Friday, June 18, 2010

JFK's death still haunts Secret Service agent

Virginia Beach resident Winston Lawson will reunite today with fellow agents in Dallas.

VIRGINIA BEACH -- Winston Lawson remembers the shots as clearly as if it was yesterday.

"I heard bang (pause) bang-bang," he said, slapping his knee for emphasis.

Lawson was riding in the front seat of an unmarked Dallas police car traveling just in front of a dark blue Lincoln convertible carrying President John F. Kennedy, first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, Texas Gov. John Connally and his wife. It was 12:30 p.m. on Nov. 22, 1963.

An assassin's bullets mortally wounded President Kennedy and severely injured Connally.

For most Americans alive at the time, it was a national tragedy so shocking that they can remember exactly where they were when they heard of Kennedy's death.

For Lawson, it was more personal. He was the Secret Service agent who had planned security for the Dallas trip.

Lawson, now 81 and living in Virginia Beach, is going back to Dallas today for a reunion with several Secret Service colleagues.

An Army intelligence specialist, he joined the Secret Service in 1959, working in its Syracuse, N.Y., office until being transferred to Washington in March 1961 -- two months after Kennedy was sworn in as president.

As part of a 34-man White House detail that handled security, he often worked long hours, accompanying JFK on his many weekends at the family's compound in Cape Cod and other trips. By the fall of 1963, Lawson was experienced at planning presidential security, having organized trips both in the United States and abroad.

On Nov. 4, Lawson was told that he would be responsible for the one-day Dallas stopover during Kennedy's trip that month to Texas. Kennedy wanted to boost his political standing in Texas, home of Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson.

The Dallas visit was to include a slow-moving 45-minute motorcade through suburbia and part of downtown, followed by a luncheon speech and a four-minute trip back to the airport.

Ten days before Kennedy arrived, Lawson and other agents were in Dallas arranging security and evaluating potential hazards.

Early on Nov. 22, the weather was drizzly and as agents awaited the president's plane at Love Field, they considered placing a clear plastic cover, or bubble, over the limousine. A Kennedy aide told the Secret Service to leave it off the White House staff wanted as many people as possible to see the president without obstruction.

As the motorcade eased its way through Dallas, crowds lined the route, which had been published in the local newspaper. Lawson, along with another agent and the Dallas police chief and sheriff, were a few car lengths ahead of the presidential limousine.

He kept looking back at the limo and the crowd, then glancing ahead to overpasses, railroads and other hazards, trading observations with the police chief as they went.

Agent Roy Hellerman, riding in the front seat of Kennedy's car, later said he looked at the Texas School Book Depository Building but saw nothing suspicious. Lawson was commenting to his colleague that it was a long trip when he heard the three bangs. He knew immediately what they were.

"The president was hit. Go to the hospital," a voice on his radio ordered.

They raced to Parkland Memorial Hospital just ahead of the limousine. Lawson retrieved a gurney and after Connally was removed from the car, he helped other agents take out Kennedy. The first lady had been cradling her husband on her lap.

The president's skin was gray and he didn't move as they placed him on the gurney. Lawson saw a huge hole in the back of his head.

"He didn't look like he was going to make it," Lawson said.

As the president was wheeled into the emergency room, Lawson followed. The agent stood at the president's head as emergency personnel tried to save him. But the damage was so severe, they didn't work for long.

At 1 p.m., the president was declared dead.

As the world outside the ER exploded with the news and, within two hours, the capture of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, Lawson stayed with Kennedy.

He and other agents transported the president's body back to Love Field and loaded the casket onto Air Force One for the return to Washington. On board was the new president, Johnson, and Jacqueline Kennedy.

Lawson returned home the next day to his family in Falls Church. The day after, he watched on live television as Oswald was shot to death outside the Dallas jail by Jack Ruby.

And the day after that, he stood guard down a slope from Kennedy's grave at Arlington National Cemetery.

In the weeks the followed, he wrote detailed memos and spent hours testifying before the Warren Commission. He also returned to work.

He continued to do presidential advance work, handling security arrangements for President Johnson, Vice President Hubert Humphrey and, in the Nixon administration, Vice President Spiro Agnew.

The personal support he received from other agents helped him deal with the aftermath of the assassination, he said. "Just their attitude and the way they talked to me."

He grimaces when asked how much credence he gives conspiracy theories that the Kennedy assassination involved multiple shooters.

"None," he said. "There's no shots from in front, kitty corner or from the side or anything like that."

He has considered his work in Dallas many times.

"The biggest 'what ifs' were 'What if the rain hadn't stopped and the bubble had been on the car?' " he said. "Because everybody thought it was bulletproof, maybe he wouldn't have tried it."

Although the bubble wasn't bulletproof, it might have distorted the shooter's view or the metal frame might have deflected a shot, Lawson said.

Today, Lawson will travel with his wife back to the book depository building -- now a museum -- where he and a handful of other agents will tell their stories. The event will be taped as part of a Discovery Channel show to air in November.

It will be a strenuous trip for him. He has been living at Lake Taylor Transitional Care Hospital since February 2008 after suffering a stroke that paralyzed the left side of his body.

Lawson said he's made peace with what happened in Dallas. In the end, he ascribes to a feeling that there's no way to completely protect someone.

"I thought about it but I was pretty confident that I had done everything I could do," he said.

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