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'Five Days in November': A detailed account of the death of President John F. Kennedy

In "Five Days in November," Clint Hill and Lisa McCubbin examine, in stunning detail, the fateful events surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Here's an excerpt.


November 24, 1963


Yesterday’s rain has stopped, which is a blessing, for today is the day the president’s body will be transported to the U.S. Capitol to lie in state.

It’s eight o’clock when I arrive at the White House. My first call is to Provi, Mrs. Kennedy’s personal assistant, to see how Mrs. Kennedy is doing.

Choking back tears, Provi tells me Mrs. Kennedy slept some, but it was a rough night. Fortunately, some members of the president’s family? stayed, and Mrs. Kennedy’s sister, Lee Radziwill, arrived from Europe.

“That’s good news,” I say. Mrs. Kennedy and Lee have a very close relationship. Hopefully having her sister here will provide some comfort.

When Mrs. Kennedy emerges from the elevator, she is dressed in a black suit, with a knee-length skirt. Her eyes, which were so full of sparkle and light when we left the White House three days ago, are empty, lifeless. Her face is gaunt, and she looks so fragile, yet she still manages to say, “Good morning, Mr. Hill.”

There is one last private Mass for the family in the East Room, after which she and the other family members return to the living quarters for a short period of privacy before they must face the public.

In the meantime, Jerry Behn, the Special Agent in Charge of the White House Detail, sends word that he wants to see me in his office, in the East Wing. President Kennedy appointed Behn to be head of the White House security detail shortly after the inauguration, and the two of them worked extremely well together. In the past three years, there was rarely a time that Behn didn’t travel? with President Kennedy. He was with him for weekends to Hyannis Port, Palm Beach, and Camp David, as well as every foreign trip. Behn takes his job so seriously that he has seldom taken a day off, and it was precisely because he knew he’d be gone from home much of next year with the campaign that he decided to skip the trip to Texas.

I haven’t looked in a mirror, but the way Mr. Behn is looking at me, I can tell my emotions must not be very well hidden. I am a wreck, and he knows it. While he commends my actions in the midst of the gunfire, he can relate to the guilt I feel:
Nothing can change the fact that we, the Secret Service, failed to protect our president.

I’ve only been in his office for a few minutes when a call comes in, for me from General Godfrey McHugh.

“Clint, I’m in the mansion and we have a problem,” McHugh says. There is no mistaking the urgency in his voice. “You better get over here to the East Room fast. Mrs. Kennedy wants to view the president.”

“I’ll be right there.”

When I arrive at the East Room, Mrs. Kennedy and the attorney general are standing in the doorway, peering into the somber room. She has some envelopes in one hand, and a large scrimshawed whale’s tooth in the other. I recognize the scrimshaw as the one she gave to the president last Christmas. I helped her track down the artist, who was well known for carving the presidential seal, and she told me how much the president loved it.

“What can I do for you, Mrs. Kennedy?”

“Bobby and I want to see the President.”

“All right, Mrs. Kennedy. Let me make sure everything is okay.”

General McHugh and I walk in and the general quietly requests the officer in charge of the honor guard to have his men leave the room.

“No,” Mrs. Kennedy interjects. “Just have the men turn around, they may stay where they are. Just have them move a little.”

The men of the honor guard solemnly, and in formation, turn an about face and take a few steps away from the casket.

General McHugh folds the flag down, touching it with reverence, and together, we raise the lid of the casket.

When I see President Kennedy lying there, so peaceful, it’s all I can do to keep my emotions in check. Clenching my jaw, I swallow hard.

The general and I step back as Mrs. Kennedy and Bobby walk up to the open casket. Weeping with anguish, they stand looking at the man they loved so very much. Mrs. Kennedy turns to me and says, “Mr. Hill, will you get me a scissor?”

“Yes, of course, Mrs. Kennedy.”

The usher’s office is just across the hall, and I find a pair of scissors in the desk drawer. I have a feeling I know what she’s going to do. I hand her the scissors, unable to look into her eyes, and take a few steps back from the casket, to give her some privacy.

The scissors go clip, clip, and I assume she is cutting locks of her husband’s hair—a part of him to keep with her. I turn and see the president’s brother lower the lid of the casket, and then, he and Mrs. Kennedy, both crying inconsolably, their faces tormented with agony, walk hand in hand out of the East Room.

As soon as they are gone, General McHugh and I check the casket to make sure it is securely closed. Out of habit, I look at my watch, and take note of the time: 12:46 p.m. The casket will never be opened again.

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