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The "CLIFTON" Version of the Air Force One Tapes Yields Important Information

On November 15, 2011, AP reporter Joann Loviglio posted a story of major interest on the AP wire about a new version of the Air Force One tapes of in-flight conversations with the ground, recorded the day of President Kennedy's assassination by the White House Communications Agency, on 11/22/63, as the Presidential aircraft (SAM 26000) was enroute from Love Field in Dallas, Texas to Andrews Air Force Base, in Maryland.  This new version was found in the effects of former Military Aide to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, Army Brigadier General Chester V. Clifton, who retired in 1965 (and took the reel-to-reel tape recording with him into retirement).  Clifton died in 1991; his widow died in 2009; and the tape recording and various papers were acquired by the RAAB Collection in a public sale, conducted by Clifton's heirs.  The article stated that the RAAB Collection, in addition to selling the original tape recording purchased from the Clifton estate, was going to donate a digitized copy to the National Archives.

That was appropriate, since the tape was government property---indeed, was a historically significant archival record of the American government in crisis---which had been purloined by a government official when he retired.  (This was common practice in the mid 1960s, but is prohibited by law today.)  What made this story so interesting to so many people is the fact that the earlier version of the Air Force One tapes, released by the LBJ Library in the 1970s, was known to have been edited and condensed (since the disclaimer admitting this preceded the actual recording).  Its contents were about 110-115 minutes long.  It contained much provocative and interesting material about the in-flight planning for JFK's autopsy: namely, differing opinions about where it should be conducted, and about how the body should be transported to the autopsy site.  This may have seemed to many of only mild historical curiosity in the mid-1970s when the tape was first released, but questions about how the autopsy site was selected, and how the body was transported to the site, took on major importance after David Lifton published his 1981 book Best Evidence, which provided convincing evidence for multiple casket entries into the Bethesda morgue that evening.  Following the release of the HSCA's staff interviews in 1993 (thanks to the JFK Records Act), and through the work of the ARRB staff (in deposing retired FBI agents Frank O'Neill and James Sibert; and in acquiring the written report of Marine Corps Sergeant Roger Boyajian, dated 11/22/63), the evidence for three different casket entries into the Bethesda morgue on November 22, 1963---as posited by David Lifton in 1981---has become fact, and is now unchallengeable.  Those three casket entries, which make the Air Force One tapes so historically significant and relevant even today, are summarized below:

The Three Casket Entries (Summarized):

(1) 6:35 PM/casket delivered was a cheap aluminum shipping casket/mode of delivery was a hearse (a black Cadillac mortuary-style ambulance).  The hearse was offloaded by Navy Petty Officer Dennis David and his Navy working party of about 8 sailors, wearing Navy working uniforms (not dress uniforms).  [Supporting evidence: David's recollections to a newspaper in 1975 and to David Lifton in 1979 and 1980; and the subsequent recollections of Donald Rebentisch (a member of his working party), circa 1981.  The time of this casket entry (1835 hours, or 6:35 PM) was reported contemporaneously by USMC Sergeant Boyajian in his 11/26/63 typed after-action report; he authenticated a copy he sent to the ARRB staff in 1997.]

(2) 7:15-7:17 PM/casket delivered was a bronze, ceremonial viewing casket furnished by the Oneal Funeral Home at Parkland Hospital in Dallas.  It was taken into the morgue anteroom by four Federal agents (using a wheeled conveyance, likely a "church truck"): FBI agents James Sibert and Frank O'Neill, and Secret Service Agents Roy Kellerman and William Greer.  [Supporting evidence: HSCA staff interviews of Sibert and O'Neill from the late 1970s; ARRB depositions of Sibert and O'Neill taken in 1997; and an FBI internal memorandum from 1964 that helped to approximate the timing of this casket entry as about 7:17.]

(3) 8:00 PM/casket delivered was the same bronze, ceremonial viewing casket from Dallas that had entered earlier---with no one inside it (empty)---at 7:17 PM.  It was taken into the morgue again at 8:00 PM (this time with JFK's body having first been reintroduced into the casket) by the Joint Service Casket Team, or "honor guard," composed of US Navy, US Army, US Air Force, and U.S. Coast Guard personnel wearing dress uniforms and white gloves.  [Supporting evidence: the written report of the Military District of Washington provided the time of 2000 hours; and extensive interviews by authors David Lifton and William Manchester established the unique nature of this ceremonial second entry for the Dallas casket.]

