Meeting one of JFK's Secret Service agents
On June 23, I had the chance to meet retired U.S. Secret Service Special Agent Paul Landis.
He spoke at a northeast Ohio courthouse and was introduced by a judge who knows him and is personally interested in President John F. Kennedy's life and times. Landis, who served in the Secret Service from 1959-1964 and is now retired, spoke to a crowd of about thirty.
He is a quiet, slim man who gives an impression of diffident sadness. In the late 1950s, he had a friend who worked for the Secret Service and who encouraged him to apply after his graduation from Ohio Wesleyan University. The Secret Service at that time did not require any previous law enforcement experience, just a college degree. He underwent a thorough background check and training, and was sworn in as a Secret Service special agent in 1959. He started work in the Cincinnati field office but, within six months, was assigned to guard the grandchildren of President Dwight D. Eisenhower in Gettysburg, Pa. (Agents today may spend up to seven years in other posts before being assigned to protective duty, he said).
In October 1962, he was assigned to the White House Detail – the youngest person up to that time, he thinks. He was assigned to protect First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and the two Kennedy children, Caroline and John Jr. (“the Kiddie Detail,” as it was known). He got the assignment just before the Cuban Missile Crisis, and he remembers three Marine helicopters being flown to the South Lawn of the White House to evacuate the President, First Lady and key staff in the event of an incoming Soviet nuclear attack. He asked what he should do if an unauthorized person tried to get on the First Lady’s helicopter and was told, “Just shoot ‘em, and we’ll worry about the consequences later.” Fortunately, it never came to that. He later accompanied Mrs. Kennedy on a trip to Ravello, Italy, and to Greece with her sister, Lee Radziwell. He still remembers the “opulence like you couldn’t believe” of Aristotle Onassis’s yacht, including its gold fittings, disco and swimming pool. He was assigned to Mrs. Kennedy when she gave birth to Patrick Kennedy in the fall of 1963; the baby died soon afterwards.
Landis was assigned to the fateful November 1963 Presidential visit to Texas. It was the first time he’d been on motorcade duty, although he’d trained for it. He was on the advance plane for Love Field in Dallas on November 22, and helped his friend and fellow agent Clint Hill guard Mrs. Kennedy as she greeted well-wishers along the fence at the airport; the President was further along the same fence. Consistent with Landis’s training, he would look at hands and faces, watching for any weapon or threat. In the motorcade heading into downtown Dallas, he was in the followup car directly behind the Presidential limosine. The crowds got so big, overflowing into the street, that the Dallas Police motorcycle outriders sometimes had to drop behind the limo. “It was like driving into a funnel,” Landis said.
The motorcade had to slow down considerably when it entered Dealey Plaza, making two turns, to the right and then to the left. The limo’s and the followup car’s bumpers almost touched. After the final turn, as the motorcade headed towards the triple overpass and the School Book Depository dropped behind them to the right, he heard what he immediately recognized to be a gunshot (from his many years of hunting) from behind him and to the right. He looked over to his right, but saw nothing threatening in the crowd. He looked forward again and saw President Kennedy slump in his seat. After a brief pause, he remembers two more shots following in quick succession, still behind and to his right. Landis was looking directly at Kennedy from “about 15, 20 feet” behind him, when “I saw the President’s head explode [and knew] no way could anyone survive that.” Clint Hill jumped off the followup car, ran forward and climbed onto the back of the President’s limo, and covered the President and First Lady with his body as the motorcade accelerated out of Dealey Plaza. Landis saw Hill look back and give a thumbs-down, indicating that the President’s condition was bad. Landis shouted to the driver of the followup car, “Go, go, go!”
The motorcade sped to nearby Parkland Hospital. Landis ran up to the Presidential limo and saw that Mrs. Kennedy was shielding her husband’s badly-wounded head. Hill took off his suit coat to cover it and persuaded her to let hospital staff take the President inside. Landis carried Mrs. Kennedy’s famous pink pillbox hat into the hospital but doesn’t know what became of it after that (it has since been lost). He stayed with the First Lady at Parkland, as he had been assigned. He went with her briefly into the trauma room twice. He was there when other Secret Service agents insisted on removing the President’s body to return to Washington, even though local police and the Dallas coroner insisted it had to remain for an autopsy there under Texas law. “It got a little tense,” he said, “but we said we were going, and we did.” He helped put the coffin in the hearse, and then rode in the hearse as it took Mrs. Kennedy and the President’s body back to Love Field. Once the former First Lady was settled into the back compartment of Air Force One, he went forward and found a seat, where “I just broke down.” He was very sad but knew he still had a job to do. When Mrs. Kennedy attended Lyndon Johnson’s swearing-in as President, he was standing in the doorway nearby.
