Saturday, 17 July 2021 19:30

Last Second in Dallas, part 1

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Jim DiEugenio writes part 1 of his mixed review of Josiah Thompson’s new book on the JFK case, Last Second in Dallas, by summarizing the first-person journey, recounted by Thompson, that led to his first book, Six Seconds in Dallas, and then discussing the troubling history of the media and scientific forces aligned to derail further investigations, including Jim Garrison’s.


This will be a decidedly mixed review of Josiah Thompson’s new book on the JFK case, Last Second in Dallas. I hope it does not discourage anyone from buying or reading it. There are some good things in the volume. And I will try to be as fair as I can about what I think they are. But I will also not shrink from what I believe to be the book’s shortcomings.

I

Thompson has fashioned the book as a kind of one man’s journey into a labyrinth. He begins the book even before the Warren Report was issued. On the day Kennedy was killed, Thompson heard that a doctor performed a tracheostomy over a throat wound on President Kennedy. But yet all the news stories said that the alleged assassin worked at the Texas School Book Depository, which was behind the motorcade. In what is, in retrospect, a monumental piece of unintentional humor, Thompson went to the local FBI office to alert them to this paradox. (Thompson, p. 6)

When the Warren Report was issued, it was received in the press and broadcast media with almost universal praise, but Thompson noticed that a curious and pesky young Philadelphia lawyer disagreed with the unanimous chorus. That was the late Vincent Salandria. Thompson, who was now a newly made professor of philosophy at Yale, decided to check up on Vince’s work. So, he consulted the Commission’s volumes of evidence and found out that Vince was correct.

This gave him a bit of a shock. The author now tries to fill in a bit of his conservative Republican background to explain why. This is where I had my first perturbance with the book. The author writes that he thought Alger Hiss was innocent in that case. He then adds that when Allen Weinstein’s MSM endorsed book on Hiss came out, he changed his mind and agreed with Weinstein that Hiss was guilty. (Thompson, p. 9)

For several reasons, this was puzzling to me. For one, Weinstein was later sued and settled with one of his interviewees. (Click here for details) He also promised to show some of his evidence to other Hiss scholars—he never did. He later became a sexual predator, while supposedly doing his job as chief archivist of the United States. He was protected from legal liability by the George W. Bush administration. (Click here for details) In fact, there are three relatively recent books that pretty much show that Weinstein was really a hired gun and that is how he got the job at the National Archives. One is by Joan Brady, one by Martin Roberts, and one by Lewis Hartshorn. The last shows that Whittaker Chambers, Hiss’s accuser and a man who Weinstein took at his word, was surely a pathological liar. I will return to this political aspect with Thompson later.

During a Vietnam protest in the Philadelphia area, the author was arrested. The ACLU lawyer sent to bail him out was Salandria. Vince now introduced Thompson to the critical community. They went to NARA to view the Zapruder film and look at 35 mm slides. (Thompson, p. 10). He then visited Dealey Plaza with an Abney level tool and figured out that the angle through John B. Connally was a 27 degree down slope, which he figured most likely came from the Records building. (Thompson, p. 15)

On the strength of this visit to Dallas, Thompson was signed by the Bernard Geis publishing company. He got a rather small advance, though they agreed to pay his expenses, but Geis knew some people at Life magazine. And they had decided to do a reinvestigation of the JFK case based on the critiques of the Warren Report by Mark Lane and Edward Epstein. (Thompson, pp. 16–17)

What is next tells the story of Thompson’s field investigation in Dallas. This is where the author encountered witnesses in Dealey Plaza and at Parkland Hospital. Thompson interviewed hospital employees Darrel Tomlinson and O. P. Wright about the discovery of the Magic Bullet, aka CE 399. From here, he pieced together the chain of custody that linked the transport of the bullet to Washington and then the FBI lab. This led to one of the most sensational discoveries in the early days of critical research. Wright insisted that CE 399 was not the bullet he turned over to the Secret Service. The bullet he turned over was sharp nosed, not a round nosed bullet. And since Wright had worked in law enforcement for many years prior to his occupation as a security officer at Parkland Hospital, he knew the difference. (Thompson, p. 25)

