The Kennedy Casket Conspiracy, by Jacob G. Hornberger
The Shot That Killed Kennedy, by Jacob G. Hornberger
The Kennedy Autopsy, Part 1, by Jacob G. Hornberger
Last November a new book entitled The Kennedy Detail: JFK’s Secret Service Agents Break Their Silence, by Gerald Blaine and Lisa McCubbin, promised to “reveal the inside story of the assassination, the weeks and days that led to it and its heartrending aftermath.”
Unfortunately, however, while providing details of the events leading up to the assassination, the assassination itself, and President Kennedy’s funeral, the book provided hardly any information on one of the most mysterious aspects of the assassination: what happened when Kennedy’s body was delivered to the morgue at Bethesda Naval Hospital on the evening of the assassination.
For almost 50 years, people have debated the Kennedy assassination. Some claim that the Warren Commission got it right — that Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald, a lone-nut assassin. Others contend that Kennedy was killed as part of a conspiracy.
It is not the purpose of this article to engage in that debate. The purpose of this article is simply to focus on what happened at Bethesda Naval Hospital on the evening of November 22, 1963, and, specifically, the events that took place prior to Kennedy’s autopsy. What happened that night is so unusual that it cries out for truthful explanation even after 47 years.
U.S. officials have long maintained that Kennedy’s body was delivered to the Bethesda morgue in the heavy, ornamental, bronze casket in which the body had been placed at Parkland Hospital in Dallas.
The problem, however, is that the evidence establishes that Kennedy’s body was actually delivered to the Bethesda morgue twice, at separate times and in separate caskets.
How does one resolve this problem? One option, obviously, is just to forget about it, given that the assassination took place almost a half-century ago. But it seems to me that since the matter is so unusual and since it involves a president of the United States, the American people — regardless of which side of the divide they fall on — lone-nut assassin or conspiracy — are entitled to a truthful explanation of what happened that night at Bethesda. And the only ones who can provide it are U.S. officials, especially those in the Secret Service, the FBI, and the U.S. military, the agencies that were in control of events at Bethesda that night.
The facts of the casket controversy are set forth in detail in a five-volume work that was published in 2009 entitled Inside the Assassination Records Review Board: The U.S. Government’s Final Attempt to Reconcile the Conflicting Medical Evidence in the Assassination of JFK. The author is Douglas P. Horne, who served as chief analyst for military records for the Assassination Records Review Board. The ARRB was the official board established to administer the JFK Records Act, which required federal departments and agencies to divulge to the public their files and records relating to the Kennedy assassination. The act was enacted after Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie, JFK, produced a firestorm of public outcry against the U.S. government’s decision to keep assassination-related records secret from the public for 75 years after publication of the Warren Commission Report in 1964 and for 50 years after publication of the House Select Committee on Assassinations Report in 1979.
Horne’s book posits that high officials in the national security state — i.e., the CIA, FBI, Secret Service, and U.S. military — planned and executed the assassination of John F. Kennedy and that the man who replaced Kennedy as president, Lyndon B. Johnson, orchestrated a cover-up of the conspiracy by telling officials that national security (i.e., a potential nuclear war, citing Oswald’s activities relating to the Soviet Union and Cuba) necessitated shutting down an investigation into determining whether Kennedy’s murder involved a conspiracy. Horne’s book focuses primarily on the events surrounding the autopsy of Kennedy’s body on the night of the assassination. As he himself acknowledges, his book expands upon the thesis set forth in a book published in 1981 entitled Best Evidence by David Lifton, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and reached Number 4 on the New York Times best seller list.
It was Lifton who originally challenged the official story that Kennedy’s body was delivered only once to the Bethesda morgue. It is Horne who has set forth in more detail the evidence that establishes that Lifton was right.
When Air Force One landed at Andrews Air Force Base from Dallas, Kennedy’s casket was placed into a gray Navy ambulance in which Kennedy’s wife, Jacqueline, was traveling. Proceeding in a motorcade, the ambulance arrived at the front of the Bethesda Naval Hospital at 6:55 p.m.
At 8:00 p.m., a little more than an hour later, the casket was carried into the Bethesda morgue by a military honor team called the Joint Casket Bearer Team, which consisted of personnel from all the branches of military service, all of whom were in dress uniform and wore white gloves.
However, the evidence also establishes that at 6:35 p.m. — 90 minutes earlier than when Kennedy’s Dallas casket was carried into the morgue at 8:00 p.m. by the Joint Casket Bearer Team — another group of military personnel carried the president’s body into the Bethesda morgue. That casket was a plain shipping casket rather than the expensive, heavy, ornamental, bronze casket into which the president’s body had been placed in Dallas.
Equally strange was the fact that the president’s body at the 6:35 p.m. delivery was in a body bag rather than wrapped in the white sheets in which the medical personnel in Dallas had wrapped it before it was placed into the heavy, bronze casket in Dallas.
Have doubts? Let’s look at the evidence.
On November 22, 1963, Marine Sgt. Roger Boyajian was stationed at the Marine Corps Institute in Washington, D.C. On that day, he received orders to go to the Bethesda Hospital to serve as NCO in charge of a 10-man Marine security detail for President Kennedy’s autopsy.
