***NEWS FLASH ALERT***
November 22, 1963
1:40 p.m. EST
United Press International
Dallas, Texas – Three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade. It is unclear at this hour if any member of the President’s motorcade was hurt in the shooting, though there are unconfirmed reports of injuries.
More information to follow as it becomes available.
The Robert F. Kennedy Residence
Hickory Hill, Virginia
1:55 p.m., November 22, 1963
I wish the damn telephone would stop ringing.
United States Attorney General Robert Kennedy was trying his best to ignore the phone. He was just finishing a working lunch with U.S. Attorney Robert Morgenthau, and was in the middle of an intense discussion on the Justice Department’s— as yet unsuccessful—strategy to take down the New York mafia. It was an issue that the Attorney General cared deeply about and had staked much of his professional career on. It was no time for interruptions.
Whomever was calling was persistent, and the phone continued to ring with an urgent rhythm: five rings and then a pause of precisely five seconds, followed by five more rings and another pause.
Finally, Kennedy gave in. “Can someone please answer the telephone?” he yelled.
Kennedy’s wife, who knew the phone was obviously for her husband, picked up the receiver. “Kennedy residence.”
A hiss followed by a metallic voice came on the line. “The Director is calling for the Attorney General. It’s urgent.”
Ethel Kennedy didn’t have to ask which director the operator was talking about. Holding out the receiver, she said, “Bobby, J. Edgar Hoover is calling.”
Bobby Kennedy instantly knew something was wrong. The Director of the F.B.I. and Bobby hated each other, and Hoover never called him at home.
He took the phone from his wife, “This is the Attorney General.”
“Hold for the Director, please.” After a series of clicks, Hoover came on the line. “I have news for you,” Hoover said, his voice flat and without emotion. “The president’s been shot.”
“Oh my God!” Bobby blurted. He paused to try and gather himself, wanting to be in control of his emotions in front of Hoover. “Is it serious?”
“I think it’s serious. I’m trying to get details. I’ll call you back when I know more.”
Hoover abruptly disconnected the line, leaving Bobby Kennedy holding the phone in silence. Trying to make sense of what he had heard, he called out to his wife.
“Jack’s been shot,” he said, putting a hand up to his mouth, as if he didn’t believe the words had actually left his lips.
Ethel cried out. “Oh, Bobby! What’s happened?”
“I don’t know. I’m calling the White House switchboard now.”
Trauma Unit – Parkland Memorial Hospital
1:05 p.m., November 22, 1963
President John F. Kennedy lay on a metal gurney in Trauma Room One as a frenzy of activity took place around him. His eyes were open but unfocused. His gray suit had been cut away, the pieces of which now littered the bloodstained floor. A quick visual search of the president’s body identified a dime-sized entrance wound to the back of the neck; the bullet had exited his throat just above the trachea, miraculously missing any vital organs. After the first shot from the 6th floor of the Texas School Book Depository struck, Kennedy had grasped his neck, slumping forward and then to the left toward his wife, who reacted instinctively, pulling him toward her in a protective embrace.
Now, every surgeon at Parkland Hospital flooded the trauma bays to try and save the president. In Unit One, doctors cleared the president’s airway, gave him an IV and a blood transfusion. His pulse was regular and steady, and his blood pressure stable. It had quickly become clear to the surgeon attending him, Dr. Mac Perry, that the president would survive this wound.
Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the patient in Trauma Room Two. There, Dr. William Kemp Clark, Parkland’s Chief of Neurosurgery was attending to the First Lady. Jackie Kennedy’s protective embrace had placed her directly in the path of what would become known as the “kill shot”—the assassin’s third and final bullet. Clark took one look at Jackie and knew that the situation was hopeless; the damage to her brain was catastrophic. All Clark could do was piece the flap of her skull back together to protect her brain matter from prying eyes. He ordered Trauma Unit Two cleared of all non-medical personnel. He wanted to give the First Lady some privacy. It was the least he could do for a woman who had suffered a gruesome death in the most public of ways.
