On 22 November 1963, Dallas Morning News reporter Hugh Aynesworth inadvertently became an eyewitness to one of the biggest turning points in history. Tired of answering phones in an empty newsroom while his colleagues covered President Kennedy’s visit to the city, the 32-year-old science and aerospace writer decided to try to catch a glimpse of JFK for himself.
Having walked four blocks to the corner of Elm Street and Houston Street, he positioned himself amid the crowd of excited onlookers in front of the Texas School Book Depository. Minutes later, shots rang out. Within 48 hours, the reporter had witnessed the assassination of the president, the arrest of the assassin, and the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald by Texas nightclub owner Jack Ruby.
Hugh Aynesworth, a four-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and bureau chief of both Newsweek and The Washington Times, is today recognised as one of the most respected authorities on the Kennedy assassination. Here he describes how 22 November 1963 unfolded, and why he continues to dispel conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination.
Q: You are credited with being the only journalist to have witnessed the assassination. Can you run us through what happened that day?
A: I was 32 years old and I usually covered aerospace – at that time we were in a race with Russia to land on the Moon. I had a good job, but I was not assigned to the story of JFK’s visit to Dallas.
I was a little upset by that – everyone was going. At the last minute I got tired of answering phones in an empty newsroom, so I decided to go to see the president. I was only four blocks away.
The crowds were exuberant. There had been some concern about the reception the president would receive, but in fact the crowds were eight deep along Main Street.
I went to the corner of Elm and Houston Street, right in front of the Book Depository. It was so exciting. It had been raining that morning but at about 11am the sun came out, and it was a beautiful November day. The crowd was exited. It was something you read about but you never quite get to witness.
I stopped and was only there for a few minutes when the motorcade went by me. Seconds later I heard what I thought was a motorcycle backfiring, but it was the first shot.
There were three shots. The place went wild. People were throwing their children down, screaming, crying, throwing up. Nobody knew what to do. We did not know who was shooting, or how many shooters there were. I probably would have run, but I did not know where to run to.
My reporter instinct kicked in. I saw a man across from me pointing to the sixth floor window, saying “he’s up there”. The man had a hard hat under his arm. I ran to him to talk to him, but he was scared when he found out I was a reporter. In the end two policemen had to force me away.
Reporter Hugh Aynesworth. (Credit Bob Fallows/The Dallas Morning News)
He was the only eyewitness, and he described the shooter perfectly. That description probably cost Officer Tippit [the policeman shot by Lee Harvey Oswald who, according to four government investigations, assassinated Kennedy 45 minutes earlier] his life.
I then started interviewing other people. People were imagining a lot of things. But trained observers said there were three shots. But still, we did not know who did it.
Being a reporter, I knew the place you needed to be to find out what was happening was close to a police radio. I heard a voice describing how an officer had been shot. I thought: “If someone shoots the president and then a cop is shot, there could be some connection”. But I had no way to get to the scene.
I finally found a TV crew with a mobile cruiser and said, “have you heard what’s happened?” and they said “no”. So I told them, and they said, “well get in!”
We flew like the wind to get there. We got to the scene of the shooting and I interviewed between six and eight people, I can’t quite remember how many. I spoke to people who had seen Oswald shooting and running from the scene.
I got close to a police radio again, and heard that the suspect was in Texas Theatre. The reporter instinct is strong, especially when it’s chaos around you.
I arrived the theatre and a ticket lady said “he’s in there”. I ran in the front-right door, and straight away the lights went up. The movie was still running.
People started walking up the aisle, coming up towards me. I was about 15ft away from where Oswald was seated. An officer jumped on him, and soon there were three or four others. They got him out of there in a hurry. I never understood how many people got there so fast.
Q: And you witnessed the shooting of Oswald too – can you tell us what happened?
A: My wife was pregnant with our first child. We drove to the police department at City Hall. I got in because of my press credentials, but my wife didn’t. A few minutes later they brought Oswald out, and I heard one pop. We did not know it was Jack Ruby who had shot him for about an hour.
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Q: How did you feel at that time, having witnessed what you had?
A: I knew I was excited and a little scared. Nobody usually experiences all that drama.