Four days later — on November 26 — Boyajian filed a report of what happened. Here is what his report stated in part:
The detail arrived at the hospital at approximately 1800 [6:00 p.m.] and after reporting as ordered several members of the detail were posted at entrances to prevent unauthorized persons from entering the prescribed area…. At approximately 1835 [6:35 p.m.] the casket was received at the morgue entrance and taken inside.” (Bracketed material added.)
If you would like to see a copy of Sergeant Boyajian’s report, it is posted here on the Internet as part of the online appendix to Horne’s book.
Still not convinced?
In 1963, E-6 Navy hospital corpsman Dennis David was stationed at the Bethesda National Navy Center, where his job consisted of reading medical textbooks and transforming them into Navy correspondence courses. David later became a Navy officer and served in that capacity for 11 years in the Medical Services Corps. He retired from active duty in 1976.
On November 22, 1963, David was serving as “Chief of the Day” at the Navy medical school at Bethesda. According to an official ARRB interview conducted by Horne on February 14, 1997, David stated that at about 5:30 p.m. he was summoned to appear at the office of the Chief of the Day for the entire Bethesda complex (including the medical school). When he arrived, there were three or four Secret Service agents in the office. He was informed that President Kennedy’s autopsy was going to be held at the Bethesda morgue. David was ordered to round up a team and proceed to the morgue and establish security. He rounded up several men from various barracks, proceeded to the Bethesda morgue, and assigned security duties to his team.
At around 6:30 p.m., David received a phone call stating that “your visitor is on the way: you will need some people to offload. ” David rounded up 7 or 8 sailors to carry in the casket and a few minutes later, a black hearse drove up. Several men in blue suits got out of the hearse, along with the driver and passenger, both of whom were wearing white (operating room) smocks. Under David’s supervision, the sailors offloaded the casket and carried it into the morgue.
What did the casket look like? David stated that it was a simple, gray shipping casket similar to the ones commonly used in the Vietnam War.
Now keep in mind that the motorcade in which the gray Navy ambulance that carried Mrs. Kennedy and the heavy bronze casket into which her husband’s body had been placed in Dallas didn’t arrive at the hospital until 6:55 p.m., twenty minutes after Kennedy’s body was carried into the morgue by David’s team. Keep in mind also that according to the official version of events, the Dallas casket wasn’t carried into the morgue by the Joint Casket Bearer Team until 8:00 p.m.
David added that after his team had delivered the shipping casket into the morgue, he proceeded into the main portion of the hospital, where several minutes later (i.e., at 6:55 p.m.) he saw the motorcade in which Mrs. Kennedy was traveling (and the Dallas casket was being transported) approaching the front of Bethesda Hospital. As he stated to Horne, he knew at that point that President Kennedy’s body could not be in the Dallas casket because his team had, just a few minutes earlier, delivered Kennedy’s body into the morgue in the shipping casket.
While David didn’t personally witness the president’s body being taken out of the shipping casket, he later asked one of the autopsy physicians, a U.S. Navy commander named Dr. J. Thornton Boswell, in which casket the president had come in. Boswell responded, “You ought to know; you were there.”
Moreover, when Lifton showed David a photo of the Dallas casket in 1980, David categorically stated that that was not the shipping casket in which Kennedy’s body had been delivered at 6:35 p.m. (Horne, volume 4, page 989.)
What David told Horne in 1997 was a repetition of what David had told Lifton many years before, which Lifton had related in his 1981 book, Best Evidence. As Lifton recounts in his book, David gave the same account to a reporter from the Lake County News-Sun in Waukegan, Illinois, in 1975.
If you would like to see Horne’s official ARRB report of his interview with David, it is posted on the Internet here. (Lifton’s account is in chapter 25 of his book and is entitled “The Lake County Informant.”)
Still not satisfied?
According to Horne, “After Best Evidence was published, a Michigan newspaper and a Canadian news team located and interviewed Donald Rebentisch, one of the sailors in Dennis David’s working party, who had been telling the same story independently for years.” (Horne, volume 3, page 675.)
So, you have a Marine sergeant and two sailors, whose statements unequivocally confirm that Kennedy’s body was carried into the Bethesda morgue in a plain shipping casket at 6:35 p.m.
Is there any more evidence of the 6:35 p.m. delivery of Kennedy’s body to the morgue?
On November 22, 1963, Joseph Gawler’s Sons, Inc., which, according to Horne, had been the most prestigious funeral home in Washington for many years, was summoned to Bethesda Hospital to perform the embalming of President Kennedy’s body. On November 22-23, 1963, Gawler’s prepared what was called a “First Call Sheet” for President Kennedy’s autopsy, which contained the following handwritten notation:
“Body removed from metal shipping casket at NSNH at Bethesda.”
The person who wrote that notation was Joseph E. Hagan, the supervisor in charge of the Gawler’s embalming team for the Kennedy autopsy and who later became president of Gawler’s. When the ARRB interviewed Hagan in 1996, he stated that he had not personally witnessed the president’s body being brought into the morgue in the shipping casket but that someone whom he could not recall had advised him of that fact.
