EDWARDSVILLE – The date of Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, continues to live as a turning point in modern American history.
That was the date when John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was the sitting President of the United States, was assassinated in a motorcade while traveling to give a speech in Dallas while on a trip to Texas.
The assassination of Kennedy shocked the nation and the world and the immediate aftermath became known as The Four Dark Days.
For those of a certain age, the assassination and the surrounding events – which became known as The Four Dark Days – still lives on in memories of the non-stop television and radio coverage and the reactions and the national mourning that happened over that weekend.
For Secret Service agent Clint Hill, the events of that weekend have stayed with him; he was assigned to protect Kennedy's wife, Jacqueline, and he was right behind the car that the Kennedys and Texas Governor John Connally and his wife were in when the shots rang out in Dallas. He ran onto the back of the car as it began its' trip to Parkland Hospital in Dallas, to which both Kennedy and Connally were taken to immediately after they were shot.
In November 2013, a book Hill did with Lisa McCubben came out entitled “Five Days in November”, which was the topic of a multimedia presentation Hill and McCubben gave Tuesday night as part of the SIU-Edwardsville Arts and Issues series at Morris University Center's Meridian Ballroom before a large audience. Both McCubben and Hill spoke at the event, which was conducted in an interview-type format that covered Hill's experiences in the trip to Texas that fateful weekend.
Hill joined the Secret Service in 1958 and served under Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford before retiring in 1975.
Hill was born in January 1932 in North Dakota and was adopted by a family in Washburn, N.D., not long after; he wanted to be a history teacher and coach. “My intentions were to go to college and study history to become a history teacher and coach athletics,” Hill said. “It was just at the end of the Korean War when I graduated; I was taken into the Army and eventually, they assigned me to the Army Intelligence Center and try to be a special agent in counter-intelligence, so I did that for a number of years.
Following that stint, Hill eventually joined the Secret Service and worked under Eisenhower before Kennedy's election as president in November 1960; he was assigned to the detail that protected Mrs. Kennedy.
“I didn't want to be working with the First Lady,” Hill admitted. “I had friends who had worked with Mamie Eisenhower and Bess Truman; they went to fashion shows, canasta games – things of that nature. That was not what I had in mind and I was very upset. As it turned out, I had the best assignment in the Secret Service by far.”
Hill accompanied the Kennedys on their trips both domestically and internationally.
“Wherever they went, I was always there,” Hill said, “and when he was not with Mrs. Kennedy, he was always in touch with me; everything she needed and desired would be taken care of.
“It was interesting (accompanying Mrs. Kennedy when she would travel by herself); we would always travel commercial because the President would insist that no money be spent on her travels by the U.S. Government,” Hill said. “We would get $12 a day when we were on the road; we had to pay for our own items.”
Hill was with the Kennedys on some of their trips, including the famed speech in front of the Berlin Wall in June 1963; the presentation showed pictures of that speech and some of their travels together during their presidency. The couple were immensely popular and large crowds would gather to see them during their appearances.
Hill was with Mrs. Kennedy when the trip to Texas in November 1963; it started Nov. 21 with visits to San Antonio, Houston and Fort Worth, where they spent the night before a breakfast speech the next morning and the fateful trip to Love Field in Dallas; there were pictures shown of JFK Jr. prior to his father's departure to Andrews Air Force Base, where they left to go to Texas. “He wanted to go on Air Force One,” Hill said of JFK Jr., popularly known as John-John; a picture of him crying before his father's departure to Texas was part of the display. “He had to stay there in Washington while his father and mother were making this trip,” Hill recalled. “He started to cry; everyone tried to console him. He turned back and said, 'Agent Foster, will you take care of him John for me until I get back?'”
After that first hectic day in Texas came a breakfast speech in Fort Worth where Kennedy first made an impromptu speech to people who had gathered outside his hotel overnight to get a glimpse of him. Prior to the speech, he was shown a flyer that had been distributed in Dallas prior to his visit accusing Kennedy of treason. “We knew we were going to have some difficult times with that,” Hill recalled.
The presidential party then made a quick flight from Fort Worth to Dallas, landing at Love Field and going to the car that the Kennedys and Connallys would be traveling in to the Trade Mart in Dallas where Kennedy would make a speech to a luncheon hosted by several Dallas-area civic groups. The motorcade would soon travel in front of the Texas School Book Depository in Dealey Plaza; the turn was a very sharp one to the street in front of the depository that would put the motorcade to a freeway that would lead to the Trade Mart.
“We proceeded down Elm Street; I was in the car immediately behind the presidential car,” Hill said. “There was a running board on the left-hand side in the front position, and we were down about 150 feet. We had been looking at the School Book Depository and as we approached it, we saw some windows were open; we didn't see anything else. We scanned the areas with the grassy knoll was, some other areas and I was looking to my left at a grassy area.”
A picture was then shown that had Hill looking to his left when, as he described it, “I heard an explosive noise over my left shoulder; I didn't immediately recognize it as a gunshot, so I started to turn toward that noise, but I only got as far as the presidential vehicle because I saw the President's reaction. He threw his hands to his throat and started to fall to his left.
“He was right up against Gov. Connally and he was also wearing a back brace, so the only place he could go was to his left, towards Mrs. Kennedy. When I saw that, I recognized it was a gunshot; I started to run towards the presidential vehicle – I had to get between a motorcycle officer and the car; it was very noisy. There was another shot fired, but I never heard it; just as I approached the President, I not only heard a shot, I felt it because it had hit the president in the back of the head.
“At that time, his head had gone down to the left; his chin was touching his chest and his left cheek was on Mrs. Kennedy.”
Hill continued to describe the scene as the car that had Kennedy and Connally began to speed towards Parkland Hospital in Dallas, where he was brought into the emergency room, where attempts to save his life proved futile; there were clips of the CBS bulletins from Dallas that were read by Walter Cronkite and the clip of the flash that Kennedy had been pronounced dead.
Hill went on to describe the aftermath of the assassination and the hours afterwards, including the trip back to Washington and the preparations for the state funeral of Kennedy on Monday, Nov. 25, 1963, including the casket laying in state at the Capitol building Sunday, Nov. 24, 1963, and the subsequent shooting of Oswald by Jack Ruby as the casket was being taken from the East Room of the White House to the Capitol Rotunda where thousands of visitors paid their respects to Kennedy that day and night.
“Mrs. Kennedy had intended to walk from the Capitol to (St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington, where the funeral was held) behind the caisson (that carried Kennedy's casket) up Pennsylvania Avenue; we decided she would walk from the White House to St. Matthew's. Every one of the visiting heads of state also walked.”
“He didn't talk about his for nearly 50 years to anyone,” McCubben said. “Not to other agents, not to his family, not to doctors; he spoke to the Warren Commission (that investigated the assassination) briefly, but there was no counseling, no therapy until he started talking about it and writing books when he began to heal.”
Hill also responded to written questions from the audience about his thoughts on what happened, then joined McCubben in signing books about his experiences that weekend.
The Arts and Issues series continues at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 19 when astronaut Guy Bluford, who was the first African-American in space on board Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983, gives a talk about the future of the American space program and the International Space Station. For more information, visit www.artsandissues.com
Feeney, 56, is a native of Granite City and graduated from Granite City South in 1978. He was a part-time writer for the old Granite City Journal from 1979-84 before attending Eastern Illinois University in Charleston,
from which he earned his BA in journalism in 1988. He has worked for newspapers in Sikeston, Mo., Rocky Mount, N.C., Seneca, S.C. and in Charleston-Mattoon. He also worked for the old St. Clair County Suburban