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Kennedy's casket

by Bruno Van de Casteele

November 17, 2013

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Donate Coming Friday, November 22th, will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy, by the "lone gunman" Lee Harvey Oswald. I put that in quotes, because with the remembrance of the event, there is also a spike in the various conspiracy theories. That is not the subject of my post, please check your local internet feed for a ton of (dis)information.

However there was one aspect that popped up that I didn't hear about earlier. Hornberger, from the libertarian think-tank Future of Freedom Foundation, discusses and defends it uncritically here. Kennedy was put in a heavy, bronze casket in Dallas, and was then taken aboard Air Force One to Washington. There the casket was transferred from the airport to Bethesda Naval Centre for an official autopsy. However, Hornberger relates the "evidence" that another coffin was brought in earlier, containing the real mortal remains of the president.
  • A report from a Marine Sergeant, part of the security detail there, that the coffin was brought in at 1835 (6.35 pm), as filed in a report 4 days later. (document here)

  • A sailor part of a security detail at the entrance (same group?), stating that a simple, gray coffin was brought in at about the same time, and then witnessing the entrance of the "real" coffin at around 8 pm (the ambulance carrying the coffin did arrive around 7pm). This sailor was interviewed in 1997 (!), documented here (only a transcript, no recording).

  • Another sailor, part of that team, who reportedly has recounted the same story "for years and years", but no trace before the publication of "Best Evidence" in 1992.

  • The supervisor from the funeral home, indicating on the "First Call Sheet" that the body was removed from a metal casket. It seems that the person writing this down didn't witness it, but wrote it down based on "someone else" indication. Furthermore, first testimony from this supervisor appeared only in 1977. (documented here)

  • A couple of other military persons indicating seeing a different casket or a body bag in which the president was in (he wasn't in Dallas), but earliest evidences have only been purportedly reported in 1979.

So, case closed? Actually no. There is no actual "case", just a list of ... dum dum dum ... anomalies and inconsistencies that point to something else. Whatever that would be. But that is not my main grief against the above reporting by Hornberger.

First of all, he (and the authors he quotes) make what I called elsewhere the "military fallacy". Quite some text is devoted to explain their grade, role and exemplary career afterwards. But that doesn't mean a thing. I deeply respect military personnel (my father was a Colonel in the army), but they are not immune to mistakes, bad memory and - why not - lying.

Furthermore, Hornberger makes a critical mistake. He mentions that at least 8 military members quote the 6.35 pm time. However, from the text he quotes (and he references the source) about the only exact time is mentioned by the first witness, in an official report (who doesn't mention the grey coffin). The others have more vague "after six thirty" and might be less precise on the subjective feeling of passage of time.

But let's tackle the two first items, presumably according to Hornberger the strongest cases. The first one is probably the strongest one, as it is recorded as an official report (and not in an interview years after the fact by an author with an agenda). It states only the time, and there is, as said, no detail or peculiarity about the coffin that entered the morgue. 1835 might very well be a mistyped 1855. This is actually the time that the ambulance with the real coffin arrived (but not taken into the morgue), so its possible it refers to that event.

The second case is a lot weirder. Recorded 34 years later, it doesn't mention any exact time (understandably), and a weird story about another casket being brought in somewhere after half past six, with the security detail in attention since they were ordered to do so via a phone call. What is missing from this "investigation" is a look into the records of the Bethesda Naval Hospital if no other body was brought in at that time. It's possible that this is another case, an ordinary person who received security detail by accident. The phone call recounted was vague enough that it could have been someone else.

It probably wasn't the case, but I want to give this witness the benefit of an honest mistake. A search through the records should at least be able to remove this possibility. The lack of such research by Hornberger or the quoted author shows more interest in "anomaly hunting" that actually proves nothing at all.

There is something else that makes the 1835 delivery impossible. Air Force One, with the casket of the president in it, landed at 6 pm. The newly sworn-in president Johnson left the airplane immediately, but the casket wasn't taken of the plane until the arrival of Robert Kennedy (a couple of minutes as he was already present). All this, by the way, happened in the presence of many television cameras, so no secret offloading could happen. And the casket has been, since Dallas, in the presence of either Jacqueline Kennedy, his personal secretary or various secret service agents.

But it takes, according to Google Maps, 38 minutes via the Beltway. However, that part of the Beltway was only opened in August 1964! The other routes take 59 minutes according to Google Earth. A high-priority convoy can shave some minutes of that, and that is exactly what happened, as the official convoy arrived at 6.55pm. But there is no way a convoy could have made it secretly to Bethesda at 6.35 pm. I cannot know what exactly this sailor thought he saw, but it wasn't a coffin with a president in it. I think it is simply mistake, coupled with some faulty memories. This is nothing special, just human.

In all, I do not think that something out of the ordinary happened. I cannot know for sure of course, but given the military fallacy, anomaly hunting and conflating the different stories into a pseudo-coherent report, I'm not convinced at all.


by Bruno Van de Casteele

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