The JFK Series:
The Kennedy Casket Conspiracy, by Jacob G. Hornberger
The Shot That Killed Kennedy, by Jacob G. Hornberger
The Kennedy Autopsy, Part 1, by Jacob G. Hornberger
The Kennedy Autopsy, Part 2, by Jacob G. Hornberger
The Kennedy Autopsy, Part 3, by Jacob G. Hornberger
The Kennedy Autopsy, Part 4, by Jacob G. Hornberger
The Kennedy Autopsy, Part 5, by Jacob G. Hornberger
The Kennedy Autopsy, Part 6 by Jacob G. Hornberger
The Kennedy Autopsy, Part 7 by Jacob G. Hornberger
The Kennedy Autopsy, Part 8 by Jacob G. Hornberger
The Kennedy Autopsy, Part 9 by Jacob G. Hornberger
The Kennedy Autopsy, Part 10 by Jacob G. Hornberger
The Kennedy Autopsy, Part 11 by Jacob G. Hornberger
Three of the major things that distinguish military life from civilian life are: deference to authority, obedience to orders, and a penchant for secrecy. All three of those characteristics played an important role in the military autopsy of John F. Kennedy’s body.
Throughout their military careers, it is ingrained in soldiers — both enlisted men and officers — to defer to the authority of their superiors and obey their orders. Even when the orders seem to make no sense, soldiers know that their duty is to carry them out anyway, whether they understand their rationale or not.
Consider, for example, John Stringer, an enlisted man who was the official military photographer during the Kennedy autopsy. With the assistance of Floyd A. Riebe, another enlisted man, Stringer’s job was to photograph the wounds and any other parts of the body that the pathologists requested.
In November 1966, Stringer was ordered to appear at the National Archives to participate in an inventory of the photographs that had been taken during Kennedy’s autopsy. He noticed something odd — the inventory of photographs did not match the photographs that he had taken during the autopsy.
So what did he do? The following is his testimony in a deposition taken before the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB) in 1996, as recounted in volume 1 of Douglas P. Horne’s five-volume book on the Kennedy assassination, Inside the Assassination Records Review Board (volume 1, page 206). The questioner is Jeremy Gunn, general counsel for the ARRB.
Gunn: Do you see the phrase, next to the last sentence, of the document — and I’ll read it to you: “To my personal knowledge this is the total amount of film exposed on this occasion?” Do you see that?
Gunn: Is it your understanding that that statement is incorrect?
Stringer: Well, yes. If they say that there were only 16 sheets of film out of [sic] 11, I’d say that’s incorrect.
Gunn: When you signed this document, Exhibit 78, were you intending to either agree or disagree with the conclusion reached in the second to last — next to last sentence?
Stringer: I told him that I disagreed with him, but they said, “Sign it.”
Gunn: And who is “they.” Who said, “Sign it”?
Stringer: Captain Stover.
Gunn: Was Mr. Riebe in the room when you signed this?
Stringer: I don’t remember. His signature is on it, so I guess he was there. But I don’t remember.
(Capt. John Stover was the commanding officer of the Naval Medical School at Bethesda and was the superior officer of Commander James Humes, one of the three pathologists who conducted the autopsy on the president’s body.)
Later in the deposition, Stringer explained that the customary procedure in autopsy photography was to include an identification tag or a ruler in the photograph. Stringer explained that that procedure wasn’t being strictly adhered to in the Kennedy autopsy. In his testimony before the ARRB, he explained why he didn’t object to this violation of established procedure:
Gunn: Did it really take that much time to put a ruler into a photo?
Stringer: Well, they get it set up and all that. I mean, when they were doing it, they were in a hurry and said, “Let’s get it over with.”
Gunn: Did you object to that at all?
Stringer: You don’t object to things.
Gunn: Some people do.
Stringer: Yeah, they do. But they don’t last long.
With those answers, Stringer was emphasizing the deference-to-authority tradition in military culture. Those who make waves — who object to orders — who disclose wrongdoing — who go over people’s heads in the chain of command — don’t last in the military. Promotions slow up for soldiers who do those sorts of things. Over time, such soldiers are ground out of the system. They’re not considered team players. They can’t be trusted.
What were the discrepancies between the photographs taken by Stringer and the photographs in the 1966 inventory? There were several. Horne summarizes Stringer’s testimony (volume 1, page 182):
So John T. Stringer, Jr., under oath, told the ARRB that he had taken 5 different photographic views of the body which Jeremy [Gunn] and I knew were not in the official autopsy collection:
- The full body from above;
- The interior of the eviscerated chest, up near the neck, after removal of the lungs;
- The interior of the eviscerated body cavity near the adrenals;
- The body lying on its stomach; and
- “Openings” [plural] in the back, while the torso was propped upright as if sitting.
One of the fascinating aspects of the Kennedy autopsy was the high level of secrecy under which it was conducted. In fact, on the morning after the autopsy the people who had participated in it were ordered to never disclose anything they had witnessed during the autopsy, on pain of military court martial or criminal prosecution. They were also required to sign secrecy oaths in which they swore never to disclose what they had seen.