At Parkland, Thompson made another stunning discovery. This one was about the location of CE 399 when it was discovered. In all probability, it was not on Governor John Connally’s stretcher—which is where it had to be located if the Commission’s Single Bullet Theory was to hold any water. In all likelihood, it was found on a child’s stretcher and his name was Ronnie Fuller. (Thompson p. 24. For a more complete explanation, see Six Seconds in Dallas, pp. 156–65)

From here, the book describes the witnesses in Dealey Plaza. First off are Bill and Gayle Newman who were to the limousine’s right, at the base of the grassy knoll. They were never called by the Commission, but filed affidavits and were interviewed by the FBI. (Thompson, p. 30) They may have been the closest witnesses to Kennedy’s shooting. The couple said the shots came from behind them and Kennedy was hit in the right temple, which would be clear evidence that a rifleman was behind the picket fence. But in addition to the Newmans, Thompson adds Abraham Zapruder and Emmett Hudson, who were in the same area, to this list. He later notes that it appears the FBI altered Hudson’s original statement to the Secret Service. (Thompson, p. 43) Hudson was the first witness Thompson located who indicated that there was another shot after the fatal head shot.

II

The author transitions over to witnesses who were further away from the limousine or not in as good a position to see or hear what had happened to JFK, but whose testimony is still important. In the cases of the motorcycle escorts, he notes that it was Bobby Hargis and B. J. Martin who were struck with blood and tissue from the fusillade. The significance of this is that they were riding to the left of Kennedy. Hargis told a reporter he was splattered with blood and the impact was so hard he thought he himself might have been hit. Later, while walking to the Sheriff’s Department, a colleague told him he had something on his lip: it was a piece of Kennedy’s brain and skull bone. (Thompson, pp. 55, 56) Martin’s cycle was also splattered with blood and flesh and he said that the left side of his helmet was also hit. In this profusely illustrated book, one can see that Martin was looking toward the president right before the firing sequence began. (Thompson, pp. 50, 58) Some have said this kind of evidence is eyewitness testimony. I disagree. It qualifies as physical evidence which indicates directionality.

Officer Joe Smith smelled gunpowder near the underpass, but this testimony was then altered by the FBI. Smith also said he met up with a Secret Service agent, which was not possible as they were all at the hospital. (Thompson, pp. 58, 59)

The author then proceeds to two men who have become famous to both the public and in the JFK case: Lee Bowers and S. M. Holland. Although Thompson says that Holland was more important, I believe they are of equal importance.

Bowers was made famous by Oliver Stone’s film JFK. Memorably played by actor Pruitt Taylor Vince, in a riveting sequence he described how three cars came into the area behind the picket fence, circled around and then left by about 12:25. One of the men seemed to have some kind of electronic communication in the car. Bowers said that at the time of the shooting, something out of the ordinary, some commotion, occurred in the area behind the picket fence—where Elm Street dips down at the underpass. To be mild, Joseph Ball of the Commission did not do a good job in pursuing this line of inquiry, so Mark Lane took it up later for his film, Rush to Judgment. Bowers said he saw a flash of light or smoke “which caused me to feel like something out of the ordinary had occurred there.” (Thompson, p. 66)

Bowers died in August of 1966. It was later discovered, through Debra Conway of JFK Lancer, that there was more to Bower’s story. Bowers had actually seen someone holding the trunk of a car open, placing something in it, and driving off. This was told to her by Olan DeGaugh, a supervisor a couple of levels above Bowers. Barney Mozley was a colleague of Bowers who replaced him on the later shift. Mozley said that Bowers was very fearful of telling all he knew: to the point of having to place a lock on his tower door so no one could interview him. But he told Mozley something which coincided with what he told DeGaugh: at the time of the shooting Bowers saw someone coming around the wooded area in a trench coat and what looked like a rifle underneath. Clearly Bowers was petrified of telling anyone about everything he witnessed.

