JFK Casket Timeline: The Entry at the Bethesda Morgue and the Start of the Autopsy

Two of the most perplexing timeline questions concerning the JFK assassination are:  When did his body arrive at the Bethesda Naval Hospital morgue and when did the autopsy actually begin?  These seem like fairly easy questions to answer. They are not. And the correct answer to these questions has all sorts of historical and conspiracy theory implications.

The most controversial timeline theory is that JFK’s body was secretly removed from  Air Force One, flown by helicopter to Bethesda and arrived at the morgue in a so-called “shipping casket” around 6:30 p.m. In a previous article on this website, however, I argued that there was little corroboration for any such early entry of JFK’s corpse into the Bethesda morgue. I don’t intend to directly revisit that argument here.

This early entry timeline was first outlined decades ago by David Lifton in BEST EVIDENCE [1981] and has since been more fully developed by Douglas P. Horne in several books, articles and talks. Interested readers are encouraged to read Horne’s comprehensive summary article, “The Af1 Tapes and Subsequent Events at Andrews AFB on November 22, 1963,”  (Lewrockwell.com, July 10, 2013), to see whether he makes a reasonable  case for multiple casket entries into the morgue, pre-autopsy wound alterations, and a (still) secret helicopter flight of JFK’s corpse from Andrews to Bethesda.

A second timeline theory is that JFK’s body arrived at the Bethesda morgue in the Dallas ceremonial casket sometime after 7:05 p.m. and that an autopsy began shortly afterward.  And a third theory is that the Dallas casket was carried into the morgue by an Honor Guard at 8:00 and that the official JFK autopsy actually began at 8:15 p.m.

We intend to  explore these last two theories in some detail here with testimony taken (almost) exclusively from the  proceedings of the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB).  And by so doing, we intend to shed new light–and new doubt perhaps–on the entire Lifton/Horne timeline scenario.

PART ONE: FROM ANDREWS TO BETHESDA

On November 22nd, 1963, Air Force One flew into Andrews AFB  from Dallas and landed at 6:05 p.m.  On board were Lyndon Johnson and his wife Lady Bird; various aides, attendants and associates of both Johnson and of the former president, John Kennedy; and Jackie Kennedy still in her blood-stained dress. And in the rear of the plane was the bronze ceremonial casket which contained, presumably, the body of President John F. Kennedy.

Once the Dallas casket was off-loaded into a gray Navy ambulance, a procession of vehicles proceeded to the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland and arrived at the front entrance around 6:55 p.m.  Jackie
Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Secret Service (SS) agent Roy Kellerman and several others in the ambulance went immediately inside. FBI agents James Silbert and Francis O’Neil,  who  were riding in one of the follow-up cars, noticed that the Navy ambulance with the casket was not  proceeding immediately to the morgue which was located at the rear of the hospital. Since the FBI agents  were  familiar with the various entrances at Bethesda–both had recently taken their FBI physicals there—they and the Navy ambulance then proceeded to the rear of the hospital and to the morgue’s unloading dock.

Agent O’Neil told the ARRB  that he and Agent Silbert and  the Navy ambulance arrived at the morgue unloading dock sometime after 7:00 p.m.  He said: “I believe it was 7:05. Something like that.”  Agent
O’Neil then testified that he, Silbert and SS agent William Greer then proceeded to “open the back of the ambulance…and at about this time the Honor Guard came. We took the casket out and wheeled it on in with the Honor Guard up to the steps.”  (O’Neil, ARRB, p. 56).

Agent O’Neil was then asked:

Q: “You are quite sure there was an Honor Guard?

A: Yes

Q: Now you were with the casket yourself from the time it was at the loading dock to the time it got into the morgue?

A:  Absolutely

Q: Any time you were not with the casket?

A:  No sir. In fact there was no time, from the first time I saw the casket taken out of the aircraft…until the time that it was opened and the body taken out…”

Q: Any chance you did not follow the casket from Andrews to Bethesda?

A: There was no possibility that the vehicle stopped…that anybody took a casket out, switched any bodies…no way at all.” (O’Neil, ARRB, pp. 57-59).

Let’s be clear here. FBI agent Francis O’Neil  confirmed under oath a specific timeline and “chain of custody” from Andrews directly into the Bethesda morgue. He confirmed that the motorcade and Navy
ambulance arrived at Bethesda around 6:55 and that he (and some others) entered the morgue ALONG WITH the Honor Guard and Dallas casket shortly afterward.  He also confirmed that he never lost custody of the casket (evidence) at any time between Andrews and the Bethesda morgue.

In addition, he confirmed that when the Dallas casket was opened, he saw JFK’s body inside and then saw the corpse removed. He  also confirmed  that the body appeared the same way it had left Parkland Hospital hours earlier, i.e., with layers of plastic under the  head and upper torso and the bloody head wrapped in hospital sheets. (O’Neil, ARRB, p. 60).

