Eyewitness to the Death of a President

Rufus W. Youngblood

Rufus W. Youngblood has more than a passing interest in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Like millions of Americans, the 1950 industrial engineering graduate remembers exactly where he was and what he was doing on Nov. 22, 1963. He was riding in a motorcade in downtown Dallas.

By Gary Goettling
Photographed by Margaret Barrett

As the special agent in charge of the vice presidential Secret Service detail. Youngblood rode in an open Lincoln convertible with Vice President Lyndon Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson, Texas Sen. Ralph Yarborough and a driver. Only a Secret Service follow-up car separated him from the president's limousine, and the violence that unfolded there with graphic finality on a warm Dallas afternoon 28 years ago.

Who killed Kennedy? It's a question Youngblood has been asked hundreds of times, and his firm answer defies popular opinion: "Lee Harvey Oswald."

"I support the findings of the Warren Commission. [Conspiracy theorists] have had investigation after investigation, and nobody has come up with anything concrete. Nothing."

Actor Kevin Costner "should have stuck to dancing with wolves," Youngblood says tartly, referring to the movie "JFK." Although he says that he has not seen the Oliver Stone film, he is familiar with its premise, which implicates Lyndon Johnson and the Secret Service in a massive conspiracy to assassinate President John F. Kennedy and cover up the crime. Stone, he notes, "is making a whole bunch of money from it," a motive that he believes drives other conspiracy proponents as well.

Youngblood has not read any of the dozens of "conspiracy books" that promulgate theories ranging from CIA plots to French hit-men, but he is generally familiar with their assertions. In particular, he labels as "ridiculous" an upcoming book that blames the assassination on "friendly fire" from a Secret Service agent.

"I don't think any Secret Service guy fired his weapon down there that day. I could look ahead and see [George] Hickey, an agent in the president's follow-up car, who had the AR-15 [rifle]. He stood up and looked, but didn't see anything to fire at."

Kennedy's body was removed from Parkland Hospital by the Secret Service and flown back to Washington aboard Air Force One, technically in violation of Texas law which states that homicide victims must be autopsied in-state. Many conspiracy proponents point to that as evidence of Secret Service complicity in an assassination cover-up.

"That's nitpicking," Youngblood says. "I was telling Johnson that the safest thing for us was to get out of there and get back to Washington. He said that we were not leaving without Mrs. Kennedy, and she wasn't leaving without her husband's body. There was nothing sinister about it. Some people are just trying to make something up that isn't really there."

Youngblood is particularly bothered because "children growing up are not going to know what to believe because apparently the adults don't know what to believe," he says, a reference to polls which indicate that over 70 percent of the public does not support the lone-gunman conclusion in the Warren Report.

The bi-partisan Warren Commission did a thorough investigation of the crime, including the subsequent killing of Oswald, and reached the most reasonable and logical conclusions, Youngblood says. Acknowledging that there are some "honest skeptics," Youngblood believes that more people would concur with the commission's findings--if they read them.

"I'd say that 90 percent of the public has never read [the summary]," says Youngblood who keeps a bound copy of the report on a living-room bookshelf. And although he has not read all 26 volumes himself, he has read the two-inch-thick summary, and reviewed the other volumes.

Youngblood is seated on a cloth sofa at the comfortable ranch in Savannah that he shares with his wife, Peggy, and a Siamese cat named ODK. "That stands for Out-Door Kitty," smiles the 68-year-old Atlanta native. The home is sprinkled with reminders of his alma mater, from the Georgia Tech license plate on the Toyota van parked at the head of the driveway to the small matted Tech Tower print in the foyer. Color photographs of children--the couple has four--and grandchildren are scattered throughout the spacious living room. Atop a cabinet rests a gray scale model of a B- 17, similar to the aircraft in which Youngblood had flown as a waist-gunner during World War II

Youngblood eases back on his couch to reflect on the circumstances that carried him from North Avenue to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In 1946, fresh from military service with the Eighth Army Air Force, Youngblood enrolled at Georgia Tech, finishing the four-year industrial engineering curriculum in only three.

"I was already married then and I had a kid and I had to work, so I wanted to get through and get out," he recalls.

After graduating from Tech, Youngblood found a job with a consulting mechanical engineering firm, but soon a recession hit the profession and he was jobless again after only a few months.

"I liked law enforcement and investigation," Youngblood says. "I'd even thought seriously about joining the FBI and went down to talk with them."

When told that agents had to be either accountants or lawyers, Youngblood prepared to enter Mercer University's law school.

