end: “Oh, no, no, no”

President Kennedy’s hand reaches toward his head after being shot, as Jacqueline Kennedy reaches out to him.
President Kennedy’s hand reaches toward his head after being shot, as Jacqueline Kennedy reaches out to him.
Image: AP Photo

Bill Newman: I recall the president turning right on to Houston Street, then the car going that short block… and turning back left on Elm. As he was coming toward us, he was not against the curb lane. As we all know, he was in the center lane. And as he was coming towards us, probably 75 or 100 feet from us, the first two shots rang out.

Jacqueline Kennedy: You know, there is always noise in a motorcade and there are always motorcycles besides us, a lot of them backfiring. So I was looking to the left. I guess there was a noise, but it didn’t seem like any different noise really because there is so much noise, motorcycles and things. But then suddenly governor Connally was yelling, “Oh, no, no, no.”

Zapruder: And as I was shooting, as the president was coming down from Houston Street making his turn, it was about halfway down there, I heard a shot, and he slumped to the side, like this. Then I heard another shot or two, I couldn’t say it was one or two, and I saw his head practically open up, all blood and everything, and I kept on shooting. That’s about all, I’m just sick, I can’t—

Jacqueline Kennedy: I was looking this way, to the left, and I heard these terrible noises, you know. And my husband never made any sound. So I turned to the right. And all I remember is seeing my husband, he had this sort of quizzical look on his face, and his hand was up, it must have been his left hand.

Clint Hill leaps onto the back of the presidential limo as Jacqueline Kennedy stands up after her husband was shot.
Clint Hill leaps onto the back of the presidential limo as Jacqueline Kennedy stands up after her husband was shot.
Image: AP Photo

And just as I turned and looked at him, I could see a piece of his skull and I remember it was flesh colored. I remember thinking he just looked as if he had a slight headache. And I just remember seeing that. No blood or anything. 

And then he sort of did this, put his hand to his forehead and fell in my lap.And then I just remember falling on him and saying, “Oh, no, no, no,” I mean, “Oh, my God, they have shot my husband.” And “I love you, Jack.” I remember I was shouting. And just being down in the car with his head in my lap. And it just seemed an eternity.

You know, then, there were pictures later on of me climbing out the back. But I don’t remember that at all.

Resources: The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey PlazaInvestigation of the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy: Hearings Before the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, Volume 5Abraham Zapruder WFAA-TV interview