Former Secret Service agent gives personal account of Kennedy assassination
By Allen Rich
Nov 22, 2011
Anyone who thinks history is boring never had a chance to listen to Mike Howard.
So you think you've heard all the JFK assassination conspiracy theories, huh? Was it the Cubans, the Russians, J. Edgar Hoover, the military-industrial complex, the mafia or one lone gunman that hated Kennedy?
Would you believe there is a possibility it was none of the above?
Those fortunate enough to attend the North Texas History Center lecture August 21 got a chance to hear what Mike Howard believes happened on that fateful day 46 years ago in Dallas and why.
Just who is Mike Howard, you ask?
Well, he isn't a movie producer and Mr. Howard is no aspiring author with a promising book deal he is pushing.
Howard is a native Texan and a retired Secret Service agent who was assigned to protect Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Ford and their families. His only incentive is to let people know what some of those closest to the events on November 22, 1963 believe happened and then offer his opinion why some key facts never came to light.
Would you believe some of the way this dark episode of American history played out was the fault of the media? OK, that part probably doesn't surprise anyone.
The lecture began with a brief history of the Secret Service, which, of course, included the four U.S. Presidents that have been assassinated -- Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley and John Kennedy.
Howard says there could actually be additional presidential assassinations and he gave the rather sudden demise of Warren G. Harding as the best example of a possible assassination that went undetected. The Harding Administration was suddenly beginning to unravel as the Teapot Dome bribery scandal surfaced -- noncompetitive leasing of public land to private oil companies for bribes -- which could have incited any number of people to eliminate the president for a variety of reasons. But there has always been hushed talk that the first lady may have had a hand in Harding's death.
Harding had a reputation as a womanizer and Howard hinted that this "hands-on" approach possibly infuriated Mrs. Harding to the point where she considered poisoning her husband. The actual cause of death is somewhat clouded by the fact Mrs. Harding refused permission for an autopsy. Naval physicians said it was a heart attack, although Surgeon General Dr. Charles Sawyer never officially signed off on that diagnosis, even though Sawyer was traveling with President Harding's entourage at the time of his death. Mrs. Harding would die only a few months later.
In large part because of the public turmoil created by the Teapot Dome scandal, three years passed before the Hardings received final interment in the Harding Memorial in Marion, Ohio. President Herbert Hoover, who had been a member of the Harding Cabinet, dedicated the Harding Memorial in 1931, approximately eight years after the 29th president's rather mysterious death.
Assassination attempts have been documented against another 13 presidents and there have been almost 100 assassination plots uncovered.
"Every president we have ever had has had assassination attempts," Howard says matter-of-factly.
Howard obviously relished telling how candidate Teddy Roosevelt reacted when a would-be assassin's bullet tore through Roosevelt's speech and glasses case before deflecting off a rib and exiting the abdomen on the other side, eventually coming to rest in Roosevelt's pocket.
Roosevelt bellowed out, "Quiet, I'm shot!" and then poked part of a handkerchief in the point of entry as well as the bullet's point of exit before demanding to give the speech as planned.
Howard said Roosevelt's opening line was, "It's going to take more than one bullet to keep me from telling the American people what they need to hear."
The audience in McKinney on Friday also got a brief description of how a pair of assassins tried to get into the Blair House where President Harry Truman was staying while the White House was being remodeled.
White House Policeman Leslie Coffelt took three bullets in the chest, yet, while dying, Coffelt managed to kill one of the would-be assassins with a shot to the head and the other attempted assassin was later wounded and apprehended.
In typical Truman fashion, the president heard the ruckus and stuck his head out the window, demanding to know the cause of all the noise.
Howard said Truman yelled, "Hey, what the hell's goin' on down there?" before a Secret Service agent convinced the president it would probably be better not to have his head sticking out of a window while gunfire was still going on.
"That was just Harry for you," Howard remarked.
The former Secret Service agent then fast-forwarded to the part of American history he personally witnessed as one of the specialized agents assigned to protect Jackie Kennedy and the Kennedy family.
At first, Howard was more than hesitant about working with Mrs. Kennedy.
"Now, how's this gonna work?" he asked. "She speaks Bostonian and I speak Texican."
The answer came from Secret Service agent Clint Hill.
"You know who Clint Hill is, don't you?" Howard asked the crowd.
No one had a clue.