If you would like to see a copy of the Gawler’s First Call Sheet, it is posted here on the Internet.
Need more evidence?
Paul O’Connor was an E-4 Navy corpsman who served as an autopsy technician for the Kennedy autopsy on November 22, 1963. According to Horne, O’Connor told the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1977 and Lifton in 1979 and 1980 that Kennedy’s body had arrived in a “cheap, metal, aluminum” casket in a “rubberized body bag” with a “zipper down the middle.” (Horne, volume 4, page 990.)
In 1979, Lifton interviewed a man named Floyd Riebe, who was a medical photography student present at Kennedy’s autopsy when he was an E-5 Navy corpsman stationed at Bethesda. According to Horne, Riebe stated that Kennedy’s casket was not a viewing casket because the lid did not open halfway down. Riebe also confirmed that Kennedy’s body was in a rubberized body bag with a zipper. (Horne, volume 4, page 990.)
Jerrol Custer was an E-4 Navy corpsman who served as an X-ray technician for the Kennedy autopsy. According to Horne, Custer told Lifton in repeated interviews that Kennedy’s body was in a body bag. Custer also told Lifton that he saw the black hearse that brought in the shipping casket. He stated that he saw two different caskets in the Bethesda morgue, one of which was bronze. Interestingly, in a deposition conducted by the ARRB in 1997, Custer denied that Kennedy was in a body bag even though he had stated the contrary in two separate interviews with Lifton in 1979 and 1989. (Horne, volume 4, page 991.)
Ed Reed, an E-4 Navy corpsman, also served as an X-ray technician for the Kennedy autopsy. In an ARRB deposition in 1997, Reed testified that Kennedy’s casket was a “typical aluminum military casket.” He said that there were Marines present at the time the casket was delivered. He recalled that the president arrived in a see-through clear plastic bag, not in a standard body bag. (Horne, volume 4, page 991.)
According to Horne, James Jenkins, another E-4 Navy corpsman who served as an autopsy technician for Kennedy’s autopsy, told Lifton in 1979 that Kennedy’s casket was not ornamental and that it was plain — “awful clean and simple” and “not something you’d expect a president to be in.” (Horne, volume 4, page 992.)
According to Horne, John VanHuesen, a member of the Gawler’s embalming team, told the ARRB that he recalled seeing a “black, zippered plastic pouch” in the Bethesda morgue early in the autopsy. (Horne, volume 4, page 992.)
So, what do we have here? We have eight Marine and Navy enlisted personnel who were performing their assigned duties on November 22, 1963, and whose statements unequivocally establish that Kennedy’s body was delivered to the Bethesda morgue at 6:35 p.m. in a shipping casket and in a body bag rather than in the heavy, ornamental, bronze casket into which it had been placed at Parkland Hospital, wrapped in white sheets.
We also have two written reports — Sergeant Boyajian’s report and the Gawler’s report — that were filed contemporaneously with the autopsy, both of which confirm early arrival of Kennedy’s body in the shipping casket. We also have a member of the Gawler’s embalming team stating that he saw a body bag in the morgue.
But that’s not all. We also have the statement by Dennis David that after he and his team offloaded Kennedy’s casket and delivered it into the morgue at 6:35 p.m., he personally witnessed the motorcade in which Mrs. Kennedy (and the Dallas casket) was traveling approaching the front of Bethesda Hospital at 6:55 p.m.
In fact, David isn’t the only one who saw Mrs. Kennedy’s motorcade (which contained the Dallas casket) approaching Bethesda Hospital after the president’s body had already been delivered to the morgue at 6:35 p.m. According to Horne, Jerrol Custer told Lifton in 1980 that he had seen Mrs. Kennedy in the main lobby while he was on his way upstairs to process X-rays that had already been taken of the president’s body. (Horne, volume 4, page 991.)
Let’s now turn back to the official version of events. The official version is that Kennedy’s body was carried into the Bethesda morgue by the Joint Casket Bearer Team at 8:00 p.m. in the heavy, ornamental, bronze casket into which it had been placed at Parkland Hospital. This is the account given in William Manchester’s book The Death of a President. When the casket was opened, Kennedy’s body was taken out, and witnesses confirm that it was wrapped in the white sheets that had been wrapped around the body by the Parkland Hospital personnel in Dallas. At 8:15 p.m., the autopsy began.
So, which is it?
Was Kennedy’s body carried by a team of sailors into the Bethesda morgue at 6:35 p.m. in a shipping casket encased in a body bag after being delivered in a black hearse that contained several men in blue suits?
Or was it carried in by the Joint Casket Bearer Team at 8:00 p.m. in the heavy, ornamental, bronze casket from Dallas and wrapped in white sheets after being delivered in a gray Navy ambulance?
The answer: Both.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “There’s no way that Kennedy’s body would have been delivered two different times into the Bethesda morgue. Why would anyone do that? Anyway, if Kennedy’s body was actually delivered into the morgue at 6:35 p.m. in the shipping casket, how did it get back into the heavy, ornamental, bronze casket from Dallas that the Joint Casket Bearer Team carried in at 8:00 p.m.? Why, that’s just plain crazy!”