Holland was standing on the overpass at the time of the shooting. In his original affidavit, Holland said he heard four, perhaps five gunshot sounds. (Thompson, p. 68) Two of the shots were extremely close together. The sound came from the grassy knoll area and as he turned in that direction he saw smoke rising, so he and three companions ran there. Holland was looking for shells. What they found were a series of footprints at one end of a car. These were accompanied by muddy spots on the bumper and cigarette butts on the ground. In other words, it was as if someone was behind the fence and waiting for the motorcade. (Thompson, pp. 70–72) An obvious question was: Why would someone view the motorcade from behind the fence? (Thompson, p. 79)

Thompson and his partner, Ed Kern, were impressed by Holland. The witness drew them a diagram of what he saw when he got to the scene. (Thompson, p.77) The episode is capped by Thompson’s photo comparison of Holland standing at the position he was that day, behind the fence, with an anomalous shape in the famous Mary Moorman photo taken from across the street looking toward the knoll. They appear to match. (Thompson, p. 80) Since the author found out that there were no trunks searched, he concludes the chapter with a postulation as to what happened: the rifleman (men) could have just opened the trunk, thrown the rifle in, milled around for a few minutes and later just walked away. This scenario would correspond with what Bowers saw.

The next step in the Life inquiry was an interview with Dr. Charles Gregory, one of the two doctors who performed surgery on Governor John Connally; who was sitting in front of President Kennedy in the limousine. Gregory, along with his colleague Dr. Robert Shaw, both concluded that the bullet that hit Connally did not strike anything previously. They deduced this from the clean edges, and also since no cloth fibers were carried into the governor’s back wound; yet “his wrist wound was fouled with numerous fibers from his wool suit.” (Thompson, p. 85) The other key development was that Gregory thought the shot that did hit Connally came in approximately at Zapruder frames 237–240. Which again, separate it from the shot that hit Kennedy, since the timing was too late. Gregory was very accomplished. He was a field physician in the Korean War and had spent much time studying gunshot wounds.

Thompson was disappointed by the essay eventually printed in Life. It was called “A Matter of Reasonable Doubt” and was published as the cover story on November 25, 1966. Featuring frames from the Zapruder film, which Time-Life owned, the piece was largely based upon John Connally’s estimation of when he was hit versus when JFK was. In other words, all the material reviewed, thus far, was eliminated (e.g. Bowers, Holland, the Newmans, Gregory, the splatter pattern, etc.). Beyond that, there was space given to Arlen Specter to respond and the ending included a roundup of Kennedy assassination books described with snide and smug remarks. The only book that was recommended was Edward Epstein’s Inquest, which, as most of us know, was not at all a comprehensive critique of the Commission’s evidence. What is striking about this article is that, although it stated at the end the case should be reopened, it did not include the evidence the magazine had that likely would have reopened it: the backward head snap of JFK which begins at Zapruder frame 313. As Thompson points out, it also mistakenly said that the bullet angle through Kennedy’s body matched up to Connally’s, which was not remotely true. (Thompson, p. 90).

From here, Thompson relates his retirement by Life and his determination to create a book out of his materials. Life made it difficult by suing him over artist renditions of the Zapruder film in what became Six Seconds in Dallas. But the judge upheld his right to do so.

III

In this reviewer’s opinion, the approximately first hundred pages of Last Second In Dallas represent the best part of the book. Its combination of witness testimony, professional observation, and physical evidence is compelling. And this presentation is combined with another virtue. Thompson is an accomplished writer. He has a simple, supple style that is quite easy to read. He also knows how to carve out “scenes” in prose. As noted, like Six Seconds in Dallas, the book uses illustrations adroitly. For example, in addition to the one with Holland, the picture comparing the condition of CE 399 to two bullets fired into tubes of cotton is quite effective. (Thompson, p. 22)

After giving the author his due, I must add that I did have some reservations with this part of the book. Some of it emerges from Thompson’s point of view, which is pretty much a first-person journey. Therefore, he cannot help but describe the shutting down of Life magazine’s inquiry into the JFK case. He only mentions in passing that the New York Times had fielded an inquiry and also shut it down. (Thompson, p. 92)

There was an interesting crossover between the two inquiries. His name was Tom Bethell. Bethell ended up being a pal of Dick Billings. Billings was the member of the Life team who told Thompson the inquiry was being closed down. (Thompson, p. 91) Bethell was the Englishman who ended up working for Jim Garrison, but not before he journeyed to Texas to live and hang out with Penn Jones. Billings had been part of the infamous Bayo/Pawley raid into Cuba, an event which the author does not mention. The two B’s agreed that there was not a covert effort by the government, the Commission, or the FBI to conceal the truth in the JFK case. They also agreed that Life did not really suppress the Zapruder film, since interested parties could see it at the National Archives. This seems a bit ridiculous in light of what happened when the film was nationally viewed in 1975.