"You remember the agent who jumped onto the back of the president's car when Kennedy was shot?" Howard asked again.
Suddenly everyone knew Clint Hill.
The image of a Secret Service agent leaping onto the back of Kennedy's car as the driver accelerated and sped off to Parkland Hospital replayed in the mind of every audience member old enough to remember November 1963. Howard's second question had been a verbal punch in the stomach.
So, why had Howard been selected as one of the agents to protect Mrs. Kennedy?
"You remember that questionnaire you filled out?" agent Clint Hill queried Howard when Howard arrived in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts to meet the Kennedy family.
Howard slowly recalled a long, extremely detailed questionnaire that listed his personal strengths and assets.
"You said you were an expert horseman," Hill explained. "The first lady enjoys spending time on horseback and we need an expert horseman."
As a kid growing up, Howard had made a little money breaking horses -- a buck and a quarter apiece. When the question came up on the Secret Service form, Howard figured that being able to ride almost anything on four legs made him an expert horseman.
The Pakistani President and Jackie Kennedy admire Sardar.
But working with surly mustangs in a Texas corral was a long way from learning to ride an English saddle and keep up with Jackie on Sardar, a beautiful steed of almost mythical status that was a gift from Pakistani President Ayub Khan.
Howard had seen plenty of horses, but nothing, before or after, that ever compared to the first lady sailing along on Sardar.
"She looked like she was flying," the Secret Service agent said quietly as he thought back on the days he escorted Jackie Kennedy on spirited jaunts.
In a hushed tone that a real horseman only uses when he has met his match in the saddle, Howard adds, "She could ride. And that horse was as close to Pegasus (the winged horse sired by Poseidon in Greek mythology) as you could ever get."
Howard then told about JFK's final days.
"The crowds were tremendous here in Texas," Howard said of the president's arrival. "People were lining the streets even though a soft rain was falling. President Kennedy made them roll down the windows in the motorcade even though everyone inside was getting wet. He wanted to see the people he was waving to. And people were bending over for a glimpse inside as the car passed by."
It was 1:15 a.m. on November 23, 1963 when the president and first lady finally retired to their suite in the Texas Hotel (Now the Hilton) in Fort Worth, their final night together. That meant Secret Service agents such as Howard got less than an hour's sleep that night because more agents were arriving overnight and everyone had to be back up at 4:00 a.m. to get ready for a $500-a-plate Democratic Party breakfast. The stories of Secret Service agents partying late at night at the Press Club were just silly rumors, Howard explained, because those were agents that arrived in Fort Worth around 2:00 a.m. and grabbed a quick sandwich at the Press Club before hitting the sack for a precious little shut-eye.
Secret Service agent Mike Howard is in the center of this photo facing forward and surrounded by President John Kennedy, Texas Governor John Connally and Mrs. Kennedy.
The breakfast crowd arrived early and the room was packed when President Kennedy prepared to begin his speech. The monitor in Howard's ear came on and he was ordered to bring down the first lady -- the president wanted her there beside him.
Howard raced up to Mrs. Kennedy's room and Clint Hill was guarding the door.
"You'll need to tell Mrs. Kennedy the president wants her downstairs now," Howard told Hill.
"No, no," Hill answered. "They sent you up here...you go tell her."
As Howard paused to consider his next move, the door opened and out stepped the beautiful first lady. She was impeccably dressed, wearing a stunning pink dress and smiling as though she had been resting for a week in Hyannis Port. Howard escorted Mrs. Kennedy to the president's side.
"When we walked into that room," Howard said with a little awe still in his voice from the memory almost half a century old now, "you'd have thought Elvis walked in! And the women were the worst. Women stood on chairs, women stood on tables...they had paid $500 and they were gonna see the first lady."
As the applause went on and on, Mrs. Kennedy sat there smiling.
"For five minutes," Howard recalled, "the only person in the room sitting was Mrs. Kennedy."
After the breakfast speech, Kennedy considered repeating the same speech outside for all the people who hadn't been able to get inside the hotel. His press secretary thought it was a splendid idea, so President Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon Johnson, Texas Governor John Connally and Senator Ralph Yarborough went outside so the president could give his speech again.
(l-r) Senator Ralph Yarborough, Governor John Connally, President John Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson.