2:30 p.m., November 22, 1963
When Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara heard about the shooting in Dallas, he had gone immediately into the conference room known as “The Tank”— a protected bunker with secure, global communication capabilities. Seeking confirmation of whether or not the president had died, McNamara had instructed his staff to speed dial Parkland Hospital until they reached someone who could verify the president’s condition. In the meantime, McNamara sprung into action on his own accord. His first move had been to call the U.S. Ambassador to Moscow, Foy Kohler, asking him to immediately send a message through channels to Chairman Nikita Khrushchev. This request reflected two convictions McNamara had about what had transpired in Dallas. First, he believed that it was of vital importance to make a clear and unambiguous statement to the Soviets that the president was in complete control of the government. Second, he feared that in the absence of such a clear statement the Soviets would immediately move to press their positions around the world. His next step had been to call an emergency meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to be held later that day at the Pentagon, while simultaneously putting on alert the Commander in Chief of NATO, the Commander of the Strategic Air Command and all other theater commanders to await further instructions as to the disposition and movement of their forces.
He then called Bobby Kennedy, who was also trying to find out about his brother’s condition.
“Bobby, since we don't know the president’s condition and Vice President Johnson is still at Parkland, I’m going to raise the DEFCON level one notch to DEFCON 4.” The American Defense Condition Level reflected the state of readiness of the U.S. military. Normal conditions were Level Five..
“Wouldn’t that create unnecessary tension with the Soviets? They tend to overreact, and that’s not something we want right now.”
“I think it’s worth the risk,” McNamara said. “Raising the DEFCON level will signal to the Soviet Union that the U.S. military is still under clear control, and that we won’t tolerate the Soviets taking advantage of the assassination attempt.”
Bobby, who was already lost in thought, said simply, “Ok.”
“Thanks. And one other thing. Do you know where the nuclear football is?”
Bobby momentarily didn’t respond. The nuclear football was the last thing on his mind at that moment. “How the hell should I know? I imagine it’s at the hospital in Dallas.”
“Find out where it is and please secure it. We don’t want the press seeing the officer carrying the football aimlessly wandering the halls of Parkland Hospital.”
Bobby Kennedy looked at his watch. “I’m leaving in fifteen minutes to go down there. They’ve laid on a C-135 that’s been fully converted to a flying hospital. We are going to bring the president back as soon as possible.”
Intensive Care Unit – Parkland Memorial Hospital
7:45 p.m., November 22, 1963
After a nerve-wracking four-hour flight from Washington, Bobby Kennedy entered the ICU in Parkland Memorial Hospital’s surgical ward. He was immediately surprised by the number of people surrounding the bed of his older brother, the 35th President of the United States.
“Who the hell is in charge here?” he barked.
Bobby knew that in the interest of security it was necessary that the president be protected from non-essential visitors. Consequently, his first order was to “clear the room,” followed by a single question: “Where’s the guy with the football?”
After some frenetic searching, the Air Force officer carrying the nuclear football was located, and escorted into the president’s room and shown to a seat in the corner. The “football” referred to the leather satchel that carried the nuclear launch codes and that accompanied the president whenever he was out of the White House. It was to be carried by a uniformed military officer within reach of the president at all times. In the event of a nuclear attack, the president would be able to access a 3 x 5 card with the nuclear launch codes as well as a black book of retaliatory options and target packages. It was, in the president’s hands, akin to a mobile nuclear arsenal.
Kennedy then turned to the head of the Secret Service detail at the hospital and told him that he wanted Dallas Police placed at all external hospital entrances, and for visitors to be limited to essential medical personnel only. A phalanx of security was to be posted outside the entrance to the room, and an agent was to be seated inside the room at all times.
* * *
Vice President Lyndon Johnson and his wife Lady Bird had been sequestered in the bowels of Parkland Hospital for the past five hours. With the president’s condition still unknown, and with security concerns paramount, Johnson was not allowed to leave the hospital. He was like a caged animal, pacing back and forth in the small confines of the Minor Medicine department on the hospital’s ground floor. Johnson’s Secret Service detail had found sandwiches and sodas for them, and done their best to relay information to Johnson and his wife as soon as it became available. But information was scant, and Johnson was unable to even make a phone call. Already he was worried.
Why the hell did this have to happen in Texas of all places? Johnson asked himself.
When Bobby Kennedy walked into Minor Medicine, Johnson stood up to greet him. “Bobby, I’m glad you are here. Any news about the president?”
Bobby immediately went to Lady Bird Johnson and took her hand. “I’m glad you are ok, Mrs. Johnson,” he said.
“Thank you, Mr. Kennedy.” Choking back tears she said, “I’m very, very sorry about Jackie.”
“Thank you.” Turning to the Vice President he said, “President Kennedy is in the ICU. He’s expected to make a full recovery.”
“Thank God almighty!” Johnson exclaimed, sounding a like a Baptist preacher.
“Lyndon, I need you to stay here until we are ready to transport the president back to Washington—hopefully by tomorrow morning. I’ve made arrangements for Lady Bird to fly back to Washington tonight.”