Permit me to cite some of the adjectives that the noted attorney Vincent Bugliosi used in a chapter entitled “David Lifton and the Alteration of the President’s Body” in his book Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy: “preposterous,” “far out,” “unhinged,” and “nonsense.”
So, which casket delivery would you guess Bugliosi settled on — the 6:35 p.m. delivery of the shipping casket with the body bag or the 8:00 p.m. heavy bronze casket delivery with the white sheets wrapped around Kennedy’s body?
You guessed wrong!
Bugliosi settled on a third casket delivery.
Yes, you read that right. Vincent Bugliosi, along with noted conspiracy critic Gerald Posner, author of the 1993 book Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK, have settled on a third casket delivery into the Bethesda morgue — one that took place between 7:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. — that is, after the 6:35 p.m. casket delivery and before the 8:00 p.m. casket delivery.
Are you doubting me? Are you thinking to yourself, “No way, Jacob. Two casket deliveries were already enough for me. But a third? Now you’ve gone too far”?
Permit me first to set forth Bugliosi’s position. Referring to Paul O’Connor, the E-4 X-ray technician cited above, Bugliosi writes,
O’Connor told the HSCA [House Select Committee on Assassinations] investigators that the president’s body arrived in a pink shipping casket and told Lifton that the body arrived in a “cheap, pinkish gray casket, just a tin box.” But FBI agent James Sibert told me that he, his partner, Francis O’Neill, a few Secret Service agents, and a few others he doesn’t recall, carried the casket from the limousine at the back of the hospital to “an anteroom right next to the autopsy room….” He vividly remembers that “it was a very expensive one, definitely not a shipping casket” and he recalls it was “very, very heavy….” [The] November 26, 1963, report of FBI agents Sibert and O’Neill reads that when the president’s body arrived in the autopsy room, “the complete body was wrapped in sheets.”… (Bugliosi, pages 1069-70; bracketed material added).
Sibert and O’Neill helped take the casket inside, and there, waiting for the President’s body were [autopsy physicians] Dr. James Humes and Dr. J. Thornton Boswell…. When the funeral motorcade arrived at the hospital, Robert and Jacqueline Kennedy were escorted to upstairs waiting rooms while the casket was brought to the morgue. There, Drs. Humes and Boswell, with help from FBI agents O’Neill and Sibert and Secret Service agents Kellerman and Greer, removed the body…. (Posner, chapter 13, page 299; bracketed material added.)
Having concluded that the president’s casket could have been delivered only one time to the Bethesda morgue, Bugliosi and Posner obviously concluded that FBI agents Francis O’Neill and James Sibert and Secret Service agents Roy Kellerman and William Greer must be the only ones telling the truth and that the enlisted men who stated they carried the president’s body into the morgue at 6:35 p.m. in a shipping casket had to be speaking falsely.
It is clear that to both Bugliosi and Posner it is inconceivable that the 6:35 p.m. group could be telling the truth. Bugliosi ridicules the veracity of Paul O’Connor, while Posner mocks the veracity of O’Connor, Jerrol Custer, and James Jenkins.
What about Marine Sgt. Roger Boyajian, who filed the after-action report on November 26, in which he stated unequivocally that the president’s casket had been carried into the morgue at 6:35 p.m.?
What about Dennis David, the Chief of Day for the Naval medical school, who later retired from the Navy as an officer, who stated that the president’s body had been carried into the morgue at 6:35 p.m. in a shipping casket?
What about Donald Rebentisch, a member of David’s team, who stated the same thing?
What about Floyd Riebe and Ed Reed, two other enlisted men who confirmed the account?
What about Joseph Gawler’s Sons, Inc., whose representatives filed a written report on November 22 23, 1963, which stated that the president’s body had arrived in a shipping casket?
Most of them aren’t even mentioned by Bugliosi and Posner, and Posner describes them collectively as “bit players at Bethesda — orderlies, technicians, and casket carriers.”
Permit me level a very simple question at Vincent Bugliosi and Gerald Posner: Why in the world would these eight enlisted men, who were simply doing their jobs on the evening of November 22, 1963, have any reason to lie or concoct a false story about bringing the president’s body into the Bethesda morgue?
Only Bugliosi and Posner can explain why they didn’t carefully focus on and analyze the statements and testimony of all these witnesses, but let give you my theory on the matter. In my opinion, the reason they didn’t do so is that they knew that if they did, their own position would immediately become untenable.
Because both Bugliosi and Posner know that the chance that each of all those witnesses came up with the same fake story independently of all the other witnesses who were saying the same thing is so astronomically small as to be nonexistent.
Therefore, for all the witnesses to have all come up with the same fake story about the 6:35 p.m. delivery of Kennedy’s body into the Bethesda morgue in a shipping casket would have had to involve one of the most preposterous conspiracies of all time. Bugliosi and Posner would be relegated to becoming conspiracy theorists and ridiculous ones at that. They would be alleging that eight enlisted men in the United States Armed Forces who were suddenly called to duty to serve at the autopsy of President John F. Kennedy’s body conspired to concoct a wild and fake story about how they delivered President Kennedy’s body into the Bethesda morgue in a shipping casket at 6:35 p.m. on the evening of November 22, 1963. Oh, I forgot — the conspiracy also would have included the most prestigious funeral home in Washington, D.C., the funeral home that the U.S. military had selected to handle the embalming of the president’s body.