"I got some law books and I read them," he says, "and they bored the hell out of me. I didn't want to be an attorney."

He turned next to the Georgia Tech Alumni Placement office for help, which offered a promising lead: "The United States Secret Service is seeking qualified applicants for Special Agent positions, starting salary $3,825 per year."

The job didn't require a law-enforcement background, just a college degree. "You did have to take a Civil Service examination and a Secret Service examination, which was primarily an aptitude test."

Later, as Youngblood began his climb through the Secret Service ranks, he attended Treasury Department Enforcement School and the service's own training program.

On March 26, 1951, Youngblood was sworn in as a special agent of the U.S. Secret Service, beginning a career that would last 20 years through five presidencies.

At the time Youngblood was a rookie agent, the Secret Service, which comes under the auspices of the Treasury Department, had two basic functions: to investigate counterfeiting and other crimes involving government obligations, and to protect the president. The second mission has since been extended to include the vice president, presidential candidates, former presidents, and visiting heads of state.

Youngblood spent most of his probationary period in the Atlanta field office working on check-forging cases. In June 1951, he got his first taste of the protective-duty side of the service when he was assigned to escort Vice President Alben Barkley on an Atlanta visit.

When Barkley stepped down the ramp at Atlanta Airport, "there was one green agent there watching everything that moved," Youngblood laughs. "As far as I was concerned, the place was crawling with potential assassins, and I was ready for them."

The next year, while on a 30-day assignment to Washington, Youngblood had his first encounter with a president.

He was standing at his post outside the Oval Office when the door opened and Harry S. Truman stepped out into the hall, arms laden with papers and books. The president asked the young agent if he would help carry the material upstairs. "Why certainly, Mr. President," said the startled Youngblood, who realized that he was violating orders. But how could he refuse?

It was hardly an auspicious beginning, but the assignment convinced Youngblood that protective duty would be more interesting than investigative work, and his request for a transfer to Washington was approved.

Besides the "glamour" of meeting famous people from every conceivable endeavor, what was so appealing about protective duty?

"First of all, it's not glamorous," Youngblood corrects. "It might be for the first few months, but that diminishes. But it is a good education. You are where history is being made.

"A lot of people wrongfully assume that a Secret Service agent on protective duty is principally a bodyguard. That is an aspect of what you do, but one of the main things is to make advance arrangements for presidential tours. That is a wide ranging thing that takes you all over the world. It is quite interesting."

Youngblood notes that the objectives of a president and his Secret Service agents are often at odds.

"The problem is that you have two missions in direct conflict--you have a political mission and a security mission. Neither one embraces the other, so you attempt to do whatever you can to provide a secure environment.

"For instance, the armored car is one of the things we accomplished, but it took an assassination to get one. That's terrible. We had tried before for many, many years, but the presidents thought they'd be criticized for spending the money.

"You could put the president in a secure building like the White House and let him talk to people through bars or over a telephone and not be exposed to the public. Even I don't want to see that. That is not what we should do in this country.

"Actually, one of the safest things a president can do is go into a crowd as long as it's unplanned and unpublicized. The worst thing is to go sit at something outdoors like a football game for a couple of hours," he says.

The biggest headache in providing Secret Service protection overseas is "getting cooperation from the embassies," according to Youngblood. "They have a lot of protocol, and they would sacrifice security for protocol. A lot of times you have to compromise a little bit, but you get it worked out."

Some presidents have at first resisted Secret Service protection as an invasion of privacy, "but soon they realize they have more privacy by virtue of having us than they would if they didn't have us.

"We don't interfere with their personal life," he adds. "When [President Johnson's daughters] Luci or Lynda had dates, we didn't go in the car with them. We would follow them in another car. We would be at restaurants where they went, but we didn't sit at the table with them.

"When Truman sat down to play poker with his cronies, we took him to the place and we were there to bring him back, and we were guarding the building while he was there, but we didn't go in and intrude on the poker game."

Secret Service agents are characterized by tact and discretion, and even after 20 years Youngblood is sparing in his descriptions of the personal side of the presidents he served.

"Eisenhower was really great for relying on a table of organization," Youngblood says in response to criticism that the 34th president spent more time playing golf than making decisions. "You also have to remember that the country was a lot more peaceful during his administration. The problems we had during the Eisenhower administration and the Truman administration are almost nil when compared to the problems we are confronting today."

Wasn't Truman known for his euphemistically termed "salty" language? "He wasn't near as salty as LBJ," Youngblood chuckles mischievously without elaboration.

