Chilling tape from Air Force One on day JFK shot

It's been nearly a half-century since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

But new information from that day in Dallas has just been released -- audiotape of conversations between Air Force One and Washington.

For the first time, the complete audio record of the flight back from Dallas to Washington is available to the public online, from the National Archives, for free.

It helps to fill in the record of that day of sorrow, confusion and fear.

"Gonna put Mrs. Rose Kennedy on the line now," one voice can be heard saying.

Lyndon Johnson, newly sworn-in as president of the United States, and his wife, Ladybird, attempted to console President Kennedy's mother.

"I wish to God," Lyndon Johnson said, "there was something that I could do. And I wanted to tell you that we are grieving with you."

"Thank you very much," Rose Kennedy responded. "Thank you very much. I know you loved Jack. And he loved you."

"Mrs. Kennedy," Ladybird said, "We just wanted to -- we feel like we've lost..."

"Thank you very much," Rose Kennedy repeated." Then, goodbyes all-around.

(For historical perspective on the tapes, watch the interview below with presidential historian Douglas Brinkley.)

Secretary of State Dean Rusk and other cabinet members were over the Pacific in an aircraft code-named Wayside. They had just turned back from a trip to Asia when the White House confirmed their worst fears.

"This is the (White House) Situation Room. Relay following to Wayside. We have report quoting that the president is dead, that he died about 35 minutes ago."

The full audio of transmissions from White House Communications Agency (which captured the tapes) that day includes 42 minutes edited out of the original public version. It's likely to peak the interest of conspiracy theorists who are already asking why this material was cut out of the original.

Then-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Curtis LeMay had been a frequent opponent of Kennedy's. His whereabouts on the day of the assassination has always been a mystery.

In the newly public audio, we learn that LeMay was airborne, even as JFK's body was being flown back to Washington. And an aide to LeMay tried urgently to reach his boss.

"General LeMay," the aide said, "is in a C 140. ... He's inbound. His code name is Grandson. And I wanna talk to him. ... If you can't work him now, it's gonna be too late, because he'll be on the ground in a half-hour."

Historian Robert Dallek suggests doubters will wonder if the aide's comments about not reaching LeMay within 30 minutes may be "too late" could have some sinister meaning. "I'd doubt these tapes will put the conspiracy theory to rest," he says. "They continue to believe it was a conspiracy and again, they just can't accept the proposition that a lone wolf, a single, and someone as dysfunctional as Lee Harvey Oswald, could have carried off this assassination of the president."

At the end of that fateful day, the body of the fallen president arrived in Washington -- and the new president made a promise to the nation.

"I will do my best," Johnson said, "That is all I can do. I ask for your help and God's."

The complete audio record of the flight back to Washington was lost for years until the estate of JFK's top military aide, Army Gen. Chester "Ted" Clifton Jr., sold his copy of the tapes to The Raab Collection, historical document dealers, which gave a copy of the audio to the National Archives.

To see Bill Plante's full report, click on the video in the player above.

  • Bill Plante

    Bill Plante is a CBS News Senior White House Correspondent

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