Well, pray tell, Mssrs. Bugliosi and Posner: What would have been the motive behind such a conspiracy?
Perhaps if we try to imagine how the conspiracy got arranged, we can figure out what the motive was.
Let’s see: Carrying out his orders to establish a team of Marines for security at Bethesda Hospital, Marine Sgt. Boyajian calls the team together and says, “Men, I’ve got an idea. Let’s conspire to come up with a fake and false story about how the president’s body got delivered to the Bethesda morgue. We’ll tell everybody that his body was brought to the morgue in a black hearse that contained several men in blue suits and that Kennedy’s body was contained in a shipping casket and in a body bag.” The team goes along with the idea.
Then, once Marine Sergeant Boyajian arrives at the morgue, he collars the Chief of the Day at Bethesda medical school, Dennis David (a “bit player” who would later become a Navy officer), and whispers in his ear, “Hey, dude, my Marines and I have come up with a great idea. We’re conspiring to concoct a fake story about how we delivered President Kennedy’s body into the morgue in a shipping casket at 6:35 p.m. Would you like to join our conspiracy?”
David responds, “Wow! That sounds great! Yeah, I’ll talk to my team about it.” So David goes to his team and convinces them to join the conspiracy.
Oh, but wait — there are also the other “bit players” to contact. So, the conspirators approach the X-ray technicians and photographers and, after some persuasion, convince them to join the conspiracy.
All that’s left is Joseph Gawler’s Sons, Inc. No problem. When they hear about the idea, they think it’s fantastic, and they’re willing to risk the good reputation they’ve built up over the years to become the most prestigious funeral home in Washington and quickly join the conspiracy.
And for what? Whoops! It still isn’t clear what the motive of all those “orderlies, technicians, and casket carriers” could have been.
Let me use the adjectives that Bugliosi employed to describe this supposed conspiracy among what Posner described as “bit players”: “preposterous,” “far out,” “unhinged,” and “nonsense.”
Unless one is convinced that such an impossible conspiracy took place, there is only one conclusion that can be reached: Those eight enlisted men and the representatives of Gawler’s funeral home, all of whom were suddenly and unexpectedly called to do their duty on the evening of November 22, 1963, were telling the truth. President Kennedy’s body was carried into the Bethesda morgue at 6:35 p.m. in a shipping casket and inside a body bag.
The next question naturally arises: Was the O’Neill-Silbert-Kellerman-Greer casket delivery that Bugliosi and Posner settled on the same casket delivery as the Joint Casket Bearer’s Team’s casket delivery? Or were they two separate casket deliveries?
Posner doesn’t address the issue. In fact, he doesn’t even mention the Joint Casket Bearer’s Team’s delivery of the Dallas casket, which would seem odd, since it was prominently mentioned in William Manchester’s famous book on the assassination, The Death of a President. Perhaps Posner had difficulty reconciling the two different accounts and just felt it would be simpler to leave one of them out of his analysis.
Bulgliosi, on the other hand, does address the issue. What is his approach? Obviously convinced that there could have been only one casket delivery that night, he conflates the O’Neill-Sibert-Kellerman-Greer casket delivery and the Joint Casket Bearer Team’s casket delivery into one casket delivery.
The problem for Bugliosi, however, is that the evidence does not support his position. Instead, the evidence leads to but one conclusion: three separate casket deliveries, as follows:
6:35 p.m.: First casket delivery. We know this from the statements of Marine Sergeant Boyajian, Chief of the Day David, the six other enlisted men, and the Gawler’s funeral home report.
Between 7:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Second casket delivery. We know this from statements made by FBI agents O’Neill and Sibert and Secret Service agent Kellerman, as shown below.
8:00 p.m.: Third casket delivery. We know this from the official report of the Joint Casket Bearer’s Team, as shown below.
We have already reviewed the evidence that establishes the first casket delivery and its time of delivery of 6:35 p.m.
Let’s now review the evidence that establishes the second casket delivery, which took place sometime between 7:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
In their official report of November 26, 1963, O’Neill and Sibert stated in part as follows,
On arrival at the Medical Center, the ambulance stopped in front of the main entrance, at which time Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy embarked from the ambulance and entered the building. The ambulance was thereafter driven around to the rear entrance where the President’s body was removed and taken into an autopsy room. Bureau agents assisted in the moving of the casket to the autopsy room.
Keep in mind that the ambulance arrived in the front of the hospital at 6:55 p.m. Keep in mind also that the Joint Casket Bearer Team didn’t deliver the Dallas casket into the morgue until more than an hour later, at 8:00 p.m.
On March 12, 1964, an official memo of the Warren Commission recounted the following exchange between Warren Commission counsel Arlen Spector and FBI agents O’Neill and Sibert:
Question: What was the time of the preparation for the autopsy at the hospital?
Answer: Approximately 7:17 p.m.
Question: What time did the autopsy begin?
Answer: Approximately 8:15 p.m.