"Truman was extremely punctual. You could almost set your watch by him. On the other hand, LBJ was the kind of guy who said he'd rather be 10 minutes late than one minute early.

"All of them were vain insofar as their appearance before the public was concerned. Ike was probably the least vain of the bunch.

"I really liked them all," he insists. "They all had good points and bad points, and they often get the blame when things go wrong, but they don't get credit for the good things they do."

But of all the presidents and vice presidents he served, Youngblood was closest to Johnson.

"I had been with him all over the world from early in his vice presidency. I've seen the good and the bad.

"The guy would chew me out for something the Air Force did, and chew out the Air Force for something I did--that sort of thing. He never would apologize, but he would turn around and do something nice for you. But he would never say, 'Look, I'm sorry I fussed at you.'

"Sometimes I tried to argue with him--I should say that I tried to reason with him, because he was going to get his point made, regardless."

Youngblood likes to tell the story about a White House phone call he received at home one night. Clutching an imaginary receiver, he murmurs, "Yes sir . . . yes . . . yes sir . . . yes, Mr. President." When his wife asked what the call had been about, Youngblood said, "Oh, he just chewed me out for something I wasn't really guilty of."

"Well," she replied, "it used to be that you got chewed out by the vice president. Now you're getting chewed out by the president. You've come up in the world!"

Frustration over the Vietnam War exacted a heavy emotional and physical toll on Johnson, Youngblood remembers. "He couldn't sleep at night, and would go over to the Situation Room where they had constant flow of information, to see what had come in."

Youngblood, who made trips to Vietnam with Johnson as vice president and again as president, believes that "he had too much bad advice."

Youngblood maintains close ties to the Johnson family, and has accepted an invitation to the LBJ Ranch to help celebrate Lady Bird's 80th birthday on Dec. 22.

In 1971, at age 47, Youngblood retired from the Secret Service as deputy director. "One of the good things you learn at Georgia Tech is mathematics," he says. "I figured that if I kept working, with the costs of commuting and all, that I'd be getting only about 40 percent of my salary. But if I retired, with the pension I'd be getting 60 percent."

There were also some not-too-subtle hints coming from the White House. Youngblood who had always enjoyed a close relationship with presidential assistants--Democrat and Republican--sensed a "dramatic change" in the tenor of the Nixon administration.

"Haldeman and Ehrlichman--I didn't cotton to them. They weren't exactly my bosses, but they wouldn't invite me to meetings and things like that. So I just couldn't see any sense in staying on any longer."

In 1973, Youngblood finished a book about his career titled 20 Years in the Secret Service: My Life with Five Presidents. The publisher, Simon and Schuster, sent him on a publicity tour that included appearances on "The Tonight Show" and "Today." Youngblood, who spent two years on the project, was disappointed in sales.

"They [Simon and Schuster] sent me on this tour when the book wasn't even in stores yet," he recalls. He says that the publisher concentrated its attention and resources into promoting another title that year. "My book was up against Joy of Sex. I didn't have a chance," he shrugs.

Inevitably the conversation drifts back to 1963 and the tragedy that staggered the world--and put Rufus Youngblood's name in a hundred reporters' notebooks.

Up until the time the presidential motorcade turned onto Elm Street, "it looked like just another very successful political trip," Youngblood remembers. "They wanted crowds, and they got crowds."

As the procession crawled into Dealey Plaza, Youngblood glanced up at the clock on the roof of the Texas School Book Depository. It flashed 12:30. Less than a minute to the freeway, and only five minutes to the Trade Mart, he thought. That instant, piercing through the shouts of the thinning crowd, and the stuttering and backfiring of police motorcycles, Youngblood heard the shattering crack! of a rifle. His reaction was immediate and instinctive.

"Get down!" he yelled. "GET DOWN!" And in the time it takes to pull the bolt of a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle, Youngblood had vaulted over the back of the limousine seat onto Vice President Johnson, pushing him to the floor of the Lincoln convertible and shielding Johnson's body with his own.

Johnson, in his statement to the Warren Commission, said that Youngblood reacted immediately after the first shot and was sitting on top of him by the time the second shot and fatal third shot were fired into Kennedy.

Youngblood's heroic action earned him the Treasury Department's highest honor, the Exceptional Service Award, presented by President Johnson on Dec. 4, 1963.

In his own testimony before the Warren Commission, Youngblood said: "As we were beginning to go down this incline, all of a sudden there was an explosive noise. I quickly observed unnatural movement of crowds, like ducking or scattering, and quick movements in the presidential follow-up car. So I turned around and hit the vice president on the shoulder and hollered, 'Get down,' and then looked around again and saw more of this movement, and so I proceeded to go to the back seat and get on top of him."

