Remarkably, 50 years after the assassination, seven of the surviving doctors who attended President John K. Kennedy at Parkland Hospital in Dallas were interviewed for a documentary, “JFK: What the Doctors Saw,” now streaming a decade later on Parliament +.
Several of those doctors – along with others who have since died – were among those I was scheduled to interview for the Baltimore Sun in 1976 when the House Select Committee on Assassinations was investigating the murders of Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. (More later on what became – or didn’t – of my attempt to interview those who tried to save JFK’s life 60 years ago on Nov. 22.)
As directed by Barbara Shearer, “What the Doctors Saw” is just that. There is no sidetracking – nothing about Lee Harvey Oswald except his claim to be a “patsy” in denying that he was the assassin, whether alone or with help. We don’t even hear a word about what we’ve all known for six decades – that Jack Ruby murdered Oswald just two days after JFK was shot dead.
What we do hear over and over, almost ad nauseam is that each doctor observed what they consistently and unanimously maintain was a dime-sized entry wound at the president’s throat, subsequently obscured by a tracheotomy in a futile attempt to resuscitate him. The massive wound they observed on the right at the back of his skull was unquestionably, to all of them, an exit wound. Any such bullet entering and exiting in that manner would have to have come from the front or slightly to the right of the president from his back seat in the fatal limousine. It could not possibly have been shot from behind – a sixth-floor window of the Texas School Book Depository where Oswald was working on the day of the assassination. Other shots causing a shallow wound in the president’s back and another that seriously wounded then-Texas Governor John Connally in the front seat of the limousine did come from that direction.
Most disturbing in the documentary are recollections by Dr. Robert McClellan and others that a dark-suited man they took to be a Secret Service agent approached Dr. Malcolm Perry, the lead surgeon of the Parkland team, in Trauma Room 1 after he announced the president’s death and described an entry wound to the throat. “You must never call that an entrance wound again if you know what’s good for you,” McClellan quoted the presumed member of JFK’s security detail.
More suspicious, if not downright conspiratorial, was the apparently botched presidential autopsy, as recalled by Jim Jenkins, the one surviving member of the naval team conducting it. Under Texas law, an autopsy resulting from a deadly crime must be conducted in the county of jurisdiction. But the Parkland doctors and investigators of the assassination say that the Secret Service muscled the president’s body into a vehicle bound for Love Field and a flight to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. The autopsy was performed at Bethesda Naval Hospital by two military physicians who were not pathologists and had virtually no experience performing autopsies.
While the documentary strongly suggests a government coverup that resulted in a rubber-stamp lone-assassin verdict by the Warren Commission on Sept. 24, 1964 – barely two months before the presidential election that resulted in President Lyndon Johnson’s first full term in office – there are arguably benign motives behind this rush to judgment. The Cuban Missile Crisis, resolved peacefully just more than a year before JFK’s assassination, involved a former member of the Marine Corps – Oswald – who defected to the Soviet Union and returned to the U.S. with no apparent action taken against him. Johnson is heard in a recorded conversation regarding the Warren report that it would help avert a third world war and save millions of lives.
We’ll never know, of course. And most likely, after 60 years, we’ll never know the whole truth about the JFK assassination.
But personally, I’m disappointed that the questions asked in this documentary were not asked before a half-century had passed. At least they were asked before all the Parkland doctors had passed on. The Sun was prepared to ask those questions of the same doctors – when, back in 1976, many of them were still working at Parkland. Based on my front-page story derived from House Select Assassinations Committee leaks and an interview with photographic expert witness Robert Grodin, Sun managing editor Paul Banker authorized my trip to Dallas with autopsy photographs turned over to the panel. My mission: Ask the doctors I had contacted – including one attending Connally – about what they saw when the president and the governor were brought to trauma rooms 1 and 2 on Nov. 22, 1963.
Accompanied by an attorney who would notarize their comments about the photographs, I boarded a flight to Houston from Baltimore-Washington International with a subsequent connection to Dallas. The flight, however, was delayed more than three hours after a fuel truck struck a wing of our TWA jetliner. Engineers from McDonnell Douglas were consulted about safety concerns. We arrived in Houston too late for flight connections to Dallas and had little chance of getting there by car rental before the early Saturday tee times for four of the doctors I was to interview.
In a 1975 TV interview with Geraldo Rivera, Grodin, and Dick Gregory introduced a home movie of the assassination, shot by Abraham Zapruder in shocking color. A year later, after being introduced by one of my sources, Grodin agreed to give me copies of JFK autopsy photos for the purpose of showing them to the Parkland doctors. In a minority report as part of the House probe, Grodin argued that the official autopsy photos were doctored to make the massive wound toward the back of Kennedy’s head – much of his brain was exposed with bits of it splattered on Jacqueline Kennedy’s pink suit – to resemble a nickel-sized entry wound.
The photos that the doctors called fakes in the Paramount + documentary appear to my eyes to be the same images I had in my possession 48 years ago. But, unbeknownst to me, my most conspiratorially minded source had made his own way to Dallas. Freaked out and suspecting some sort of foul play at BWI, he called my boss in the middle of the night, advising him to call the FBI and speculating that the CIA had targeted me. Though I had arranged interviews with Parkland doctors the following weekend, I was taken off the story. And the photocopies were returned. With nothing to show the doctors but grainy black-and-white Xeroxes, the reporter sent in my stead to Dallas came up empty.
So, that’s my excuse for never getting to ask the doctors what they saw. But what about the rest of the news media? Why didn’t anyone else step forward to ask the doctors what they saw on Nov. 22, 1963? I procured the photographs surreptitiously. But they’ve long since been published. Maybe it’s the mishandling of JFK assassination investigations that launched our national doubts about the official line fueling our current conspiracy-theory gullibility.
I have a novel on weird theories about JFK and 9/11. Unpublished – like my best shot in 1976 for a Pulitzer in investigative reporting. It’s called “Camelot and the Second Coming.” Tell me if you know a likely agent.
Steve Parks is a retired reporter, editor, and critic now living in Easton.