This specific recollection of the body’s appearance is corroborated by fellow Agent James Silbert (ARRB, p. 46) and also by Dr. James Humes, one of the autopsy doctors, who (with Dr. Boswell) actually
helped lift JFK’s body from the ceremonial casket on to the examination table.  Humes also confirmed that the ceremonial casket arrived in a gray Navy ambulance and that it was brought into the
morgue by a crew of “sailors” (most likely the Honor Guard) around 7:00 p.m. (Humes, ARRB, pp. 66-69).

There is still additional confirmation of these  events.  Jerrol F.Custer, one of the Bethesda medical technicians, testified that the “the Honor Guard brought the casket in” and that it was the Dallas
ceremonial casket and not any so-called shipping casket. (Custer, ARRB, pp. 62-71).  In addition,  Richard Lipsey, an aide to General Philip Wehle, testified that he flew in the helicopter with the Honor
Guard from Andrews to Bethesda  and that he watched the Honor Guard “lift the heavy bronze casket from the hearse and take it into the morgue…” (Lipsey’s testimony was before the House Select Committee on Assassinations, 1/18/78).

In short, the timeline for the movement of JFK’s casket and body from Andrews into the Bethesda morgue sometime around 7:05 or shortly afterward appears reasonably definitive.

PART TWO: THE HONOR GUARD ACTION REPORT

First Lt. Sam Bird, the commanding officer of the Honor Guard (“Joint Service Casket Team”) filed a so-called “after action report” on December 10, 1963 concerning his recollection of events that assassination weekend.  He stated among other things that “the casket team transferred the remains…from the ambulance to the morgue” at Bethesda at 2000 hours or 8:00 p.m. Now this transfer time conflicts rather sharply with the testimony  of the FBI agents and also with the recollections of several others such as  Roy Kellerman and General Godfrey McHugh, who participated in the FBI casket transfer.

What’s going on here?

The Honor Guard was first tasked with off-loading the Dallas casket from Air Force One at Andrews; that mission was scrubbed. They were then (along with some others including Richard Lipsey) put aboard a
helicopter and flown to the Bethesda Hospital grounds where they landed (according to the “action” report) at 6:45 p.m.  Their new mission was to meet up with the Navy ambulance and transport the Dallas casket into the morgue.  Yet we have sworn confirmation from FBI agent Francis O’Neil that they did this sometime around 7:05 and most certainly NOT at 8:00, almost a full hour later.

So is Sam Bird’s recorded Honor Guard entry time into the morgue accurate?  (Curiously, even counsel for the ARRB  wondered about that. See Silbert, ARRB, p. 54). You decide.

FIRST, Silbert and O’Neil and Greer and Roy Kellerman and SS Director James Rowley and General Godfrey McHugh—all of whom arrived at the morgue entrance shortly after 7:05–would NOT and could NOT have waited around for almost one hour before joining the Honor Guard casket team for any 8:00 entry. Very improbable.

SECOND, the Honor Guard arrived by helicopter from Andrews and  landed at Bethesda at 6:45 p.m. It is almost impossible to believe that THEY then were  so delayed on the ground that they and Richard Lipsey
waited for more than  60 minutes (!) before joining up with the FBI and Roy Kellerman and the Navy ambulance at the morgue entrance at 8:00 pm.  Extremely improbable.

THIRD, we have the exact words of Lt. Sam Bird himself on the timeline of  events from the landing at Bethesda to the transfer of the President’s casket into the morgue. Although the critics never mention this, he stated the following in his report:

“At approximately 18:45 hours, the aircraft landed at the Naval hospital…Within a few minutes the ambulance bearing the President’s body arrived at the hospital. After considerable confusion [at the front of the hospital] as to where the President’s body would be taken, the Joint casket team removed the casket from the ambulance at the mortuary entrance at the rear of the hospital.” ( “History Matters” website, HM 163,  Joint Casket Bearer Team Report, p. 3).

Now let’s be honest here. Does this sound like the Honor Guard waited around at Bethesda for more than an hour before they touched base with the Navy ambulance and entered the morgue with the President’s ceremonial casket?  Is there even a hint of that implied here? Or that the “confusion” at the hospital’s  front entrance with the Navy ambulance and FBI agents (about the morgue’s  location) could have lasted almost a full hour?  Impossible; that just did not happen.

PART THREE: WHEN DID THE AUTOPSY BEGIN?

Actually there is an alternative way to finally confirm or refute the FBI/Honor Guard timeline.  If the autopsy itself started at 8:15–as the HG action report indicates–then an 8:00  entry with the body
could still (just barely) fit that timeline.  On the other hand, if the actual “autopsy” procedures started much earlier, say around 7:17 or so, then an 8:00  entry with the Dallas casket  must be ruled out.

There is substantial evidence in the ARRB record that the official autopsy began substantially EARLIER than 8:15.  It must be emphasized
that an autopsy–especially one with suspected gun-shot wounds–does NOT begin with any first-cut surgical procedure. Not at all. It  can actually begin—as this one began–with specific preparations such as
(but not limited to) the taking of photographs of the body and especially with the taking, development and examination of  X-rays of the corpse. This is a standard protocol for the “start” of an autopsy, especially when one is looking for bullets, and this is exactly what happened at the JFK autopsy.