All this time, everyone was halfway joking about who was brave enough to let Senator Yarborough ride with them once they got over to Dallas. As the only U.S. Senator from the South to have voted in favor of every civil rights bill since 1957 and as the outspoken leader of what was then the liberal wing of the Texas Democratic Party, Yarborough wasn't exactly popular in ever-so-conservative Dallas.
Yarborough had authored the Endangered Species Act and would be known as Texas' greatest conservationist because of his legislation that protected Padre Island, the Guadalupe Mountains and The Big Thicket, but Howard admitted the Secret Service was concerned about being able to protect Yarborough on this very visible occasion. One of the last of the New Deal Democrats, Yarborough would eventually be instrumental in helping pass much of LBJ's Great Society legislation such as Medicare and it was the Vice President that asked Yarborough to ride with him and Lady Bird Johnson through Dallas.
Everyone was fully aware this would be a dangerous dance through Big D. As it turned out, they were right.
The politicians were taken to Carswell Air Force Base for the short flight to Love Field, with Air Force Two taking off first and then Air Force One.
Once the hotel rooms were vacated, Secret Service agents were sent in to "sweep" the premises -- two agents would enter each room and start with wide circular searches that slowly narrowed until the agents were in the middle of the room. This practice ensures that nothing is left behind. Howard and another agent were conducting a room sweep went the TV announced that shots had been fired in Dallas. Howard remembers racing out of the hotel and telling the law enforcement officer posted at the hotel entrance that he needed the officer’s car to get to Dallas. The fellow Howard was talking to was Tarrant County Sheriff Lon Evans, the man that would go on to have the longest tenure of any sheriff in Tarrant County history (1961-1985). Sheriff Evans had been an All-Southwest Conference guard for TCU and would later be named All-Pro in 1936-37 with the Green Bay Packers.
"I though I was gonna do the driving," Howard said, "but since I weighed about 170 and he weighed in at about 270, I let him drive."
Howard couldn't have picked a better man or better car to get to Dallas. Legend had it Sheriff Evans drove the fastest car in Texas and Mike Howard remembers sliding down a bit in the seat and looking over at the speedometer as the car sped down the turnpike between Fort Worth and Dallas. The speedometer needle was pegged at 140mph.
Physicians were still working on President Kennedy when Howard ran into the emergency room at Parkland, although it was obvious the president was gone.
"Mrs. Kennedy came in and leaned against the wall," Howard said quietly. "That beautiful pink dress was now spattered with blood. She said, 'I want to take him home.' "
Hospital officials explained that would technically be illegal because the autopsy should immediately be performed at the hospital where a president is declared dead.
A Secret Service agent adjusted his coat so the M16 rifle at his side was now visible and he repeated the first lady's words: "We're taking him home."
"Look, he was the president and Mrs. Kennedy wanted to take him home," Howard told the audience in McKinney. "What would you have done?"
So, who does retired Secret Service agent Mike Howard believe actually fired the shots?
All four assassinations of U.S. presidents were conducted by someone who could be considered deranged, Howard remarked.
"This fellow had an ax to grind with one person in the presidential motorcade," Howard says of the culprit behind the Kennedy assassination.
But what if that one person wasn't John Kennedy?
Howard is a firm believer that Lee Harvey Oswald fired the lethal shots from a window at the Dallas Schoolbook Depository where Oswald worked in Dealy Plaza.
Howard also claims to have seen evidence that Oswald had written in a journal that he planned to kill four people. One of those four people took a bullet that day. That man was John Connally.
Lee Harvey Oswald had a long history of mental instability. Oswald had been a U.S. Marine, but got a hardship discharge under the false pretenses that he was needed at home to take care of his sick mother. Oswald taught himself to speak a little Russian and he managed to secure a student visa. He arrived in Russia in 1959 and renounced his U.S. citizenship. After learning of this, the U.S. Navy changed Oswald's discharge from hardship/honorable to undesirable, meaning mentally unfit for military service.
Oswald soon grew tired of life and Russia and brought his new bride, Marina, back to the DFW area in 1962. He was infuriated that the U.S. Navy had declared him mentally unfit and he even wrote to the Secretary of the Navy to see if there was a possibility of removing this permanent blight from his record. The Secretary of the Navy denied the request. History buffs will remember that the Secretary of the Navy at that time was John Connally.
Mike Howard says the Secret Service examined Oswald's journal and in it Oswald threatened to kill four people: John Connally, an unspecified Vice President, an FBI agent whom Oswald felt was harassing Marina and retired General Edwin Walker.