Stringer described the experience in his ARRB testimony (Horne, volume 1, page 169):
Gunn: Were you ever previously under any kind of order or restraint from being able to talk about the autopsy?
Stringer: Yes, I was.
Gunn: Can you explain, very briefly, what the nature of the order was or the circumstances that put you under the order?
Stringer: Well, I think it was the morning after the autopsy. We were gathered into the commanding officer’s office of the Naval Medical School, who through the fear of God and everyone and he had a paper that we all had to sign that we would not talk to anyone about what had happened on that particular night.
Gunn: Do you remember the name of the person who gave you the order?
Stringer: John Stover.
According to Horne, “It appears that each one of the enlisted men who received one of these letters was warned orally the day after the autopsy, and then was required to sign a written warning, a ‘letter of silence,’ the following week, formally acknowledging that they had received and understood the order not to talk about the autopsy” (volume 1, pages 169–70).
Some 14 years later, some of those people were still scared to talk, even before the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA), which had reopened the Kennedy assassination, owing to widespread doubts among the American people about the Warren Commission Report. Horne writes (volume page 171),
Some autopsy witnesses (morgue technicians Paul O’Connor and James Jenkins) were extremely reluctant to talk to them, but ended up doing so in-person; photographer Floyd Riebe and x‑ray technician Ed Reed both consented to brief interviews on the phone; while x‑ray technician Jerrol Custer demanded the HSCA staff come to see him in person, and then “hung up” on them.
According to Horne, “The military did not give in easily. On November 3, 1977 Deanne C. Siemer of the DOD Office of General Counsel sent a letter to HSCA Chief Counsel Robert Blakey refusing to rescind the order not to talk, since the “record with respect to the autopsy is complete and has been preserved intact.” After the military came to the realization that Congress, not the military, makes the final decisions in such matters, “the Surgeon General of the Navy, VADM W.P. Arentzen mailed out letters rescinding the gag order to the last known addresses of the personnel concerned….” (volume 1, page 171). As Horne explains, the impact of the lifting of the military’s gag order was enormous (volume 1, page 171):
Even though the Surgeon General’s letter rescinding the order only mentioned freedom to talk to the HSCA, effectively “the lid was off” and “the cat was out of the bag.” Once the HSCA published its report and accompanying 12 volumes of evidence in 1979, the public became aware of the names of most of the autopsy witnesses and participants, and when independent researchers began to contact them, most of them then felt free to talk. The HSCA’s charter to reinvestigate the assassination “let the genie out of the bottle,” and the evidence in the JFK assassination has not been the same since.
Of course, we shouldn’t forget that the U.S. military wasn’t the only entity that demanded that matters in the Kennedy assassination be kept secret. The Warren Commission ordered that many of its records and much of its evidence be kept secret from the American people for 75 years. The HSCA also had a penchant for secrecy; it ordered many of its records and much of its evidence sealed for 50 years.
In fact, one of the most fascinating things the HSCA ordered to be kept secret for 50 years was the deposition of Robert Knudsen, a civilian who was the official White House photographer for President Kennedy. The deposition, which was taken in 1978, encompasses one of the most mysterious aspects of the Kennedy autopsy. It came to light only because of the 1992 JFK Records Act, which ordered that government records in the Kennedy assassination be disclosed to the public. The law had been enacted after Oliver Stone’s movie JFK produced a large public outcry over the federal government’s continued secrecy in the Kennedy assassination.
By the time the ARRB learned about Knudsen’s role in the assassination, he had passed away. However, Knudsen’s wife told the ARRB that on the afternoon of the assassination, he received a telephone call — she believed from the Secret Service — to go to Andrews Air Force Base to meet the plane from Dallas and accompany the president’s body to Bethesda. His wife and kids told the ARRB that “Robert Knudsen had told them he photographed the autopsy of President Kennedy, and was the only one to do so” (volume 1, page 249). The ARRB dug up the August 1977 copy of a magazine entitled Popular Photography, which contained an interview with Knudsen. The article stated, “When the news of the assassination came from Dallas, Knudsen left the hospital to meet Air Force One at Andrews Field. He was the only photographer to record the autopsy — “the hardest assignment of my life” (volume 1, page 250).
Why is that fascinating and mysterious?
As you’ll recall, the photographers at the autopsy were John Stringer and Floyd Riebe, not Robert Knudsen. Neither Riebe nor Stringer ever saw Robert Knudsen at the autopsy. Yet Knudsen said that he was the only photographer to record the autopsy.
When Knudsen was deposed by the HSCA, he never mentioned that he had photographed the autopsy and, equally significant, he was never asked whether he had photographed the autopsy. In fact, as one reads through his testimony, one almost gets the feeling that this was something that he knew should not be discussed and that he would not be asked about. The deposition focused entirely on his participation in the developing of photographs that had been taken during the autopsy.
So did Knudsen actually take photographs as part of the Kennedy autopsy, or was he lying about it for some unknown reason? Horne thinks that he was telling the truth, which would seem to make sense, given that he had no reason to make up the story and since it would have been easy for U.S. officials to disclose that he — the White House photographer for President Kennedy — was a liar. Horne’s theory is that Knudsen took his set of photographs as part of a supersecret, post-autopsy session that Stringer and Riebe were not part of.
