A jarring report on JFK's autopsy

ProjoIs this the final word on John Kennedy's assassination?

Greg O’Brien  BREWSTER, Mass.

IN A MODEST HOME on a Cape Cod country lane, with a front window insulated with weather stripping to conserve heat and a frayed American flag out front waving in the stiff March breeze, sits a man who lives with a history that haunts the world. Francis Xavier O’Neill Jr., a retired FBI agent, one of two agents who oversaw the grisly autopsy of John F. Kennedy 44 years ago, is surrounded by a lifetime of memorabilia, including photographs, medals and official reports, worthy of a museum. He is one of the last surviving members of the preliminary criminal investigation-team that probed the Kennedy assassination.

Recently released 8-millimeter film footage, previously unseen in public, of Kennedy’s fateful motorcade in Dallas, taken less than 90 seconds before the deadly shots were fired, has further agitated conspiracy theorists and has jolted our collective memories. “The footage is sure to be new fodder for conspiracy buffs who have long maintained Kennedy was the victim of a sinister plot orchestrated by shadowy elements in either the government, the ‘military-industrial complex,’ the Mafia, or communist Cuba,” Reuters reported.

More than four decades after this national trauma, eyewitnesses to the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination and its aftermath are disappearing like dew under the Texas sun. At 83, Frank O’Neill is still a beacon of enlightenment. While he maintains that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman, O’Neill is critical of some of the initial investigation and autopsy assumptions.

As a 39-year-old agent then assigned to Andrews Air Force Base, in Maryland, O’Neill was directed by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to meet Air Force One carrying Kennedy’s body back from Dallas, and “to stay with the body of the president, no matter where it was taken, not to let it out of my sight, and to obtain any evidence of the murder that might be in the body . . . I was to take whatever action that was necessary and deemed appropriate under the circumstances,” O’Neill writes in a manuscript to be published later this year, an autobiography tentatively entitled A Fox Among Wolves. The Providence Journal has obtained a copy of the manuscript.

FBI Agent James W. Sibert, now retired, was assigned to assist O’Neill, who had spoken with Kennedy on several occasions. After Air Force One landed at Andrews and slowly taxied up the tarmac, O’Neill, Sibert and others with high-security clearance greeted the plane, and watched solemnly as Kennedy’s casket was carried to a waiting gray Navy ambulance for the trip to Bethesda Naval Hospital, in Maryland, where the autopsy was performed.

Inside the autopsy room, O’Neill and Sibert assisted Secret Service Agents Roy Kellerman and Bill Greer in lifting Kennedy’s naked body from the bronze casket to the autopsy table. Greer had chauffeured the president’s limousine through Dealey Plaza; Kellerman had been in the front seat next to him. Kennedy’s body, O’Neill writes in a chilling, matter-of-fact tone “was wrapped in a sheet, with another bloody sheet wrapped around his head. The body was lying on a plastic-type covering to prevent, one would assume, the inside of the casket from being irrevocably soiled from blood dripping from the body. Kennedy’s hands were clenched, his eyes opened and his mouth in a grimace.”

O’Neill and others in the autopsy room were stunned when they saw Kennedy’s deep head wound above his right ear “almost the circumference of a grapefruit.” Chief pathologist Dr. James J. Humes, a central figure in the Warren Commission investigation of the assassination, supervised the autopsy; also in the room were attending surgeons and government officials. O’Neill and Sibert stood next to the autopsy table and “were the only two people representing any agency that could be considered a disinterested (neutral) party,” writes O’Neill, a World War II paratrooper, recipient of the Bronze Star, former New York City police officer, retired lawyer, former Connecticut state legislator and former justice of the peace. “The Navy doctors were concerned with the immediate event at hand. The Secret Service was most concerned since their most important assignment lay dead on the table.”

X-rays, viewed by Humes, O’Neill, Sibert and others, revealed dozens of bone splinters and several bullet fragments. Two of the fragments were retrieved, and later matched to an M-1 rifle linked to Lee Harvey Oswald. “Parts of the brain were still there, but not much,” writes O’Neill. “It would seem that no one could survive such an injury.” Three shots were fired, investigators say — the first sounding like a firecracker that entered the upper right rear of Kennedy’s back.

O’Neill in his official report said agent Kellerman, now deceased, told him that Kennedy cried out, “My God, I’ve been hit, get me to a hospital!” The second bullet hit Texas Gov. John Connally, sitting in a jump seat behind Kellerman. The third was the fatal wound to Kennedy. O’Neill said recently in an interview that Kellerman insisted, when pressed how he knew it was Kennedy’s voice, “I was with the man for three years, and know his voice like I know my own. And he was the only man in the back seat of the car that day who spoke with a Boston accent.”

While conspiracy theorists will debate the assassination for generations, O’Neill’s observations are jarring and soul-searching.

“Looking back on the day’s events, I kept thinking of Kellerman and Greer,” he writes. “They both had the president’s blood and brain tissue on their clothes, and it was very evident that they were physically shaken, although still under control. . . . Roy [Kellerman] had been the agent who had directed the security of the president on the Texas trip. That night at Bethesda he told me he cautioned Kennedy that morning not to be so open with the crowds for security reasons. Kennedy told him that if someone wanted to kill him all they would have to do was use a scope rifle from a high building. Roy had tears in his eyes when he told me.”

Greg O’Brien, a freelance writer and editor living on Cape Cod, is an occasional contributor. He is now editing Francis X. O’Neill Jr.’s manuscript on the Kennedy autopsy and O’Neill’s life in the FBI and other branches of government service.  He writes two blogs for Cape Cod TODAY and this Op-Ed  appeared in the Providence Journal on Tuesday, March 20, 2007.

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