Reporter Lew Wood Remembers
A CBS DAY 50 YEARS AGO IN DALLAS
"Hold On Lew -- Don’t Go Away!"Last updated Friday November 22nd, 2013
EDITOR’S NOTE: Lew Wood was a CBS News Correspondent covering President Kennedy’s swing through the south in the fall of 1963. Wood later joined NBC News, spent a tour in Viet Nam, anchored WNBC-TV’s Six O’clock News in New York, and ended up replacing the original newscaster, Frank Blair, on The Today Show. His memories below are republished from a collection of reporters’ stories published previously on this site. Wood died earlier this year.
By LEW WOOD
Civil Rights was not the only story the CBS Southern Bureau had to cover. Hurricanes, accidents, politics and Presidential trips to southern states were among the stories, which kept Dan Rather, Nelson Benton and me constantly on the road.
In November, 1963, President John F. Kennedy made two quick trips to the Southland. The first was to Florida, where he made stops in Miami, Palm Beach, Tampa and Cape Canaveral all in one day, the 18th. I field-produced our attempt to cover that whirlwind trip, and found it nearly impossible with only two crews. The standard routine was to have a crew wherever the President landed or took off, as well as cover his appearance. We had to sort of “leap-frog” him.
Based on that experience, I recommended to Dan Rather and New York that we have all three bureau crews, plus a crew from either New York or Chicago to supplement our coverage for the President’s trip to Texas on November 21-23. The White House crew, under correspondent Bob Pierpoint, would provide its normal coverage of the President. The plan was approved, and all three of us, with film crews, plus the requested extra crews, were in Texas when the unimaginable happened.
The first scheduled Texas event was the President’s appearance at a fund-raising dinner for a Texas Congressman at the Rice Hotel in Houston. As the President and Mrs. Kennedy left the dinner, they stopped by unannounced for a brief appearance before a gathering of La Raza, an Hispanic organization, where Mrs. Kennedy spoke to the group in Spanish. They then flew from Love field, Dallas, to Carswell Air Force base near Forth Worth, for an overnight stay in the Texas Star Hotel. The crew (Wendell Hoffman and Don McLendon) and I drove to Ft. Worth early the next morning (Dallas and Ft. Worth are nearly adjacent) to cover JFK’s breakfast speech to another fund-raising gathering of political invitees.
The President made a brief appearance to the crowd in front of the hotel, then motored to Carswell where he worked the line of well-wishers along a fence before boarding Air Force One. That is where I snapped this photo of President Kennedy with Jackie, who is all but hidden behind a person talking to the President. This was about an hour before the President was shot.
Air Force One’s return flight to Love Field in Dallas couldn’t have taken more than a few minutes, hardly time to retract the landing gear. We drove back to Love Field for our next assignment, covering his scheduled takeoff for San Antonio following the Dallas motorcade and speech at the Trade Mart. Dan Rather was downtown to cover the motorcade, and remained at KRLD, monitoring the event.
“Hold On Lew - Don’t Go Away”
When the crew and I returned to Dallas, we stopped at the Ramada Inn at Love field for lunch. It would be a while before JFK finished his scheduled speech at the Trade Mart, and was to take off from Love Field for San Antonio, which was our next assignment.
As was my habit when within reach of a telephone, I grabbed one in the lobby and called Dan Rather at KRLD. The crew went into the dining room and ordered lunch. While reporting in to Dan, he suddenly said “Hold on, Lew...don’t go away.” Within a minute or two he came back on the phone and said “The President’s been shot...get to Parkland Hospital as fast as you can!”
I went into the dining room and told the crew not to question my order, but pay the bill NOW and let’s go to the car. I would tell them when we got outside. As we reached the lobby, Wendell Hoffman persisted in wanting to know what so important that we leave in such a hurry. I whispered to him that the President had been shot. Wendell blurted out in his loud Kansas farmer’s voice, “What, the President’s been shot?”
The whole motel lobby seemed to hear him. Dishes crashed to the floor from the hands of the waiters. The place became chaotic as radios at the front desk broadcast the news.
We rushed to the car and headed for Parkland Hospital. It was a good thing Don McLendon was from Texas, because he knew the fastest route. We arrived at the emergency entrance just after the President’s motorcade, but were shunted away from the hectic scene. All media were directed to assemble in a nurse’s classroom, where we were virtually locked in awaiting news of the President’s condition. Wendell set up his sound camera.
Eventually, assistant White House press secretary Malcolm (Mac) Kilduff (at the time, Press Secretary Pierre Salinger was in mid-air over the Pacific accompanying Defense Secretary Robert McNamara on an overseas trip) entered the room and informed us that President Kennedy had died of a severe gunshot wound to the head at 1:00 p.m. A bit later, the senior surgeon of the team that tried to save the President’s life came to the room to give more details of the situation. The President’s body, Mrs. Kennedy, Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, and others of the White House party, were motorcaded to Love Field where they boarded Air Force One for a trip back to Washington.
Now: How Did It Happen?
It was then that we began to piece together what had happened to prepare for what we knew would be required of us in telling many subsequent stories about the death of a President.
As most of the world now knows, the Presidential open-car motorcade wound its way through downtown Dallas, turning the corner from Elm Street onto Dealey Plaza. At that corner was situated a six story red-brick building that served as the Texas Schoolbook Depository. Suddenly, shots rang out. The President had been shot in the head, and the motorcade sped up and raced to the Stemmons Freeway, headed for Parkland Hospital. A Secret Service agent leaped to the rear of the presidential limousine to protect and prevent Mrs. Kennedy from climbing over the rear seat.
