Soon after President Kennedy was declared dead in Dallas, longtime White House photographer Robert Knudsen was summoned to Andrews Air Force Base to meet Air Force One, which was due to arrive at around 6 p.m. carrying President Lyndon Johnson and the body of the slain president. Knudsen ended up staying away from his family for the next three days.
Knudsen served as the official social photographer for the White House for five presidencies, extending back to the Truman administration and ending with the Nixon administration. He was very close to the Kennedy family. Whenever you see photographs of President Kennedy’s young children, John-John and Caroline, there is a good chance that the photographs were taken by Knudsen.
When Knudsen returned to his family after three days, he told them that he had been the photographer for the president’s autopsy but that he was not permitted to talk about it. He said that the entire operation was “classified,” which he understood meant that he could never reveal what he had seen or learned to anyone. His wife later told the Assassination Records Review Board in the 1990s that her husband treated “classified information” the way military personnel do, meaning that he would go to his grave without ever revealing it to anyone.
In 1977, Knudsen was interviewed by the national photography magazine Popular Photography. During the interview, he said that he had been the official photographer for the Kennedy autopsy. He told the magazine that it was the hardest thing he had ever done. Again, however, he did not reveal any details of what he had seen or learned during the autopsy.
In January 1989, Knudsen passed away. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post published obituaries stating that he had photographed the Kennedy autopsy.
There is one big problem with Knudsen’s story. He wasn’t the photographer for the Kennedy autopsy. The autopsy photographer was a man named John Stringer, who taught classes at the Bethesda Navy Medical School and who had photographed numerous autopsies at the Bethesda Navy morgue. Notwithstanding Knudsen’s claim and the Post’s and Times’s obituaries, the testimonies of autopsy participants and other evidence surrounding the autopsy established conclusively that Stringer, not Knudsen, was the autopsy photographer. It is also an established fact that Knudsen wasn’t even at the autopsy.
Yet, it is a virtual certainty that Knudsen photographed a procedure that he was made to believe was the Kennedy autopsy. That’s because he wasn’t the type of person to make up a story like that. Moreover, the fact that he told a national photography magazine that he was the autopsy photographer lends credibility to his claim.
During the mid 1970s, the House Select Committee on Assassinations opened an investigation into Kennedy’s assassination. Knudsen was summoned to testify in that proceeding. One of the fascinating aspects of his testimony is that the lawyer who was questioning him scrupulously avoided asking him about photographing the autopsy. Instead, the questions were limited to asking him about his participation in the development of autopsy photographs.
Knudsen testified that he had, in fact, helped to develop the autopsy photographs. He said that some of the autopsy photographs showed metal rods or probes that were inserted into Kennedy’s wounds to help ascertain the trajectories of the bullets.
Knudsen later told his wife that there was fraud and deception in the official autopsy photographs. He said he couldn’t go into details but that if the fraud were ever to be exposed, he wanted his family to know that he had played no part in the deception, at least not knowingly.
Unfortunately, by the time the Assassination Records Review Board learned about Knudsen’s story in the 1990s, he had already passed away and had taken what he knew to the grave with him.
In November 1966, a meeting relating to the Kennedy autopsy was held at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The meeting had been called by the U.S. Justice Department. Attending the meeting were Navy commanders James Humes and J. Thornton Boswell, two of the three military pathologists who had conducted the Kennedy autopsy; Navy Captain John Ebersole, who had served as the radiologist for the autopsy; and John Stringer, the autopsy photographer.
At that meeting, a Justice Department lawyer handed the four participants an inventory that listed all of the official photographs and X-rays that purported to have been taken at the official autopsy. At the bottom of the inventory, the Justice Department had included a written certification indicating that the four participants had reviewed all of the photographs and X-rays in the official record and were certifying that the inventory was true and correct and that nothing was missing from it.
As they were examining the photographs and X-rays and comparing them to the inventory, Stringer advised the group that some of his photographs were definitely missing from the inventory. Humes agreed with him. Nonetheless, at the end of the session, all four of them signed the certification, without conditions, reservations, or qualifications. By knowingly signing a false affidavit in an official government report, all of them had committed a felony.
Some 30 years later, Stringer was summoned to testify before the ARRB, where he acknowledged under oath that he had signed the false inventory affidavit at that November 1966 meeting at the National Archives. The general counsel for the ARRB, a lawyer named Jeremy Gunn, pointed out to Stringer that there are some people who object to that sort of thing. Stringer’s answer was revealing. He acknowledged that Gunn’s statement was true but then pointed out that that type of person didn’t last very long.
One thing is certain: the photographs in the official record did not and do not include the autopsy photographs that Saundra Spencer saw when she developed the autopsy photographs on the weekend of the assassination. The photographs she developed showed a massive exit-sized wound in the back of Kennedy’s head. The official autopsy photographs show the back of Kennedy’s head to be fully intact, with one exception: what the three military pathologists claimed was a small bullet-sized entry wound at the base of the hairline on the back of Kennedy’s head.
Something else is certain: the photographs in the official record did not and do not include any of the photographs that Knudsen had helped to develop that showed probes in Kennedy’s wounds.
A second meeting
In January 1967, just after the November 1966 meeting, a second meeting was held at the National Archives, this one again being called at the request of the Justice Department. This meeting was attended by the three military pathologists who had conducted the autopsy on Kennedy’s body, Navy commanders Humes and Boswell and Army Lt. Col. Pierre Finck.
The reason that Finck wasn’t at the November 1966 meeting at the National Archives, the one where the false inventory was attested to, was that he was serving in Vietnam.
By January 1967, Finck had been transferred to South Vietnam. But his presence at the second meeting of the National Archives was evidently considered so important that he was ordered to return to Washington, D.C., for the meeting.
The purpose of this second meeting was to have the three autopsy physicians review the official autopsy photographs and X-rays and certify that they did in fact confirm the official autopsy findings that had been made three years before.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that after reviewing the photographs and X-rays in the official record, the three autopsy pathologists concluded that they did confirm the accuracy of the original autopsy findings.
About a year later, in February 1968, the Justice Department called a third meeting at the National Archives. Actually, the meeting was technically requested by Commander Boswell, who sent a letter to the Justice Department, requesting the Department to organize a panel of nationally known, prominent, and competent pathologists whose job it would be to review the official autopsy photographs and X-rays and determine whether they could put their “seal of approval” on the official autopsy findings.
Some 30 years later, however, Boswell would tell the ARRB that the idea for the panel actually came from the Justice Department, which had asked him to send a letter proposing the idea, apparently so that people would not know that the idea was coming from the Justice Department.
The panel came to be known as the Clark Panel, named after Ramsey Clark, a lawyer from President Johnson’s home state of Texas who was a close friend and confidant of Johnson and whom Johnson had named as U.S. Attorney General.
This article was originally published in the December 2018 edition of Future of Freedom.