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Vince Palamara: author of four books + MAJOR DVD
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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

US Archives releases longer audio tape from Air Force One after Kennedy assassination

US Archives releases longer audio tape from Air Force One after Kennedy assassination

01/30/2012 4:23 PM

By Bryan Bender, Globe Staff


WASHINGTON -- The Kennedy assassination was one of the most heart-wrenching and chaotic events in modern American history -- and one still replete with mysteries.

But now a little more light has been shed on one of them: What was edited out of the flight deck recording from Air Force One as it carried John F. Kennedy’s body and the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson, from Dallas to Washington.

The National Archives and Records Administration today released a newly discovered recording – running about 2 hours and 20 minutes -- that is nearly 40 minutes longer than the only version previously known to exist.

The more complete recording was discovered last year by the Raab Collection, a manuscript collector in Pennsylvania, after one of its agents purchased at auction a box of personal effects from the estate of General Chester Clifton, who was Kennedy’s military aide.

The whereabouts of the complete Air Force One radio transmissions from Nov. 22, 1963, still remain a mystery. But what makes this a historically significant find is that it is an earlier version of the raw transmissions than the one housed at the LBJ Library, which was more heavily edited and runs only about an hour and 40 minutes.

Clifton, who died in 1991, left the White House in 1965, while the LBJ Library version was made public in 1971.

“This is the earliest that likely exists,” said Nathan Raab, vice president of the Raab Collection in Ardmore, Pa.

The newly found tape, a copy of which was donated to the Archives, includes never-before-heard transmissions between the White House Situation Room and another plane taking Secretary of State Dean Rusk and other Cabinet members to Tokyo at the time of Kennedy’s shooting and was turned back. It also contains an urgent request to locate the head of the Air Force, General Curtis LeMay, whose whereabouts in the immediate aftermath of the assassination have remained an obsession for generations of conspiracy theorists.

Some of the newly discovered radio traffic is raw and uncensored, such as when Rusk and his party are informed of the shooting while flying over the Pacific.

“Kennedy apparently shot in head,” the male radio operator in the Situation Room reports. “He fell face down in back seat of his car, blood was on his head, Mrs. Kennedy cried ‘oh, no’ and tried to hold up his head.”

Also heard are more mundane things, such as the pilots of Air Force One discussing how to avoid tornados in Arkansas and Mississippi along the flight path from Dallas to Washington, D.C.

Raab said he was most intrigued by the portion involving LeMay. Kennedy and the hawkish Air Force chief were widely known to mistrust each other and all references to LeMay were deleted in the Johnson Library version of the recording.

In the longer version, one of LeMay’s aides, a Colonel Dorman, contacts the White House Situation Room seeking to reach the general, who he tells them is flying in a C-140 aircraft with the last three numbers 497 and whose code name is “Grandson.”

“And I want to talk to him,” the colonel says. Any delay, he adds, “would be too late.”

But he is told they will have to interrupt transmissions with Air Force One to do so. The Situation Room reports that they are using both frequencies available to communicate with the presidential aircraft.

Summarizing the portions of the tape not made public before, the National Archives cited “references to new code names and incidents; a private conversation between Jerry Behn, the head of the Secret Service, and an unidentified individual about the disposition of the president’s body; an urgent effort by an aide to Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay to reach [him]; and attempts to locate various members of Congress from the Texas delegation.”

Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero said the recording “provides additional documentation concerning the immediate response of the US Government on the day of President Kennedy’s assassination.”

The tape, added, Raab, “will allow the public a more complete view of the chaotic circumstances following the assassination of President Kennedy.”

But the recording only goes so far. Several hours of raw tape are still missing. The transmissions heard on Air Force One that day should cover more than four hours -- from before 2 p.m. Eastern time to after 6 p.m., when the new president and the casket bearing JFK arrived at Andrews Air Force Base in suburban Maryland.

“The raw tapes never resurfaced after 1965-66, and the very existence of the first Air Force One assassination tape [found among Clifton’s papers] was forgotten,” said the Raab Collection. “Over the years all the efforts to find the raw tapes or any other original version proved fruitless. They are no longer with the White House Communications Agency, where they were created.”

The Raab Collection is selling the original copy of the reel-to-reel recording for $500,000, along with other items found among Clifton’s estate, including an autographed photograph of President Kennedy.

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