From his position, Youngblood noticed "a grayish blur in the air above the right side of the president's car light after the third shot. "There were shouts from ahead, then the cars in front of us lurched forward toward the underpass. I yelled to our driver, 'Stay with them and keep close!'"

From his uncomfortable sprawled position on the back seat, Johnson asked what had happened. Youngblood replied that the president had been shot, and that they were headed to the hospital.

"My God! They've shot the President!" exclaimed Sen. Yarborough, who shared the back seat of the limousine with the vice president. Lady Bird Johnson, seated between the two men, cried out. "Oh no. That can't be!"

After arriving at the hospital, the vice president climbed out of the car, rubbing his stiff shoulder, giving rise to early erroneous press reports that Johnson had also been wounded in the attack. Still unsure if a larger plot to assassinate all top government officials was being deployed, Youngblood worked quickly to sequester Johnson.

"President Kennedy was practically dead when they arrived at the hospital," Youngblood says. "He had a little pulse, but for all practical purposes he was gone. At the time, I didn't know how badly wounded the president was, but I did know that if he was incapacitated in some way, then Johnson was next in line, so I acted accordingly."

All accounts of the events immediately following the assassination, up through the time when the airplane carrying a new president and a slain president touched down at Andrews Air Force Base, single out Youngblood for maintaining his composure and professionalism in the face of absolute pandemonium. Eventually the enormity of it all caught up with him, and when he returned home after the longest day of his life, "I really broke down," Youngblood says.

Lyndon Johnson, on the other hand, did not receive universal high marks for his performance after the assassination, mostly from people who felt that he had jumped into the presidency with more enthusiasm than appropriate or necessary. "I'm really surprised at a lot of the things that have been written," Youngblood says. "Some nasty things have been said about him, and the guy could not have been any more considerate toward the president's family and the president's staff. I mean, not only on that day and the flight back, but through the ensuing months and even years. They didn't treat him as nicely as he treated them."

Youngblood is still dogged by the Kennedy assassination--not so much by the past as the present; by the outrageous speculation and accusations of people who literally spent years dissecting decisions made in a few chaotic minutes or seconds. Once upon a time it may have hurt, and sometimes it still makes him angry. But mostly he is just tired of it.

"I wish they would just put it to rest, he sighs. "But they won't--not as long as someone can make a buck off it."

Ike's Rogue Golf Cart

Golf carts were just coming into vogue in the early fifties, and Ike often enjoyed driving his own cart. One warm spring afternoon on Augusta National, Ike tooled his cart up to the edge of the green where his ball lay just off the putting surface. The moment he took his foot off the accelerator it was apparent that something was wrong, as the cart continued on under full power. Faced with a long downhill run to a creek, Ike made his decision and bailed out. But the driverless cart circled back sharply, and for a few tense moments a strange procession moved across the lush fairway--the president of the United States in the lead, running for all he was worth, a rogue golf cart at his heels, and half a dozen Secret Service agents tearing along in pursuit. There was some shouted discussion as to whether the thing should be shot just as three agents overtook it and, like a dogie at a rodeo, bulldogged it over onto its side.

--From: 20 Years in the Secret Service

Presidential Snapshots

HARRY S. TRUMAN: He was an immaculate dresser, probably a carryover from his days when he was haberdasher. He was also one of the most brilliant historians I ever ran across. He did a lot of reading of history as a hobby. It was always quite interesting to listen to him.

DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER: I thought of him as my commanding officer. I felt like we had won World War II together. He spent a lot of time in Augusta on the golf course, and since I was a Georgian familiar with the area, I would often accompany him on those trips.

JOHN F. KENNEDY: I think he was the epitome of charisma. I don't believe we used that word very much back in those days, but I think that if anybody had it, he had it. He was energetic, and it was a pleasure to work around him.

LYNDON B. JOHNSON: Of all the presidents, he was probably the most professional politician. Politics was his hobby. He was also the most down-to-earth human being who was in the White House during my time there. Little things bothered the hell out of him. He said to me once that the big decisions didn't bother him, but some of the little bitty things.... He would tell you how to turn a screw clockwise or counterclockwise.

RICHARD M. NIXON: I was not assigned to him for any length of time, but I did have a couple of short temporary assignments--including a campaign visit to Atlanta in 1960. I liked Nixon when he was vice president, but when he came in as president, time had done something to him.