The "Air Force One" Audiotapes
One of the most intriguing, and frustrating, records of the assassination are the heavily edited "Air Force One" audiotapes available from the LBJ Presidential Library in Texas. Colleague Joan Zimmerman, who was as curious about the autopsy and the role of the Secret Service the night of the autopsy as I was, spent two whole days with me at the Archives II facility in College Park, Maryland—October 10-11, 1995—studying the tapes. The result was my first ARRB "research memo," completed on October 17, 1995. I am referencing it now as I write up this brief section.
The tapes were recorded by the White House Communications Agency (WHCA), which is responsible for coordinating all Presidential communications. The total length of the edited conversations on the three audiocassettes is approximately 2 hours; a disclaimer at the beginning says the tapes are "edited and condensed," but does not indicate who did the editing or how much material was deleted.
The tapes are recordings of in-flight conversations that occurred on November 22, 1963 between SAM 26000 (Air Force One), SAM 86972 (the aircraft carrying several Cabinet officials and Press Secretary Pierre Salinger from Hawaii to Japan when JFK was assassinated), Andrews AFB, "Liberty" (the "Fish Bowl," run by Collins Radio in Cedar Rapids, Iowa—the outfit patching all of the radio calls back and forth between the different parties), and "Crown" (the White House Situation Room in the West Wing of the White House).
The purpose of the 2-day visit to the Archives was to determine whether there were any significant reasons to pursue the unedited, full length version of the recordings. There were; we did; and neither the Air Force nor the White House Communications Agency exhibited any interest or cooperation whatsoever. The ARRB's inability to locate the unedited recordings was my second biggest1099
disappointment while working there. (My biggest disappointment, of course, was not taking the depositions of the Dallas doctors in the presence of the autopsy photographs.) Four frequencies were identified on the tape as being in use that night, and a memo written by USAF Master Sergeant John C. Trimble (the radio operator aboard Air Force One on 11/22/63) stated that he "...had three phone patches going simultaneously for much of the time..." during the flight back to Andrews AFB from Love Field. Since the flight time from "wheels up" to "on the blocks" at the final destination was 2 hrs. 17 min., it is possible that the total duration of recorded conversation, on all four channels, was anywhere from seven to nine hours long. One of the problems when listening to the tapes is that the listener does not know which "patch" he is listening to at any one time, or whether or not the various conversations on the edited tapes are recorded in the right time sequence in relation to each other (since there were three circuits in use almost continuously).
Some of the 'investigative leads' I noted in my memo of October 17, 1995 are summarized below:
• Secret Service Agent Roy Kellerman, and later U.S. Army General Ted Clifton (Military Aide to President Kennedy) make it clear on the radio that their desire is for an ambulance and a limousine to take President Kennedy's body to Walter Reed (not Bethesda) for autopsy "...under guard...," as specified by General Clifton.
• Gerald Behn, Head of the Secret Service White House Detail (speaking from "Crown"), counters that a helicopter has been arranged to take the President's body to the National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda for autopsy, and that all other personnel will be choppered to the south grounds of the White House.
• Ultimately, Dr. Burkley (onboard Air Force One) sides with Gerald Behn (at the White House) in support of a Bethesda autopsy, and persuades General Heaton (the Surgeon General of the Army, in Washington) to cancel arrangements for a Walter Reed autopsy.
• After Bethesda has been selected as the autopsy site, the mode of transportation to Bethesda is discussed. Burkley and Clifton insist that JFK's body be transported by ambulance (vice helicopter), even though JFK's Naval aide, CAPT Shepard, has assured Behn that it would be no problem for a helicopter to carry the heavy casket.
• Unaccountably, even though ambulance transport had been selected for JFK's body, Gerald Behn directs Kellerman on the radio: "You accompany the body aboard the helicopter." [Question: Was Behn aware that the bronze Dallas casket was empty and that JFK's body was in the forward luggage compartment?]
