MUSINGS OF A STORY MERCHANT

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

JFK’s Secret Service opens up, say no conspiracy behind assassination

http://www.suntimes.com

BY DAN ROZEK Staff Reporter/drozek@suntimes.com

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Retired Secret Service agents (from left) Gerald Blaine and Clint Hill, with co-author Lisa McCubbin, signed copies of Blaine's book, “The Kennedy Detail: JFK’s Secret Service Agents Break Their Silence” at Anderson's Bookshop in Naperville Saturday. |

Within seconds of shots being fired at President John F. Kennedy, Secret Service Agent Clint Hill climbed onto the president’s still-moving, convertible limousine and saw Kennedy slumped over with a “gaping” wound in his head.

“I assumed the wound was fatal. I turned, I gave a thumb’s down to the follow-up car,” Hill said Saturday, as he recounted the traumatic Nov. 22, 1963 assassination in Dallas of the nation’s 35th president.

But later that day at Parkland Hospital, Hill couldn’t bring himself during a frantic phone call to tell then Attorney General Robert Kennedy that his brother was gone.

“He said, ‘How bad is it?’ Well, I did not want to tell him that his brother was dead,’ ” recalled Hill, now 79. “So, I simply said, ‘It’s as bad as it can get.’ With that, he just hung up the phone.”

Hill was one of nearly two dozen members of President Kennedy’s former Secret Service detail to share his memories of the assassination in a new book. The Kennedy Detail: JFK’s Secret Service Agents Break Their Silence offers an inside, accurate look at both Kennedy and his slaying, said co-author Gerald Blaine during an appearance with Hill at Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville.

“What the agents decided to do was to set the record straight, and make sure that we at least have a say-so in the history,” said Blaine, a 79-year-old retired Secret Service agent who with journalist Lisa McCubbin wrote the book.

The book largely backs the official Warren Commission report that concluded gunman Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone when he killed Kennedy from a sixth-floor sniper’s perch in the Texas School Book Depository.

Though conspiracy theories have swirled around the assassination for more than 45 years, the Secret Service agents who were there don’t accept those claims, said Blaine and Hill.

“For the most part, the Warren Commission got it right,” said Hill, whose recollections of the assassination — which he witnessed from the car directly behind Kennedy’s limousine — form a key part of the story. His own role was immortalized in the famous Zapruder film showing him leaping onto the limousine and pushing Jacqueline Kennedy down into the car to shield her after the shots erupted.

There were 34 agents on the White House detail at the time of Kennedy’s assassination and Blaine — who was also a member of the detail — interviewed all of the survivors when he began putting the book together more than five years ago. Some had never spoken publicly before about the killing, Blaine said.

“We wanted to make sure we were 100 percent accurate,” said Blaine, who also pored through archived documents, including the entire 27-volume Warren Commission report.

Some who heard the agents on Saturday describe the assassination said they don’t doubt their account of what happened that day.

“They’ve convinced me this is the real story,” said Naperville resident Carson Schuler, who was a 19-year-old college student when Kennedy was slain on a trip to Dallas in advance of his 1964 presidential re-election campaign.

Both Blaine and Hill were in Texas with the Kennedys when the president was slain. Hill — who was assigned to protect the First Lady — was barely a dozen feet away in the Secret Service follow-up car when the first shot rang out.

Hill described how he jumped off his car and ran toward the presidential limousine, reaching the vehicle just as a bullet struck Kennedy in the head.

As soon as he saw Kennedy’s injuries, he realized the president likely was dead.

“I could see that his eyes were fixed, there was a gaping hole in the upper right rear of his head about the size of my palm,” said Hill, struggling to hold his composure.

Doctors at Parkland Hospital worked feverishly to revive Kennedy, at one point even saying they believed he was breathing, but then pronounced the president dead, Hill said.

Agents had to quickly find a casket to carry Kennedy back to Washington, D.C., then break its handles off so it would fit inside Air Force One, he recalled.

Before the plane could take off, a federal judge had to be brought aboard to swear in Lyndon Johnson as Kennedy’s successor, while a devastated, blood-spattered Jacqueline Kennedy stood by his side. Then there was nothing to do but fly home.

“It was the longest, most quiet flight we’ve had in our lives,” Hill said softly.

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