Air Force One returned to Washington, of course, and he now remembers little of the trip; it seemed he was in shock. He was there when the coffin was removed from Air Force One and was taken by Navy ambulance to Bethesda hospital. He stayed with Mrs. Kennedy while the autopsy was underway, and then returned with her and the body to the White House. He guarded Mrs. Kennedy for another six months but quit after she took an impromptu trip from Chambersburg, Va. to Palm Beach, Fla. with her friend Bunny Mellon. He didn’t have time to pack clothes for warmer weather and decided he had just finally had enough of the frequent travel that Secret Service work required (being on the road an average of 300 days a year). Hill said, “You’ll never quit,” but Landis submitted a one-sentence resignation letter the next time he was in Washington. Hill called him within the hour and said ruefully, “You really did it, didn’t you?”
Landis purposefully didn’t read anything about the President’s death until the recent 50th anniversary of the assassination. He has long been reluctant to talk about it, and still seems haunted; he and his fellow Secret Service agents had a mission in Dallas that day but failed to carry it out, he said. He has since spoken to Clint Hill often, and they mutually realized the problems they’ve had over the years were in part because they’d never had the chance to talk through what they saw and experienced in Dallas. He and Hill are now in touch every week or so, and both contributed to the books Mrs. Kennedy and Me and The Kennedy Detail. Landis meets yearly with the association of retired Secret Service agents, and agreed to take part in a Discovery Channel special on the agents who had been in the Kennedy detail, tied to Hill’s book.
There were some skeptics of the Warren Commission's findings in the audience. During Q&A, Landis was adamant that the President’s body was not secretly removed from the plane, tampered with and then taken by another route to Bethesda naval hospital, as some conspiracy theorists suggest. Landis submitted a written report to the Warren Commission but wasn’t interviewed by Commission staff, which surprised him at the time. Landis believes that Lee Harvey Oswald was the sole assassin, as alleged by the Commission (“Three shots and Oswald”), but said he did not personally believe the “magic bullet” theory, given Texas Gov. John Connally and his wife’s testimony as to when and how he was hit.
He denied that the agents he was with had been drinking the night before the assassination. They got to their hotel in Fort Worth around 11pm, were starving and went looking for something to eat, but did not consume alcohol. He said the Secret Service had no individual radios or walkie-talkies in 1963, but agents relied on hand signals to communicate with each other. They wore sunglasses to shield their eyes and also to keep others from seeing where and at whom they were looking. They were issued standard police revolvers and had some Army surplus M-1 carbines, one of which he carried in a golf bag while protecting President Eisenhower on the links in Gettysburg. It was at his suggestion that the Service got one of the new AR-15 machine guns for field testing, and one was in the followup car in Dallas (and can be seen in the hands of an agent in photos as the motorcade sped towards the hospital).
Landis thought very highly of the President and Mrs. Kennedy, who were always friendly and warm with their agents. The first time he saw JFK, he held a door open as the President walked down the Rose Garden colonnade towards the White House residence. The President nodded pleasantly at him and smiled. The next day, when Landis again held the door, JFK asked, “And how are you today, Mr. Landis?”, so the agent knew the President had asked someone who he was and had remembered his name. Landis knew, going to Dallas, that there was considerable hostility towards the President there, but thought, “What’s not to like? It’s personal, not political.” He simply nodded wryly when asked if there were tensions between the Kennedys and the Johnsons, and their respective staffs, as well as between the Secret Service, the FBI and CIA.
He has been back to Dallas just twice, the first time in 1983, twenty years after the assassination. He later visited the Sixth Floor Museum with Hill and they quietly joked, “What would these people think if they knew it was us looking around up here?” It was very difficult for him to go back, and he “tried to convince myself there was nothing I could have done” to prevent the assassination. He now believes that averting the tragedy would have been an “impossibility,” given what was known at the time, the President’s outgoing nature and his often-stated reluctance to be surrounded by an imposing phalanx of guards. JFK once jokingly asked, after a group of agents were clustered on the back of his car, for “those Ivy League charlatans” to back off. The bubbletop cover of the limo, which was not bulletproof but might at least have obstructed Oswald’s view or deflected a bullet, was not put on that day given the good weather and the President’s desire to be seen by the Dallas crowds
Landis did not keep in touch with Mrs. Kennedy or her children after leaving the Service. He bumped into her on a New York City street around 1970 or so, by happenstance, as her limo pulled up at the salon of Mr. Kenneth, her hair stylist. She was very friendly and greeted him by name. He lived and worked in New York for awhile for a firm which produced TV commercials, and later was briefly a realtor in Massachusetts. He moved back to northeast Ohio in 1975, and is now retired but for his security work for a local historical society.
I had the chance to shake his hand, speak briefly with him, and thank him for his service.
Monday, August 4, 2014
One of JFK's Secret Service Agent's story
Not exactly news, but interesting account of a historical event.