Now we know that an extensive set of X-rays was shot in the morgue; that they were developed in an upstairs lab (4th floor) in the hospital and not in the morgue; and that then they were returned to the morgue and evaluated by the pathologists, Dr. Humes and Dr. Boswell.  And all of this occurred, as it must have occurred, well BEFORE either of the Bethesda surgeons could have touched the body of JFK with a scalpel.

How do we know this? Well, in the first instance, there is direct confirmation of these events from  FBI agent James Silbert who testified under oath  before the ARRB.  He confirmed that the
“preparation” at the start of the autopsy—the taking of photographs and X-rays—began “right after” JFK’s  body was removed from the casket; that this X-ray process began “at approximately 7:17 p.m.;” and that the “first incision” on the body was actually made around 8:15. (Silbert, ARRB, pp. 47, 49, 60). This sequence of events could not be any clearer.

Critics might argue that the testimony of the autopsy doctors or even the FBI agents cannot be fully trusted. Fine. Let’s turn, then, to the testimony of Edward F. Reed about this crucial sequence of events.

Reed was a senior Navy corpsman in 1963 and an X-ray technologist at the Kennedy autopsy. He testified before the ARRB  that after the body was taken out of the ornamental casket and placed on the autopsy table, at least 4 sets of X-rays were taken of the head and body, and that each set had to be developed separately upstairs and then returned to the morgue for evaluation.  So that there can be no
misunderstanding here, I quote from Reed’s ARRB testimony below.

Q: ”The first exposure that you make is a lateral X-ray. You then…

A: Lateral skull.

Q: Lateral skull. And then you take that upstairs.

A: That’s correct.

Q: Develop it and bring it back.

A: That’s correct…After they [doctors] saw the lateral then they asked me to do an AP skull. They didn’t ask me to do both at the same time.

Q: So you took that up and you came back [to the morgue].

A: That’s correct.”

Ed Reed was then asked the “approximate amount of time” that it took him to shoot and develop (separately) 4 sets of X-rays  and return each set to the morgue.

A: “About 25 to 28 minutes.” (Reed, ARRB, pp.43-44)

The reader should note that Reed’s testimony here fits comfortably with the FBI timeline that the “autopsy” of President Kennedy actually began sometime around 7:17, and that the “first cut” occurred after 8:00.

Ed Reed was then asked by ARRB counsel  an absolutely crucial question about the condition of the President’s body while he was  performing his radiology responsibilities.

Q:  ”Okay, You’ve described the sequence of the taking of the X-rays. Can you tell me whether there were any incisions that were performed on the body between the time of the first X-ray and the time of the last X-ray you took?

A: As far as I know, no.

Q: When you brought the last of the X-rays that you developed back to the morgue, HAD THERE BEEN ANY INCISIONS PERFORMED ON THE BODY AT THAT TIME? [Emphasis added]

A: NO [Emphasis added]

Q: Were you present during the first incision?

A: Yes

Q: What was that first incision?

A: The cranium. The scalp, right here.”  (Reed, ARRB, p. 57)

Again, could this sequence of events be any clearer?  According to Ed Reed, there had been NO incisions on JFK’s body until after all of the X-ray procedures had been completed. Then, and only then, did Dr. Humes make  a “first incision…into the cranium.”  I maintain that this testimony alone, at the very least, should resolve certain JFK timeline and autopsy questions once and for all.

PART FOUR: SOME CONCLUSIONS

We now have established a definitive timeline for all of the significant events that evening. The Dallas casket was brought to the Bethesda morgue sometime around 7:05 p.m. or shortly thereafter.  FBI
and SS agents helped remove that casket from the ambulance and Sam Bird’s Joint Service Casket Team carried that casket into the morgue. JFK’s  body was then  removed from the casket and  made ready for autopsy. This occurred at approximately 7:17 according to FBI agent James Silbert. The autopsy then began with certain preliminary procedures, the most important of which was the taking and developing of 4 separate sets of X-rays; this took considerable time.  After that process was concluded,  the first incision (to the head) was made shortly afterward, probably around 8:15.

I hold that there is NO alternative  timeline—either one with very early morgue entry or one with a very late autopsy start—that can take account of the facts, multiple witness testimonies and common sense reasoning with respect to these matters.

Yet there are, of course, several very important questions here that go well beyond timeline considerations. What about the integrity of the autopsy itself? What about the wound locations? What about the alleged missing film and doctored X-rays? What about the brain sectioning? What about the theory that the military directed the autopsy and that it was inherently fraudulent? And despite what we have argued here, what about the claim that there was a conspiracy to kill the President and to cover-up crucial evidence? Obviously these are all very serious questions but, alas, they cannot be explored here.  Interested  readers should turn to the vast literature on each and every one of these issues in a search for truth.

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