An attempt was made on Walker's life slightly more than seven months before the Kennedy assassination.
"The IRS saved Walker's life," Howard commented, tongue-in-cheek.
Oswald had ordered an Italian rifle and placed Walker under surveillance. But, as fate would have it, just as Oswald apparently pulled the trigger, Walker dropped the pencil he was using to figure his taxes and the bullet missed. Oswald didn’t get a second chance.
“Walker stayed down,” Howard explained. “He knew what a rifle sounded like.”
Now, Walker was an extremely controversial figure in his own right and no one knew who had taken the shot. But a month after the Kennedy assassination, tests indicated that the bullet fired at Walker was very likely the same ammunition used to kill President Kennedy and seriously wound John Connally, who had left his appointment as Secretary of the Navy when elected governor of Texas in 1963.
So, the crowd in McKinney asked, why was this information about Oswald's hit list that supposedly threatened Connally and the FBI agent never made public during the Warren Commission that was established to thoroughly investigate the Kennedy assassination?
Because those two pages from Oswald's journal came up missing, Howard replied. Never one to shy away from expressing his opinion, Howard told why he thinks that information disappeared.
J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, didn't want information about one of his agents scrutinized, Howard surmises.
And LBJ was facing the daunting task of replacing an extremely popular president after the assassination. Even though Connally's decision not to revoke Oswald's undesirable military discharge seems very justifiable, perhaps the last thing Johnson's staff wanted was for the nation to blame this deadly episode on LBJ's protégé, John Connally.
Howard said he knows that information did exist at one time, though.
Howard also told how he studied Marina Oswald's facial expressions as Lee Harvey Oswald talked to her in Russian after his arrest. Howard thinks he saw a wife recoil at the fact her husband had just admitted assassinating a sitting U.S. president.
The audience also wanted to know why Kennedy's head snapped backwards after the second shot.
Maybe Newton's third law explains this phenomenon best - every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
When a bullet strikes an object with mass, initial momentum is in the direction the bullet is traveling. But even more energy is transferred backward upon exit because the exit is usually more explosive and part of the mass is also expelled along with the bullet.
Howard said experiments conducted by the Secret Service immediately following the Kennedy assassination soon helped agents understand the physics behind what they had witnessed.
Howard had another tidbit of information most people attending the North Texas History Center lecture had never heard. An autopsy of Oswald turned up a tumor just above his right ear which had developed as the result of a childhood injury. Howard speculated the tumor could have resulted in the irrational behavior Oswald exhibited for the remainder of his life.
And speaking of irrational behavior, Howard said Oswald's mother, Marguerite, demanded that her son was deserving of a burial in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.
"We came as close as we could," Howard remarked. "We buried him close to Arlington, Texas in Fort Worth's Shannon Rose Hill Memorial Park."
So why does Howard think the media should shoulder some blame for the abrupt way the Oswald saga ended?
It was the media that convinced Dallas Police to parade Oswald by the TV cameras "so we can show him to the nation," says Howard. Of course, Jack Ruby took that opportunity to shoot and kill Oswald, in effect denying the American public of a very deliberate and heavily documented trial, a trial that could have given the nation a sense of closure.
Of course, any Secret Service agent that ever guarded the Kennedy family is always asked is he ever met Marilyn Monroe.
Howard says certainly...at a pool party.
But that meeting came later when Howard was assigned to protect Lynda Bird Johnson. Miss Johnson happened to be dating a fellow by the name of George Hamilton and there was a pool party on the West Coast. Marilyn Monroe was there. Everyone was watching Elvis Presley's movie Acapulco.
"She was wearing a swim suit," Howard said, "and that's as far as I'm going with that."
This dinner lecture series in the Pantry Restaurant in downtown McKinney continues through October and tickets for each event, which benefits the North Texas History Center, are $25 for adults ($20 for members) and $15 for children.
The first two speakers in this remarkable series have been Texas State Historian Dr. Light Cummins and retired Secret Service agent Mike Howard.
North Texas History Center Executive Director Vicki Day and her staff have delivered riveting, back-to-back lectures.
Purchase tickets in person at NTHC, via telephone at (972) 542-9457, or in the online gift shop at www.northtexashistorycenter.org.
A photo Mrs. Kennedy sent to Mike Howard, one of the Secret Service agents assigned to protect the Kennedy family.
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