Although Knudsen was a civilian, his familiarity with military culture was confirmed in a statement his wife made to the ARRB. According to Horne, she stated that “her husband was a man who did not talk too much, and who very reliably could keep secrets and told me that sometimes people in the military are required to ‘take secrets with them to the grave’ when ordered to do so by duly constituted authority, regardless of later attempts to get them to talk” (volume 1, page 253).
Knudsen’s penchant for keeping secrets was demonstrated during his deposition before the HSCA. HSCA staff member Andy Purdy asked him about photographs that contained probes in Kennedy’s body (volume 2, page 266):
Purdy: Where were the entry and exit points?
Knudsen: Here again, I have a mental problem here that we were sworn not to disclose this to anybody. Being under oath, I cannot tell you I do not know, because I do know; but, at the same time, I do feel I have been sworn not to disclose this information and I would prefer very much that you get one of the sets of prints and view them. I am not trying to be hard to get along with. I was told not to disclose the area of the body, and I am at a loss right now as to whether — which is right.
Purdy: Was it a Naval order that you were operating under that you would not disclose?
Knudsen: This was Secret Service. To the best of my knowledge, Dr. Burkley also emphasized that this was not to be disclosed.
(Navy Adm. George Burkley was Kennedy’s personal physician.)
Knudsen’s penchant for secrecy, however, apparently did not extend to his family, at least partially. According to Horne,
After he was deposed by the HSCA staff in 1978, he told his family (at different times) that 4 or 5 of the pictures he was shown by the HSCA did not represent what he saw or took that night, and that one of the photographs he viewed had been altered. His son Bob said that his father told him that “hair had been drawn in” on one photo to conceal a missing portion of the top-back of President Kennedy’s head…. [His wife] further elaborated that the wounds he saw in the photos shown to him in 1988 did not represent what he saw or took…. [volume 1, page 251]
One of the more interesting aspects of the military autopsy of President Kennedy was the total indifference among personnel at Bethesda to the possibility that there would be a criminal trial of whoever killed Kennedy. The thought of having to testify in a state criminal murder case, in which a prosecutor would be depending on testimony establishing an accurate autopsy, and in which a team of aggressive criminal defense attorneys would be cross-examining everyone involved in the autopsy, just seems never to have entered the minds of the people involved in the autopsy.
Didn’t they know that an autopsy is critically important evidence in helping to convict the person who did the shooting? Didn’t they know that the prosecutor would be summoning them to testify at trial and depending on the truthfulness and accuracy of their testimony? Wouldn’t they want to help the prosecution secure a conviction in the case? Didn’t they know that they would be subjected to withering cross-examination by experienced criminal-defense attorneys?
Consider, for example, the problem involving the “chain of custody.” In order for the autopsy results to be admitted into evidence at a criminal trial, it would have been necessary to establish a clear “chain of custody” of the body from Dallas to Bethesda to ensure that there were no shenanigans committed on the body with the aim of misleading people as to the cause of death. That’s one reason that the medical examiner at Parkland Hospital, Dr. Earl Rose, was so insistent on conducting the autopsy there in Dallas, as the law required. As Rose told Secret Service agent Roy Kellerman and the other Secret Service agents who were attempting to prevent Rose’s autopsy, “You can’t lose the chain of evidence.”
However, as my article “The Kennedy Casket Conspiracy” detailed, they did lose the chain of evidence by removing the body from the Dallas casket and delivering it early to the Bethesda morgue in a cheap shipping casket. That break in the chain of custody would have undoubtedly prevented the final autopsy report from being admitted into evidence at trial.
None of that seemed to matter to the autopsy personnel that night. One gets the distinct impression that the possibility of a criminal trial in which autopsy participants would have to testify was the last thing on their minds.
After all, when the autopsy was being conducted, Oswald, the accused assassin had already been taken into custody, and he was still alive and in custody on the next day, when military officials were ordering autopsy participants to keep their mouths shut forever and requiring them to sign secrecy oaths.
Did the U.S. military honestly think that its secrecy surrounding the autopsy would not be pierced by a team of aggressive criminal-defense lawyers? Did it honestly believe that experienced lawyers would not discover the secret, early delivery of Kennedy’s body to the morgue in a cheap shipping casket and the casket shenanigans engaged in after that? Did they honestly believe that an aggressive criminal-defense team would fail to subpoena all the government’s records establishing who the “men in suits” were who conducted the early delivery of Kennedy’s body in the cheap shipping casket? Or did they simply think that the possibility that the murder case would ever go to trial in the Kennedy assassination was minimal?
Whatever they were thinking, circumstances did turn in their favor when Oswald was murdered and U.S. officials quickly concluded that he was a lone-nut assassin in a case in which no other suspects would ever be brought to trial. As a result of those factors, U.S. government officials were successful in keeping the circumstances surrounding John F. Kennedy’s autopsy shrouded in secrecy for some three decades.
Let’s now continue from where I left off in my article “The Shot That Killed Kennedy” and examine some more of the unusual occurrences in the autopsy of John F. Kennedy.