Both Billings and Bethell were cognizant of the New York Times inquiry. Bethell said that in November of 1966 he had met up with Times reporter Martin Waldron in Dallas. Waldron had a 4–5 page questionnaire of items they were looking into as problems with the Commission. Many of these questions were about New Orleans and they focused on David Ferrie. This was independent of Jim Garrison. (Click here for details)

This is important in two ways. Apparently, Thompson was unaware that around the time he was retired, early February of 1967, Billings was also in New Orleans. He had been tipped off by Life stringer David Chandler that Jim Garrison was investigating the JFK case. Garrison had agreed to share information with Billings in return for some photographic services. This links directly to the following quote:

What Patsy [Swank] and I did understand was that there was a level of the Life investigation beyond our participation or understanding. I never knew what [Holland] McCombs was supposed to be doing, and it was apparent that I was not supposed to know. (Thompson, pp. 26–27)

With the help of British researcher Malcolm Blunt, we now can shed some light on what McCombs was doing. As noted above, it seems that when the Times started delving into New Orleans, they decided to drop the case. That parallels what happened with Life. McCombs retired Ed Kern and Thompson, but Billings and Swank stayed. In fact, Swank was writing reports to McCombs on the case well into 1968. (Swank to McCombs 7/16/68) With Kern and Thompson gone, McCombs now began to turn his guns on Garrison. Why? Because as Blunt has shown, he was best of friends with Clay Shaw. (See letters of 3/9/68, 3/22/68, 6/20/68, 7/31/68 and beyond) McCombs now began to work with and encourage the likes of hatchet men like Chandler and Hugh Aynesworth. (See letter of 5/13/67 to Duffey McFadden)

What makes this even more interesting is that, in February—around the time Thompson and Kern were cashiered—Billings had received a telegram marked confidential. It said Ferrie had been seen by two witnesses at White Rock Airport in Dallas in October and November of 1963. They also discovered a pilot in Dallas who knew Ferrie and flew to New Orleans to meet with him in 1964. (message of 2/26/67) Therefore, like the Times, Life now had interesting information about Shaw’s friend Ferrie. And make no mistake, Chandler knew of this relationship. His son emailed this reviewer in the early part of the millennium and said that his father knew that Shaw and Ferrie were friends. By May, McCombs was referring to Life’s reopening as a joke. (McFadden letter)

In June, it got worse. McCombs was in direct contact with Ed Wegmann, Shaw’s lead lawyer. (See letters of 6/14 and 7/25/67) By 1968, Shaw was congratulating McCombs on making speeches against the critics of the Warren Report. About reading their works, Shaw wrote: “It is almost unbelievable how much nonsense I have had to absorb.” (Letter to McCombs, 6/20/68)

The evidence adduced by Blunt would indicate that McCombs was there to ensure that what he labeled Life’s “so called reinvestigation” did not stray too far from the homestead, which was Rockefeller Center in New York City. In addition to these two inquiries, which were clearly neutered, there is a third parallel with what happened at CBS. Through the late Roger Feinman, we know those circumstances in detail, since Roger worked there. In that case, the middle level employees like Dan Schorr wanted to do a real investigation into what happened to President Kennedy. They were turned back by upper level management like Dick Salant, Bill Paley, and Frank Stanton. And then, as in the case of McCombs, John McCloy was employed as a secret consultant for the program. I know Thompson has this article since I sent it to him. (Click here for that essay)

I bring this up for two reasons. In this book, Thompson says he and Kern were retired because Time-Life did not want to pay for a continuing inquiry plus the time to educate its reporters on the case (Thompson, p. 92) With what we know today, this is rather underplaying it, especially with Swank and Billings staying in place. I think I understand why Thompson underplays what I believe was a significant pattern. At a conference in Chicago back in 1993, we were both on a panel focusing on the media. As I recall it, he was the only person arguing that there was no broad pattern of editorial coercion on the JFK case. At that time, he chalked it up to the fact that there were too many editorial levels in the chain. When one has people like McCombs as a circuit breaker, one does not need such an institutional hierarchy.