Ask yourself: How could preparation for the autopsy begin at approximately 7:17 p.m. if the Joint Casket Bearer Team didn’t deliver the body into the morgue until 8:00 p.m.? Of course, since we know that the body had already been delivered to the morgue at 6:35 p.m. in the shipping casket, preparation for the autopsy could have begun at 7:17 p.m.
In fact, recall that X-ray technician Jerrol Custer, one of the enlisted men who witnessed Kennedy’s body being brought into the morgue in the shipping casket, saw Mrs. Kennedy entering the main lobby of the hospital as Custer was heading upstairs to process X-rays of Kennedy’s body.
Question: How could Custer have been processing X-rays of the president’s body if the Dallas casket containing the president’s body had not yet been delivered by either the Joint Casket Delivery Team at 8:00 p.m. or by O’Neill, Sibert, Kellerman, and Greer sometime between 7:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.?
In a deposition that was taken by the ARRB in 1997, Sibert was asked about the 7:17 p.m. time that he and O’Neill had referred to in their 1964 exchange with Specter:
Gunn: I will read for the record, if you will read along with me. “Question: What was the time of the preparation for the autopsy at the hospital?” “Answer: Approximately 7:17 P.M.” Do you see those words?
Gunn: Well, I guess my question in part is: Does the time that is provided here, 7:17 P.M., help you identify the approximate time that the casket was unloaded from the Navy ambulance?
Sibert: Well, that could have been the time that it was unloaded, the 7:17 — or just a short time thereafter when they got it in there. And, of course, they had to take the body out of the casket, put it on the autopsy table and this would be all the preparation too. (Horne, volume 3, pages 713 14.)
Ask yourself: If there was only one casket delivery, how could it be unloaded at 7:17 p.m. and also 8:00 p.m., as reported by the Joint Casket Bearer Team?
Here is what O’Neill wrote in a sworn statement to the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978:
Upon arriving at the National Naval Medical Center of Bethesda, the ambulance stopped at the front entrance where Jackie and RFK disembarked to proceed to the 17th floor. The ambulance then travelled to the rear where Sibert, Bill Greer (Secret Service), and Roy Kellerman (Secret Service), and I placed the casket on a roller and transported it into the autopsy room.
Notice that, once again, the implication is that the casket is promptly delivered after the 6:55 p.m. arrival of the motorcade. Also, notice that there is no mention of the Joint Casket Bearer Team and that O’Neill states that he, Sibert, Greer, and Kellerman transported the casket into the morgue on a roller.
In an affidavit signed and delivered to the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978, Sibert reinforced O’Neill’s testimony:
When the motorcade from the airport arrived at the Naval Hospital, Bobby Kennedy and Mrs. Kennedy were let off at the administration building. Mr. O’Neill and I helped carry the damaged casket into the autopsy room with some Secret Service agents.
Consider the testimony of Secret Service Agent Kellerman before the Warren Commission in 1964:
Mr. Specter: What time did that autopsy start, as you recollect it?
Mr. Kellerman: Immediately. Immediately after we brought him in.
Later in his testimony, Kellerman became more specific:
Mr. Kellerman: Let’s come back to the period of our arrival at Andrews Air Force Base, which was 5:58 p.m. at night. By the time it took us to take the body from the plane into the ambulance, and a couple of carloads of staff people who followed us, we may have spent 15 minutes there. And in driving from Andrews to the U.S. Naval Hospital, I would judge, a good 45 minutes. So, there is 7 o’clock. We went immediately over, without too much delay on the outside of the hospital, into the morgue. The Navy people had their staff in readiness right then. There wasn’t anybody to call. They were all there. So, at the latest, 7:30, they began to work on the autopsy….
Notice that Kellerman is reinforcing O’Neill’s and Sibert’s testimony that they delivered the Dallas casket into the morgue sometime between 7:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Ask yourself: How could they begin to work on the autopsy no later than 7:30 p.m., given that the Joint Casket Bearer Team didn’t deliver the Dallas casket until 8:00 p.m.?
According to Horne, a Washington Star article dated November 23, 1963, referring to the motorcade’s 6:55 p.m. (or 6:53 p.m., as another account asserted) arrival at the front of the Bethesda Hospital with Mrs. Kennedy and the Dallas casket, “also noted that the ambulance containing the casket was not driven away from the front of the hospital facility for at least 12 minutes after it arrived, i.e., at about 7:07 PM (or at 7:05 PM at the earliest, depending on which arrival time one uses).” (Horne, volume 3, pages 677-78.) That fits with O’Neill, Sibert’s, and Kellerman’s testimony that the Dallas casket was delivered to the morgue between 7:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
Let’s now review the evidence that establishes the third casket delivery, the one at 8:00 p.m. by the Joint Casket Bearer Team.
Headed by infantry 1st Lt. Samuel Bird, the Joint Casket Bearer Team was the honor team charged with formally carrying President Kennedy’s body into the Bethesda morgue. As previously stated, the team consisted of soldiers in dress uniform and white gloves representing all the branches of the military.