• General Clifton insists upon, and then repeats, in great detail, orders for the following ground support at Andrews AFB upon arrival: a forklift and platform at the left rear of the aircraft for the casket; a personnel ramp at the left front of the aircraft for the debarkation of President Johnson and the other passengers; and another personnel ramp at the right front of the airplane (the dark, unlit side where there is a galley door)for the departure of Jacqueline Kennedy. [Mrs. Kennedy did not use the forward starboard galley door to leave the aircraft in secret; she insisted on staying with the Dallas casket, which threw a monkey wrench in the conspirators' likely plans to reunite JFK's body with the Dallas casket at Walter Reed hospital prior to taking the bronze coffin to Bethesda.]
•At one point Roy Kellerman says to Gerald Behn: "I'm sure the Volunteer boys will go over his car and so forth." ("Volunteer" was the WHCA code word used for LBJ.) Late in the flight, as Air Force One nears Andrews, someone is heard discussing the status of the flight carrying the two vehicles—the Presidential limousine and the Queen Mary—back to Washington. [The "Volunteer boys" is surely a reference to Secret Service agents assigned to LBJ; I wonder whether Kellerman was discussingan impending search of the Presidential limousine, in an attempt to remove any of the 'wrong' kind of evidence—such as evidence of shots from the front striking the automobile?]
• Background chatter can be heard at one point, discussing a "limousine and ambulance at Andrews," and at another juncture, as part of this same background chatter, the phrase "black Cadillac" can be heard. [A hearse is a black Cadillac.]
• During the flight, "SAM Command Post" (undefined) calls Air Force One and a Colonel 'Arnbuck' (phonetic spelling) expresses a concern from the Chief of Staff (almost certainly Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay) as to whether President Johnson and Mr. Kennedy's body are onboard the aircraft.
• During the flight, several players make plans to separate Mrs. Kennedy from JFK's body [i.e., the Dallas casket] after landing. General Clifton is the person who asked for a personnel ramp after landing at the forward starboard galley door for Mrs. Kennedy's debarkation. Gerald Behn attempts on two occasions to separateall passengers aboard Air Force One from JFK's body after landing (desiring to send 'the body' to Bethesda via helicopter, and all other passengers to the south grounds of the White House via helicopter also). [Since we now know—thanks to the Boyajian document—that the Dallas casket had to be empty when it was offloaded from Air Force One, the repeated interest in separating JBK from the Dallas casket indicates an intention to reunite the body with the casket prior to the autopsy.]
• Immediately after Behn ordered Kellerman to "...accompany the body aboard the helicopter," the following exchange took place:
Kellerman: I was unable to get ahold of Payne and Bob Burke (names are phonetic approximations).
Kellerman or Behn: ...Payne and Burke at the ranch...Unidentified: ...Payne and Burke were not notified...
• Finally, "Wing" (Kennedy's Air Force aide, General Godfrey McHugh) asks "Crown"(the White House situation room) to contact "Slugger" (USAF Captain Cecil Stoughton), and to direct him to meet the aircraft as soon as possible on the ground at Andrews. A reason is not given, but the urgency and importance of the matter to General McHugh is quite clear because of his tone of voice. "Crown" later informs "Wing" that "Slugger" remained on the ground in Dallas. [Cecil Stoughton took the now infamous photo of Congressman Al Thomas of Houston smiling and winking at LBJ immediately after Johnson had been sworn in as President onboard Air Force One, just prior to takeoff from Love Field. Could LBJ have been concerned about the possibility of the 'wink' photo getting published? He need not have worried;
Cecil Stoughton had better discretion than that. However, he was aware of the political significance of the photograph. When David Lifton called him to ask him about the photo just prior to its publication inBest Evidence, Stoughton expressed surprise and alarm, and asked Lifton how he knew about it. Apparently, the LBJ Library had printed it for Lifton by mistake; Stoughton clearly thought it had been suppressed. Author Richard Trask writes (on page 47 of Pictures of the Pain) that the negative of the 'wink photo' has now disappeared from the LBJ Library.]
Edited by William Kelly, 26 February 2010 - 06:50 AM.