IV

As Thompson transitions out of Life magazine and into the production of Six Seconds in Dallas at Bernard Geis, another rather awkward note is struck. That is this: somehow the critical community has gone off on a wild tangent and he has become isolated. Predictably, Jim Garrison gets the back of his hand. (Thompson, p. 112) He then writes the following about Vince Salandria:

Vince Salandria, my mentor and guide to all this, was behaving like a wigged-out conspiracy theorist, rethinking raw facts to make them mean what he wanted them to mean. (Ibid)

Since both Garrison and Salandria have passed on, I would like to say a few words in their defense. Back in late 1967, when Thompson was on his book tour, he did an interview with Pacifica radio. He said that he had just heard Garrison saying that Kennedy’s murder was really a coup d’état. Thompson then said that a coup was a shift in power and that there was precious little evidence to back that up. He then added that a good reporter could make Garrison look foolish on this point. (James DiEugenio, Destiny Betrayed, 2nd edition, p. 381)

What makes this odd is that Thompson refers a few times in this book to his attendance at Vietnam protests, yet he does not make any connection between the sudden escalation of the war and JFK’s murder. Jim Garrison was the first critic to do this. In the view of several intelligent and documented studies, and the declassified record, he was correct: there was a shift between JFK and LBJ on Indochina. (For example, see books by David Kaiser, James Blight, John Newman, Howard Jones, and Gordon Goldstein.) Further work by scholars like Richard Mahoney, Greg Poulgrain, Robert Rakove and Philip Muehlenbeck have furthered Garrison’s thesis into areas like the Middle East and Indonesia. I have little problem referring to Kennedy’s murder as Garrison did today. (Click here as to why)

As per Salandria, Vince was one of the very, very few people who predicted that if Robert Kennedy won the California primary he would be assassinated. I don’t think that portrays him as being “wigged out.” And I can pinpoint when he began to disagree with Thompson. The first or second time I met Vince at his home in Philadelphia, he escorted me into his study and pulled down a copy of Six Seconds in Dallas. He immediately turned to page 246 and pointed out lines he had blocked off in brackets. After a space break in the text, Thompson says that what he had written in the book did not prove a conspiracy and it did not prove Oswald was innocent. After Vince pulled the book away, he said: “Jim, that is just what he spent almost 250 pages doing! And now, in the last sentences of the text, he denies what he just did?”

I had to admit: Vince had a point, one which got buried in all the photos and illustrations and sketches which made Six Seconds in Dallas unique. To further elucidate where Vince was coming from, by the end of the Clay Shaw trial, he had seen enough of what the likes of Holland McCombs, Dick Salant, and Punch Sulzberger were up to. And he now differed in his approach from other critics. Vince had started the whole field of micro studies in the JFK case. His early articles for Liberation and The Minority of One, were milestones in the field. (For an example, click here)

By 1969, he did not see any further point in doing that kind of thing. Salandria had supervised the Dealey Plaza portion of Shaw’s trial where, among other things, Pierre Finck had imploded and spilled the beans on what happened at Bethesda the night of Kennedy’s autopsy. In his opinion, that part of the case was now obvious. The questions for Vince were: Why was Kennedy killed, and why in such an execution style at high noon manner, with hundreds of spectators in attendance? To Vince, it was to show that, no matter how many explications one made exposing the official story, it did not matter. Democracy had ended. The CIA and the Pentagon were now running things. To him, the escalation in Indochina and the following murders of Malcolm, King and RFK proved that, especially since the RFK case was even more obviously a conspiracy than the JFK case. Agree or disagree, I understood the position. I did not think it was “wigged out.” There was nothing wrong in trying to configure the Big Picture.

