The words rang out…like a shot

Today marks the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963. I would argue that it was the saddest single event in U.S. history. That is, aside from Abraham Lincoln’s assassination 100 years earlier on April 14, 1865.

I was only 10 years old the day JFK died. But I lived in Boston, so the whole tragedy felt very personal. At the time, I wrote a poem about the event, which won a creative writing award:

In the bitter cold the people listened

With fists shoved deep in pockets

They heard their fellow American say,

 “Ask not what your country can do for you,

Ask what you can do for your country for country.”

The words rang out…

Like a shot

Without a doubt, President Kennedy’s assassination was a huge, devastating tragedy for all of America. So, we all looked for some larger reason or meaning behind the event…rather than just the lone actions of a deranged shooter who thought he needed to “protect Cuba.”

Of course, in the ensuing years, conspiracy theories abounded. And many never accepted the findings of the Warren Commission Report, which included Chief Justice Earl Warren, Gerald Ford, Hale Boggs, and Allen Dulles.

Then, in 1991, Oliver Stone came out with his conspiracy theory movie called JFK. The movie pushed the theory that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone. And as the 30th anniversary approached, the film had everyone buzzing again about conspiracies and that the Warren Commission had been a cover-up. And younger generations began to believe this Hollywood version, not at all based on factual evidence.

But I had the privilege to review much of the actual evidence first hand.

While serving as Associate Director of the Institute of Pathology at Walter Reed, my archivist was asked to literally clean out the attic of former Major General Joe Blumberg. Blumberg served as the commander of Walter Reed Medical Center at the time of the assassination.

During his work in the attic, my archivist found a sealed document. And he put it on my desk, unopened. When I realized what it was I was holding in my hand, I immediately took it to my boss, Navy Captain Robert Francis Karnei, still unopened.

Captain Karnei was a pathology resident at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda when they performed the Kennedy autopsy. He used to mention that he was on duty that night in 1963. But he said he was “in and out of the autopsy suite, mostly out.”

Turns out, the sealed document was a copy of JFK’s autopsy report. And the good Captain revealed to me that he had actually been “mostly in” the autopsy suite on that fatal night.

At about the same time, my friend and colleague, Dr. George Lundberg, had just become editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association. Dr. Lundberg is also a forensic pathologist. And at the time, he was determined to set the medical record straight about the JFK assassination. He wanted to re-interview all the medical expert witnesses while they were still alive and talking. And he wanted to put all his findings together in a special issue of JAMA. Dr. Lundberg eventually asked me to write the lead editorial for this special issue based on the medical evidence.

In the meantime, my brushes with history continued during the early years of the 1990s…

In fact, in February 1992, I attended the annual meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in New Orleans. It was a most memorable meeting in several ways.

First, they presented a forensic analysis of the Zapruder film, frame-by-frame. The Zapruder film is the famous, silent film shot by private citizen Abraham Zapruder with his home-movie camera. It shows President Kennedy’s motorcade pass through Dealey Plaza in Dallas. Many experts call the film the most complete visual evidence of the assassination. Specifically, it captures the fatal shot to President Kennedy’s head. The Warren Commission relied heavily on the Zapruder film in its report.

After reviewing the film, the forensic scientists at the 1991 meeting confirmed the Warren Commission’s findings. They also confirmed what wounded Texas Governor John Connally said had happened. And what the JFK autopsy showed.

And this is what all the evidence showed…

Three shots came from behind and to the rear, just where Oswald was situated in the Texas School Book Depository. The first shot did not hit anyone. Connelly said he heard it. And you can see in the film that he turned around to glance back over his shoulder after the first shot.

Then, just as Connally returned to face forward, the second shot struck JFK in the lower neck. JFK immediately raised both arms in concert to the level of his neck, turning his wrists out so that his thumbs pointed downward.

Most of the debate surrounds the origins of this second shot.

The media reports said Kennedy was consciously “clutching at his injured throat.” But this is untrue. Kennedy’s actions were an immediate reflex, called the Thorburn position. A Civil War doctor first described this reflexive action after he observed soldiers who received gunshot wounds to the neck.

This second bullet passed through JFK and then passed through Connally’s chest. Then, it exited Connally’s chest and struck the wrist of his right hand that was holding his hat. On the film, you can see his hat flip up just at the right moment. Again, media accounts say Connally was starting to wave his hat. But it is clear from the film that the bullet caused the reflexive hat flip in the film. Connally then immediately began to slump down.

Clearly, the trajectory matches perfectly when you see the actual locations and positions of the two bodies as depicted in the film relative to the direction of this bullet.

My friend the late Senator Arlen Specter first proposed this path of the second bullet. It came to be known as the “single bullet theory.”

Specter was the District Attorney of Philadelphia in 1964. And he was asked to serve as a legal counsel on the Warren Commission. Being a DA, he was used to working with medical examiners. So, he figured out that it was a single bullet that passed through Kennedy and Connally.

Later, conspiracy theorists derided Specter’s theory as the “magic bullet.” But these critics never once traced a bullet path in their lives.

Little debate should surround the third, fatal bullet. This bullet struck JFK in the head. It entered in the rear of the skull. And exited to the front. You can see superheated gases and brain matter first escape from the rear entry wound. Then, in the next split second, it begins to escape from the front exit wound, as soon as the exit wound opened.

So, by then I had had the opportunity to review both the Zapruder film with my colleagues in New Orleans. And the original autopsy report. For the first time, I was convinced that a single shooter, located above and to the rear, killed President Kennedy.

I got to work writing the lead editorial that Dr. Lundberg had asked me to compose for the special issue of JAMA. My article focused on the medical evidence. I also took the opportunity to compare how the results of the Lincoln autopsy were handled relative to the JFK autopsy 100 years later. Despite all the advanced medical technology, the investigation into the JFK assassination did not satisfy the public.

I concluded that the public just didn’t trust the secrecy of the big, complex government in 1963. Indeed, the U.S. government was much bigger in 1963 than it had been in 1865, even in the midst of the bloodiest war in U.S. history.

Eventually, the physical evidence did prevail. Most experts have come back around to accept the Warren Commission’s findings. Thankfully, I had the opportunity to tell Senator Specter and his wife at their home in Philadelphia one evening in 1999 that his single bullet theory had become the single bullet fact.