“Bobby, I want to get the hell out of this hospital. I’ve been cooped up here for five hours!”
“I’m aware of that, Lyndon. But until the president is on the plane back to Washington, the Secret Service is asking that you stay here. And I agree with them.”
“Goddamnit! Did you hear what I said? You are to stay here in the hospital until I tell you its time to go. Are we clear?”
Johnson, who very much wanted to punch the Attorney General of the United States in the nose, instead smiled and said, with dripping sarcasm, “As clear as day, Bobby.”
* * *
Bobby Kennedy stood before a gurney in the refrigerated room that served as Parkland Hospital’s morgue. Next to him stood Dallas County Medical Examiner Earl Rose, the man responsible for certifying deaths and conducting autopsies. Behind them, standing like a sentinel in the shadows at the back of the room, was Secret Service Agent Clint Hill. Hill who had been close to Jackie and had run her security detail, now looked completely shattered, his suit coat stained with a dark substance that looked black, but that Bobby knew was blood.
“I want to see her,” Bobby said to Rose in a soft, almost inaudible voice.
Rose stepped forward and gently pulled back the sheet, exposing only her body above the shoulders. Lying on the cold steel slab was the First Lady of the United States, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. Her face was a ghostly white, her lips had a light blue hue. Her dark black hair, which had been perfectly coiffed under her pink pillbox hat, was now soaked in dried blood and tangled in a bunch behind her neck. She would have hated anyone seeing her this way, even in death. It was a further ignominy for her, and it made Bobby scream inside.
Bobby, a devout Catholic, made the sign of the cross and started to pray quietly. “God our Father, your power brings us to birth, your providence guides our lives, and by your command we return to dust…” After a moment, he again crossed himself and turned suddenly and walked toward the door, passing Agent Hill with barely a nod. Out in the corridor, he waited for Rose to appear.
“I want the First Lady ready to travel by tomorrow morning. Is that clear?”
Dr. Rose blanched. “Mr. Kennedy, ah, I can’t permit that to happen. Mrs. Kennedy was killed in Dallas County. Texas and state law requires that we perform an autopsy here before she is transported out of the state.”
“I don’t care what state law says, doctor. You are to ensure that Mrs. Kennedy can be transported with the president when we leave Texas tomorrow morning. In the meantime, I’ve instructed the Secret Service to guard the First Lady’s body until it is time to leave. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, quite clear. However—”
Bobby turned on his heels before Rose had a chance to finish his sentence.
* * *
“Mr. Attorney General!”
Secret Service Agent Roy Kellerman ran up to Bobby Kennedy who talking on the phone to Robert McNamara from the office of the hospital’s chief administrator. Bobby stared at Hill and waited for him to speak.
“Sir, I’ve been asked to tell you that the president is awake.”
“Bob, I’ll call you back,” Bobby said promptly hanging up on the Secretary of Defense. Knowing that he was about to have a painful conversation with his brother, he walked slowly toward the ICU.
John Kennedy was lying not quite flat on a standard hospital bed, a pillow propped under his back, designed to help alleviate some of the chronic spinal pain he had suffered since an injury he had received when his motor torpedo boat was sunk by a Japanese cruiser in the Pacific during World War II. A series of tubes hooked into the president’s arms provided fluids and medication, and a heart monitor above the bed beeped with a steady rhythm. The president’s eyes were open and alert. A bandage covered his chest and neck area; though his voice wasn’t permanently damaged, he had been told not to talk.
But it can be difficult telling the president of the United States what to do.
“Bobby…” he rasped in a voice that was difficult at first to understand. “What happened…?”
Bobby cut him off. “Jack,” he said. “Shhh. Don’t speak—you must save your voice.” He paused, looking into his brother’s eyes. “I’m afraid I’ve got bad news, Jack. There was a shooting in Dallas. You were shot once through the neck. The doctors have assured me you are going to make a full recovery.” He paused again, taking his brother’s hand, overwhelmed himself by the emotion he was feeling at that moment. “Governor Connolly was also wounded, but he’s going to be ok,” he continued, trying to steel himself for what came next.
The Lord is my shepherd…
“Where’s Jackie?” the president asked, in a ragged whisper. Bobby met his brother’s eyes and in an instant realized that John Kennedy already knew what was coming next.
Three simple words followed: “She’s dead, Jack.”
The president moaned softly, a single tear tracking along his left cheek as he closed his eyes tightly.