On December 10, 1963, Lt. Bird filed his official report of the Joint Casket Bearer Team’s delivery of the president’s casket into the Bethesda morgue on the evening of November 22, 1963. The report stated in part:
The Joint Casket Team consisted of one officer, one NCO and seven enlisted men (from each branch of the Armed Forces)…. They removed the remains as follows: 1. From the ambulance to the morgue (Bethesda) 2000 hours [8:00 p.m.], 22 Nov. 63. (Bracketed material added.)
A copy of the Joint Casket Bearer Team’s official report is posted on the Internet here.
You will notice that the report makes no mention of O’Neill, Sibert, Kellerman, or Greer or the roller that O’Neill, Sibert, Kellerman, and Greer used to carry the casket into the morgue.
You’ll also notice that the report contains the following memorable incident, later recounted in Manchester’s The Death of a President:
While the casket was being moved inside the hospital, Brigadier General [Godfrey] McHugh relieved [illegible] from the casket team and awkwardly took his place. (Bracketed material added.)
Nowhere do O’Neill, Sibert, Kellerman, or Greer relate the McHugh incident in their account of delivering the Dallas casket into the morgue.
There is something else to consider: A member of the Joint Casket Bearer Team denied that O’Neill, Sibert, Kellerman, and Greer helped the team carry the casket into the morgue. According to Lifton,
I asked Cheek [a member of the Joint Casket Bearer Team] whether two FBI men were present when the ambulance was unloaded. “No,” he replied, ”there were just the six of us.” I asked this because Sibert and O’Neill reported they helped with the casket, but made no mention of a casket team. (Lifton, chapter 16; bracketed material added.)
Now, consider the following sworn testimony before the Warren Commission on March 16, 1964, of Commander James J. Humes, one of the physicians who conducted the autopsy on the president’s body on the evening of November 22:
Mr. Specter: What time did the autopsy start approximately?
Commander Humes: The president’s body was received at 25 minutes before 8, and the autopsy began at approximately 8 p.m. on that evening. (Warren Commission Report, Volume II, page 349.)
Ask yourself: How could the body have been received at 7:35 p.m. (i.e., 25 minutes before 8:00 p.m.) if the Joint Casket Bearer’s Team didn’t deliver it until 8:00 p.m.?
Now, let’s examine the thesis originally developed by Lifton and later expanded upon by Horne to see if the evidence is consistent with three casket deliveries into the morgue.
Again, unless one concludes that Marine Sergeant Boyajian, Chief of the Day David, the other six enlisted men, and Gawler’s funeral home entered into a quick, preposterous conspiracy to concoct a fake story about the delivery of the president’s body, we begin with the fact that President Kennedy’s body was offloaded from a black hearse containing several men in blue suits and delivered into the Bethesda morgue in a shipping casket at 6:35 p.m.
That obviously means that the Dallas casket that arrived twenty minutes later at 6:55 p.m. in the motorcade with Mrs. Kennedy did not contain the president’s body.
Therefore, there was an obvious challenge for whoever did this and wished to keep it secret: how to get the president’s body back into the Dallas casket so that it could be formally delivered into the morgue by the Joint Casket Bearer Team just before the autopsy would begin?
As Horne explains, that was what the O’Neill-Sibert-Kellerman-Greer casket delivery had to be all about. Soon after the arrival of the motorcade, they drove around to the morgue and carried the empty Dallas casket into the morgue sometime between 7:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
Then, sometime between 7:30 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., the president’s body was then wrapped back into the white sheets in which it had been wrapped in Dallas, placed back into the Dallas casket, and carried back out to the Navy ambulance, enabling the Joint Casket Bearer Team to officially carry it back into the morgue at 8:00 p.m.
There is actually no other reasonable conclusion that can be drawn from the evidence. Kennedy’s body is delivered at 6:35 p.m. in the shipping casket. The middle delivery of the Dallas casket — the one between 7:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. — was used to effect the transfer of the body back into the Dallas casket, so that it can then be carried back out into the gray ambulance and then be delivered formally into the morgue at 8:00 p.m. by the Joint Casket Bearer Team, enabling the autopsy to formally begin 8:15 p.m., which is the time that everyone agrees the autopsy formally began.
Why was all this done? That is a very good question.
One possible explanation is that officials were concerned about the possibility that someone might try to attack the motorcade from Andrews Air Force Base to Bethesda Hospital and steal the president’s body and, therefore, decided to secretly separate the president’s body from the Dallas casket and secretly transport it to the morgue to obviate that possibility.
It seems to me that that would have been a plausible explanation, if they had announced it publicly at the time. But they didn’t do that. Instead, they engaged in secrecy, deception, and cover up, and have ever since.
Some people would undoubtedly respond, “No way, Jacob! Not high government officials. They would never lie to the American people. Only ‘bit players’ like Marine sergeants, Navy enlisted men, and long-established funeral homes would do that.”
But keep in mind that it is undisputed that several months after the events at Bethesda Naval Hospital, it wasn’t “bit players” consisting of “orderlies, technicians, and casket carriers” who secretly conspired to concoct a fake story about a North Vietnamese attack at the Gulf of Tonkin, with the intent of securing a congressional resolution that would lead to the Vietnam War. Instead, it was the new president of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, and the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff, who entered into that secret and deadly conspiracy.