V

The narrative picks up with the infamous 1967 four-part CBS special and Luis Alvarez. Again, Thompson introduces this in a rather puzzling way. He writes that, “The whole CBS program was so unconvincing that I just let it slide.” (Thompson, p. 117) Which makes me wonder: Did Thompson or his editors look at Six Seconds in Dallas? That book has an appendix entitled “A Critique of the CBS News Documentary, ‘The Warren Report’”. It is written in small print, but in normal size lettering it would probably be about 5–6 pages long. This is letting CBS slide?

But it is through this program that Thompson brings into the story the figure of scientist Luis Alvarez. There can be very little doubt that the author does a nice job in portraying him as a quite pernicious character in the JFK case. And it was not just with CBS. Alvarez’ participation in the case extended past the years of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, into the eighties. Through this long portrait, we understand a theme that Gary Aguilar and Don Thomas have written about. Namely, that for several scientists, the JFK case was not really science. Politics trumped the science they were supposed to be applying, e. g. Vincent Guinn, Tom Canning, Michael Baden. The Alvarez case is extraordinary, because of the blatancy of the falsehoods he told and because he entered into areas that he knew little or nothing about. It did not matter to Alvarez, it was all about saving the Warren Commission verdict.

Therefore, to explain away the very fast backward movement of Kennedy’s body in the Zapruder film, Alvarez dreamed up the so-called “jet effect” theory. Thompson shows that Alvarez, to put it mildly, cooked his research on this and then lied about it. (Thompson, pp. 124–29) This was the infamous shooting of the melons experiment. It was meant to show that Kennedy’s head rocketed backward because of the explosion of blood and tissue toward the front. Alvarez announced that he did not use the Edison method in this experiment. That is, he did not try and try and try over and over until he got the desired result. But then, years later, it was revealed that this is what he did.

At another time, to limit the shooting sequence in Dealey Plaza to just three shots, he created something called the jiggle effect. This meant that there were just three places in the Zapruder film where Abraham Zapruder “jiggled” his camera. Therefore, there were only three shots fired in Dealey Plaza. There was a big problem with this: it was false. There were six places. And Alvarez must have known it. (Thompson, p. 121) He clearly had an innate bias, since he once wrote to the author that “the critics are a bunch of nuts and that the Warren Report is essentially correct.” (Thompson, p. 119)

But even here, I beg to disagree with some of the nuances which he uses to portray Alvarez. He writes that “no single individual ever played a more central role in preserving a mistaken view of the shooting.” (Thompson, p. 115) He says that this is not an understatement and he does not qualify it by confining it to the field of science. What are we to make then of the roles in this case of Arlen Specter, Dan Rather, Larry Sturdivan and David Belin? Rather worked on several CBS specials that were all rigged to back up the Warren Report and all appeared at certain crucial times: e. g. anniversaries, during the Church Committee inquiry, right after Oliver Stone’s JFK appeared.

Later he writes that, “Powerful forces did not contact Alvarez and ask him to come up with his theory.” (Thompson, p 121) This seems contradicted by the work of Roger Feinman. Feinman, working from pilfered files out of CBS headquarters, showed that what happened is that the secret executive committee running CBS—the CNEC—rejected the idea of a fair and objective look at the Kennedy case. CBS President Richard Salant then sent two high level CBS employees, Les Midgley and Gordon Manning, to the San Francisco area. They met with two powerful attorneys, Bayless Manning and Edwin Huddleson. It was these two lawyers who suggested the program concept be switched around to an attack on the critics. And it was Huddleson who suggested they use Alvarez to do so. (Click here for that essay)

It was not Alvarez who created that awful series. He was an appendage to a larger Establishment enterprise. Is it just a coincidence that, in 1971, Bayless Manning left Stanford to became the first president of the Council on Foreign Relations?

Last modified on Sunday, 18 July 2021 05:35
James DiEugenio

One of the most respected researchers and writers on the political assassinations of the 1960s, Jim DiEugenio is the author of two books, Destiny Betrayed (1992/2012) and The JFK Assassination: The Evidence Today (2018), co-author of The Assassinations, and co-edited Probe Magazine (1993-2000).   See "About Us" for a fuller bio.

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