SSA Win Lawson, the advance man for the Texas trip, he rode ahead of Kennedy’s limo, helped lift the president onto a stretcher and then lived a half-century with regrets.
|Mr. Lawson, left, was on duty during the burial of President Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery on Nov. 25, 1963, three days after the assassination. Credit...Cecil Stoughton/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum|
Winston Lawson had been a Secret Service agent for four years when, on Nov. 22, 1963, he was in an unmarked police car in Dallas just ahead of President John F. Kennedy’s open limousine.
Within an hour or so, Kennedy would be dead, leaving Mr. Lawson to wonder for the next half-century whether he had done everything possible to keep the president safe.
“At times I wish I had never been born,” he said in an interview in 2013 with WTVR, a television station in Richmond, Va., on the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination.
Mr. Lawson, who died on Nov. 7 in Norfolk, Va., at 91, had not only been guarding Kennedy in Dallas; he had been the advance agent for the presidential trip to Texas. Known for his attention to detail, he had planned security and travel routes for the trip, as he had for Kennedy in other cities in both the United States and Europe.
In Dallas, he worked with the local police to choose the route the motorcade would take from Love Field, where Kennedy had landed that morning from Fort Worth, through downtown Dallas and on to the Dallas Trade Mart, where Kennedy was to speak.
“It allowed us to go downtown, which was wanted back in Washington, D.C.,” Mr. Lawson said in 1964 in testimony to the Warren Commission, which investigated the assassination and concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman. “It afforded us wide streets most of the way, because of the buses that were in the motorcade.”
He calculated that the trip from the airport to the trade mart, about 10 miles, would take 45 minutes, given how slow the motorcade would proceed.
Mr. Lawson — who rode in the front passenger seat of the lead car, a light-colored sedan being driven by Jesse Curry, the Dallas police chief — scanned the thickening crowds for potential trouble and kept turning around to check on Kennedy through the rear window, he told the commission.
After the motorcade turned onto Elm Street along Dealey Plaza and passed the Texas School Book Depository, Mr. Lawson heard the first shot from behind. In his testimony he was asked by the commission member John J. McCloy, a banker and diplomat, if he had seen anyone in the windows of the building. (Oswald had shot the president from a sixth-floor window.)
“No, sir,” Mr. Lawson said. “Just as we started around that corner, I asked Chief Curry if it was not true that we were probably five minutes from the Trade Mart.”
When two more shots were fired, Mr. Lawson turned around to see another Secret Service agent standing in the car behind Kennedy’s limo holding an automatic weapon. Had the agent just fired?
A motorcycle officer then pulled up to the lead car, telling Mr. Lawson and Chief Curry that the president had been shot. An order immediately crackled over Mr. Lawson’s two-way radio: Rush to the nearest hospital.
When the lead car and the limousine arrived at Parkland Memorial Hospital, Mr. Lawson dashed into the emergency entrance and saw medical personnel pushing two stretchers toward him — one for Kennedy and one for Gov. John B. Connally of Texas, who had been in the president’s limousine and also wounded.
When he reached the stretchers, Mr. Lawson testified, he “put one hand on each one as they pushed and I pulled.”
Mr. Connally was placed on the first stretcher. Mr. Lawson and three others, including the Kennedy aide Dave Powers, lifted the mortally wounded president from the back seat of the limousine onto the second stretcher.
“They really couldn’t do much,” Mr. Lawson recalled in the WTVR interview. “He was quite gray.”
He waited outside Trauma Room 1 as doctors worked unsuccessfully on Kennedy’s neck and head wounds. At 1 p.m. they declared the president dead.
Mr. Lawson later rode in a police car that escorted the Kennedy hearse — carrying the first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, as well — to Love Field for Air Force One’s flight back to Washington. He stood guard outside the plane until it took off.
Returning from Love Field, Mr. Lawson went to the Dallas Police Headquarters. By then Oswald had been arrested and interrogated by detectives there, but Mr. Lawson arrived in time to observe as Forrest Sorrels, the Secret Service agent in charge of the Dallas district, interviewed the suspect.
“What was the attitude of Oswald during this period?” Representative Gerald R. Ford of Michigan, a member of the Warren Commission and the future Republican president, asked Mr. Lawson.
“Oswald just answered the questions as asked to him,” Mr. Lawson testified. “He didn’t volunteer any information. He sat there stoically, not much of an expression on his face.”
Winston George Lawson (who was known as Win) was born on Oct. 15, 1928, in Dunkirk, N.Y., on Lake Erie, and raised in nearby Portland, N.Y. His father, Merle, was an accountant, and his mother, Cecile (Post) Lawson, was a schoolteacher who worked as a guard in a machine gun factory during World War II.
After graduating from the University of Buffalo (now part of the State University of New York) with a bachelor’s degree in history and government, Mr. Lawson worked as a carpet salesman and sales representative at the Carnation Milk Company before serving in Army counterintelligence.
After his discharge he returned to Carnation and had several other jobs before the Secret Service accepted him as an agent in 1959 in its field office in Syracuse, N.Y. He was assigned to the White House detail in 1961 and remained with the agency for the next 20 years.
He later worked for the Defense Department, doing background checks, and provided security for the evangelists Billy Graham and his son Franklin.
Mr. Lawson’s death, which was not widely reported at the time, was caused by coronary artery disease, his son, Jeff, said. Mr. Lawson is also survived by his wife, Barbara (Barrett) Lawson; a daughter, Andrea Lawson; four grandchildren; three step-grandchildren and his brother, Merlin.
Mr. Lawson said that his lingering anguish over Kennedy’s death had been assuaged by support from fellow agents.
“They would say to me — and it’s hard for me to say without breaking down or tears coming to my eyes,” he told The Dallas Morning News in 2003 — “‘Win, if it had to happen to anyone, we’re glad it happened to you.’
“Because I was known for doing the best, most thorough advance in the entire agency.”
Richard Sandomir is an obituaries writer. He previously wrote about sports media and sports business. He is also the author of several books, including “The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper and the Making of a Classic.”
Reposted from The New York Times