It seems to me that if high government officials would conspire to lie about a military attack that they had to know would bring on a war that would result in the deaths of tens of thousands of American soldiers (and millions of Vietnamese people), high government officials would be fully capable of lying about casket deliveries on the night of November 22, 1963.
The only other explanation for the multiple casket delivery that I can conceive of is a nefarious one, the one that is carefully detailed by Horne in his 5-volume work: that U.S. military officials at the Bethesda morgue, including the autopsy physicians, perhaps following orders based on national security, used the period of time from 6:35 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. on the night of the autopsy to alter the president’s body in order to hide any evidence of wounds resulting from gunshots that came from the front of the president, e.g., from the grassy knoll.
One of the most fascinating stories that Horne describes involves the testimony of Tom Robinson, a member of the Gawler’s embalming team. When Robinson was questioned by the House Select Committee on Assassinations, he made the following cryptic statement:
The time that the people moved (autopsy). The body was taken….and the body never came….lots of little things like that. (Horne, volume 2, page 607.)
Those are not my ellipses. They are also not Horne’s. In fact, neither are the parentheses around the word “autopsy.” That’s exactly how Robinson’s testimony appears in the official transcript of his testimony. As Horne points out, that’s fairly unusual, given that people don’t ordinarily speak using ellipses and parentheses. Those sorts of things are used in written communications, not oral ones.
Because Robinson’s testimony was recorded, Horne decided to look up the tape and listen to the actual recording of Robinson’s testimony. His office located the tape labeled as Robinson’s testimony in the National Archives. Unfortunately, however, the tape contained something else on it, and Horne was not able to locate another tape with Robinson’s testimony on it.
Perhaps I should mention that after Robinson gave his testimony, it was ordered sealed for 50 years, along with testimony provided by other people for the House Select Committee on Assassinations. Keep in mind also that the Warren Commission had ordered many of its records sealed for 75 years. It was only thanks to the JFK Records Act, enacted in the wake of Oliver Stone’s movie JFK, that such records were ordered opened to the public.
If you would like to see the pertinent excerpt from the official transcript of Robinson’s testimony, it is posted here on the Internet.
It might interest you to know that the personnel who participated in Kennedy’s autopsy, both military and civilian, were required by U.S. military officials to sign written oaths of secrecy in which they promised to never reveal what they had witnessed at the autopsy, on threat of court martial or criminal prosecution.
In fact, as Horne pointed out,
A considerable amount of effort by the HSCA’s Chief Counsel, Robert Blakey, was required to get the Pentagon to lift the gag order during the late 1970s. Even then, some participants at the autopsy (such as James Curtis Jenkins) were hesitant to talk about what they had witnessed, and others (such as Jerrol Custer) still stubbornly refused. Many of the enlisted men present in the morgue, as well as civilian photographer John Stringer, have recalled quite vividly the threatening manner in which this letter was delivered to them by CAPT Stover, Humes’ immediate superior and the Commanding Officer of the Naval Medical School at Bethesda. (Horne, volume 1, page xxvii.)
If you would like to see a copy of the oath of secrecy that people were required to sign, it is posted here on the Internet.
Do you now see why the authors of The Kennedy Detail: JFK’s Secret Service Agents Break Their Silence might have chosen to omit a detailed account of what happened at Bethesda Hospital on the evening of November 22, 1963, notwithstanding their promise to “reveal the inside story of the assassination, the weeks and days that led to it and its heartrending aftermath”? Specifically denying Lifton’s (and Horne’s) contention that President Kennedy’s body had been “kidnapped” (the term used by the authors) and omitting any reference whatsoever to Lt. Bird and his Joint Casket Bearer Team, the sum total of the authors’ account of what happened at the Bethesda morgue that night was the following sentence: “There was a presidential suite on the seventeenth floor of the hospital, and as Bill Greer, Roy Kellerman, and Admiral Burkley accompanied the casket to the morgue for the autopsy, Clint Hill and Paul Landis escorted Mrs. Kennedy and her brother-in-law the attorney general to the suite.” (Blaine and McCubbin, Chapters 15 and 22.)
Regardless of whether one believes that President Kennedy was killed by a lone-nut assassin or was the victim of a conspiracy, the American people have a right to know exactly what happened at Bethesda Hospital on November 22, 1963, and why.
Who were the men in blue suits who got out of the black hearse that delivered the president’s body in a shipping casket at 6:35 p.m.? What were their names and who did they work for? Were they Secret Service, FBI, or CIA? Are they still alive and, if so, where are they? Did they file written reports of their actions on that evening and, if so, where are those reports today? Why, when, and how was Kennedy’s body separated from the Dallas casket? Why all the secrecy and deception associated with the delivery of the president’s body into the Bethesda morgue?
Although President John F. Kennedy’s autopsy took place almost 50 years ago, we the people — the citizens of the United States living today — have a right to know everything about what happened on the night of November 22, 1963, and why. Notwithstanding the lapse of almost half a century, U.S. government officials, including those in the Pentagon, the Secret Service, the FBI, and the CIA, have a duty to provide us with the complete truth.