Meanwhile, Lee Harvey Oswald had quietly walked away from the sixth floor of the Schoolbook Depository and took a bus to a neighborhood where he had a rooming house at 1026 North Beckley. There, he picked up a .38 cal. pistol he owned and set out again. But he was stopped by police officer James Tippett, who had heard a broadcast description provided by Schoolbook Depository staff, and considered Oswald suspicious. Oswald shot and killed Officer Tippet. The assassin then went into a nearby movie theater without paying, and the alarmed cashier called police. They entered and after a scuffle, captured Oswald and arrested him.
That evening, I went to Oswald’s rooming house on North Beckley to interview his landlady and to film scenes of the small room Oswald rented. Later, I went to Dallas police headquarters where reporters crowded into a conference room as Oswald was paraded in front of the media. Someone yelled, “Did you shoot the President?” He denied it. Also in the back of the room that night was a character all the cops seemed to know, and who appeared to have free entry to police headquarters. His name was Jack Ruby, who owned a sleazy strip club and bar.
We Were Not Challenged
It was later determined that the shots were fired from the sixth floor window of the School Book Depository by Lee Harvey Oswald, who worked there. The sniper’s perch directly overlooked the motorcade route in Dealey Plaza, and Oswald who once was a Marine rifleman, had an easy shot. I know. I was an expert shot in the Marines.
So Dan Rather suggested I try to borrow a rifle at a pawn shop (easy to do then in Texas) and recreate the Oswald sniper’s perch. I actually rented a Mannlicher-Carcano .30 (or 7.62) caliber rifle in a pawn shop, (the same model weapon Oswald used) had it fixed with a four power telescopic sight, and waltzed into the School Book Depository with it slung on my shoulder, along with my crew.
We were not challenged. The Secret Service had not even sealed off the building, but had scoured it after the shooting, discovering the discarded rifle and empty cartridge casings.
The cartons of schoolbooks that Oswald arranged to provide a support were still in place. The window was still open wide. The target sight picture was a going-away target, not a crossing target, so, while moving, it remained in the sights. The range was no more than100 yards. The President’s head (judging from other passenger cars that morning) must have appeared as big as a melon through the telescopic sight.
Some have questioned how Oswald could have fired three shots in such a few seconds. Remember, one round was already in the chamber of the bolt-action rifle. Once he squeezed off the first shot, he only had to work the bolt twice more. Take my word for it. It was an easy shot.
Saturday, Nov. 23, was the previously described reenactment of the shooting with my film crew from the assassin’s perch. Wendell Hoffman used fine focus to make film through the eyepiece of the telescopic sight to show the simplicity of the shot. I thought it was a fine piece of film and reporting. It might have disproved some of the many conspiracy theorists who believed (and still believe) that Oswald could not have been “the lone gunman.” However, I don’t believe it was ever shown on television, and to this day I don’t know why. Perhaps it was thought it would be too upsetting to Mrs. Kennedy during the constant television coverage of the four days of mourning. I always meant to ask Dan Rather if he knew why the piece was never aired, but I have not.
Dan later wrote a book about Dallas and other experiences covering the news titled “The Camera Never Blinks.” He mentions me in the chapter on Dallas, quoting me as asking him “Dan, can I get a little air time once in a while?” He did all the feeds to the network.
One other interesting, if not macabre assignment I had was to film the place where JFK died, Trauma Room One in Parkland Hospital’s emergency area. My cameraman Dick Perez included in his shots a scene taken by lying on his back on the exam table, shooting up at the lights above, then going slowly out of focus. I don’t think that piece of film was ever shown either.
A Live Murder - On NBC
On Sunday, November 24, Oswald was to be transferred from Dallas police headquarters to the county jail, only a few blocks away. As he was brought down in shackles to a waiting car in the lower level of police headquarters, Jack Ruby again entered the garage unchallenged, pulled a pistol, and fatally shot Oswald in the stomach. The shooting was captured and aired live by NBC News television and reported by Tom Pettit. Nelson Benton had just left the garage to go to the CBS remote truck outside on the street, and did not actually witness the event first hand.
With cameraman Dick Perez, we raced behind the ambulance to Parkland Hospital, and Dick actually was bending over the gurney transporting Oswald into the emergency room. Oswald died in the same area as the nation’s President whom he assassinated. It seems none of us was able to leave Dallas for the next two weeks, with all the follow-up coverage that was necessary. When Nelson Benton finally got a chance to get home to New Orleans for a break, he told me his emotions finally got the better of him as he settled into his seat on the plane, and he broke down in tears.
Jack Ruby was finally brought to trial in a Dallas court in 1964, and I covered much of the proceedings. Judge Joe Brown presided. Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade was the prosecutor, and the flamboyant celebrity defense attorney was Melvin Belli from San Francisco, who obviously took the case for the publicity value. The trial was kind of like a three-ring circus, with each of the aforementioned holding court for the press during breaks and lunchtimes. DA Wade, a longtime Dallas County prosecutor, died in 2001. It was later found in 2008 that he compiled a huge number of convictions, many of which were overturned based on newly available DNA evidence. DA Wade was also the “Wade” in the famous “Roe v. Wade” U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion in 1973.
The trial drew some of the top reporters of the day, including Bob Considine, Homer Bigart of the New York Times, and Dorothy Kilgallen of the Hearst newspapers. There were only a limited number of seats for the media, and we had to line up in a stairway outside the courtroom before each session to get numbers. I recall one session where I got seated, but Dorothy Kilgallen was late, and got seated next to me. She spent the next several minutes glancing over and copying my notes.
Jack Ruby was eventually convicted of Oswald’s murder, and sentenced to prison. The conviction was overturned, but before he could be retried, he died of cancer in jail the following year.
Along with the continuing coverage of the civil rights struggles in the south during the 1960’s, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 ranks as one of the most important news stories I ever covered.