We did not have mobile communications then, so I didn’t check in with my editor until about 2pm, when I found a pay phone.
I really did not know what the assassination of JFK was. We did not know anything until Oswald was grabbed.
Q: You’ve always maintained Oswald acted alone, but many people believe there was more to the assassination. Why do you think we continue to engage with these conspiracy theories?
A: Conspiracies are exciting, and we love a mystery. We don’t want to admit two nobodies – Oswald and Ruby – could change the course of world history.
I saw conspiracies building from day one. Everyone who got involved made some bad errors. They did not know what they were talking about, but they talked anyway.
The District Attorney, Henry Wade, was asked at a press conference how Oswald got from the Book Depository to the place he killed a cop. Wade said, “he got a cab”, and said a man named Deryl Click was the cab driver.
To this day, there has never been a cab driver in Dallas named Deryl Click. I later asked Wade why he said what he said, and he told me “it just popped out”.
And a deputy constable said the gun was Mauser. We know it was a Mannlicher, because we saw it, touched it, examined it. But a lot of people asked “why did they lie to us, why did they say it was a Mauser?”
Even John Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, was not informed, but he kept talking. And much of what he said was totally wrong.
That type of thing went on and on. Reporters were reporting things they had been told – but had not corroborated. It was stupidity, not lying. But that created distrust.
But there had never been anything like this in history. You had Pearl Harbour, but this was totally different. It was massive. And remember, you had a lingering distrust of government at that time. All these things were factors to the strangest story in my lifetime.
Q: In previous interviews you’ve said the assassination of JFK was a turning point in television history. Can you tell us more about this?
A: Until the assassination, print media was the way people got the news. But in 1963, for the first time there was more than a 30-minute news show. TV news teams covered the assassination exceedingly well.
Q: You said you were excited and scared the day Kennedy was assassinated. Have you gone back to the scene and retraced your steps?
A: I must have retraced my steps 100 times for documentaries and interviews and such. It’s an odd thing.
The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza does a really good job of presenting what happened. When I go in there, it’s so touching. I hear children saying, “oh my God, listen to this,” and I am touched.
I am surprised and pleased that there continues to be so much international interest. Kennedy provided that certain spark that caught on, no matter where in the world you lived.
Q: And you also covered the Jack Ruby trial – can you tell us about that? [Jack Ruby was tried for killing Oswald]
A: It was a bizarre trial. Ruby’s defence lawyer had never done a criminal trial before; he was a personal injury lawyer. He came up with a defence that Ruby had suffered psychomotor epilepsy when he shot Oswald. It was convoluted and ridiculous.
Q: You also secured the first-ever print interview with Marina Oswald, the wife of Lee Harvey – what was that like?
A: I knew when interviewing Marina for the first time I had to be very careful. She did not speak very good English at the time, and she was scared the government might send her back to Russia or charge her with complicity.
Marina and I had a “love-hate” relationship. But Oswald’s mother was a pure bitch. She was always begging for money, and she perpetuated the conspiracy theories. She was a nasty woman.
Q: When did you realise you had witnessed one of the biggest moments in history?
A: It has come to me when I am at the site of the assassination. But you know, I have covered a multitude of big stories. I have probably done more interviews of murderers than anyone else in the world.
The assassination is in my mind, but I have gone in other directions since. I’ve written two books on American serial killer Ted Bundy. I spent some 125 hours with him.
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Q: You’ve admitted you are disliked by conspiracy theorists. How do you deal with them?
A: Conspiracy theorists hate my guts. They accuse me of being a CIA agent or a FBI plant. It did not affect me until my kids were old enough to see it, and ask me “dad, what’s this about?”
Even just last week, at Texas Book Festival, I was accused of being a CIA agent. It’s continual. Conspiracy theorists have made a career out of it, plus is boosts their ego.
Some of these people weren’t really important enough for anyone to care about them, until suddenly they fostered a new conspiracy theory and became more special or important.
Hugh Aynesworth is the author of November 22, 1963: Witness to History, published by Brown Books Publishing Group. He is a four-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and was bureau chief of both Newsweek and the Washington Times.
This article was first published on History Extra in November 2013