Each time the bronze, ceremonial viewing casket from Dallas was brought to the morgue, it was delivered to the loading dock by a light gray, Navy mortuary-type ambulance.  The bronze Dallas casket in the light gray Navy ambulance did not even arrive at Bethesda Naval Hospital (from Andrews AFB) until 6:55 PM, or 20 minutes AFTER JFK's body was delivered to the morgue (via a simple aluminum shipping casket, in a hearse, or mortuary-style black Cadillac).  The Dallas casket was not driven away from the front of Bethesda Naval Hospital, around to the morgue loading dock, until about 7:07 PM, and was then not offloaded until about 7:15-7:17 PM or so. The upshot?  The publicized, televised removal of the bronze Dallas casket from Air Force One about 6:10 PM, immediately after Air Force One was "on the blocks" (at 6:04 PM), was a sham, for by definition that casket had to be empty when it was offloaded, since JFK's body first arrived at Bethesda Naval Hospital twenty minutes prior to that ornate viewing coffin from Dallas.  The first entry of the Dallas casket into the Bethesda morgue was of an empty coffin.  As I documented in my book, Inside the Assassination Records Review Board, the early arrival of JFK's body in the shipping casket, at 6:35 PM, provided time for key medical personnel at Bethesda Naval Hospital to perform a preliminary inspection of his head wounds, and to grossly expand the President's cranial wounds---by illicit, clandestine post-mortem surgery---in order to remove evidence of shots from the front and right front, prior to the formal commencement of the autopsy at 8:15 PM.  The second entry of the Dallas casket at 8:00 PM allowed the honor guard to carry JFK's body---his cranial wounds, unknown to them, now altered and dramatically different in appearance---into the morgue, which was their primary function that night.  After earlier "losing" the casket while chasing a decoy ambulance around the grounds of Bethesda in the darkness, it was imperative to those orchestrating the cover-up that night that the confused and mortified Joint Service Casket Team be allowed to "find the casket" shortly before 8:00 PM, and perform their duly authorized function.  It was the "impossibly early" arrival of JFK's body, in a different casket from which it left Dallas (an aluminum shipping casket), and in a different ambulance from that in which the Dallas casket left Andrews AFB (namely, in a hearse, a black Cadillac), that broke the chain-of-custody of the body and therefore, by definition, invalidated the results of the Bethesda autopsy.  The broken chain-of-custody was evidence of a covert operation that was underway---in short, obstruction of justice.

It is this context, summarized above, which makes the Air Force One tapes, containing undisputed audio evidence of a powerful tug-of-war over the forthcoming autopsy, so important today, almost 49 years after JFK's assassination.  I Iistened to the earlier, edited-and-condensed LBJ Library version of the tapes at the National Archives in October of 1995---and wrote a 7-page ARRB staff memo on October 17, 1995, about why they were so relevant and interesting to historians and researchers.  I also wrote about the Air Force One tapes on pages 1660-1664 of volume V of my book, Inside the ARRB.

This brings us to the point of this essay, which is that I have found three items of particular interest in the new "Clifton" version of the Air Force One tapes that is now available to the public (for free) from the National Archives.  The "Clifton" version can be downloaded from a GPO/NARA website at this address:

(You can copy-and-paste the above address into your search engine, or simply Google the following phrase---"Post JFK Assassination Air Force One Flight Deck Recordings"---and you will be led to the webpage that allows you to download the new version of the Air Force One tapes.)

The "Clifton" recordings can be downloaded via two MP3 audio files: one is called "side 1" and is 70.1 MB in size; the other is called "side 2" and is 66.3 MB in size.

It appears that the audio has been digitally cleaned up as much as possible already.  There is still considerable static in places, and there is still some audio distortion on occasion in some conversations, but overall the quality of the audio in these digitized recordings is far superior to that in the LBJ Library versions, released in years past on audiocassette.

Furthermore, the "Clifton" recording of the Air Force One conversations from 11/22/63 is 2 hours and 22 minutes long---about 27 or so minutes longer than the LBJ Library version.

Here is my report on three aspects of the "Clifton" recording which are different from the LBJ version---i.e., new material---and worthy of note:

I.    A "black Cadillac" is clearly mentioned in the new recordings.  Download side 1 (the 70.1 MB MP3 recording), and fast forward to the segment that begins at time 1:02:20, and which ends at time 1:03:13.  What you are listening to here is "back chatter" (i.e., background conversation) from the White House Situation Room ("Crown"), which was picked up inadvertently in an "open mike" situation, in which AF1 was temporarily off the line due to communications problems, and the "Crown" microphone remained "hot."  The following snippets of conversation by unidentified background speakers can be heard, as  follows:   " car...[followed by faint, garbled conversation]...that Cadillac is the...[followed by faint, garbled conversation] Cadillac...[followed by faint, garbled conversation]...I'd get him out there anyways, regardless!  And then get him out there [garbled] regardless, then maybe, then maybe...[followed by faint, garbled conversation] Cadillac."  This final use of the phrase "black Cadillac," ending at time 1:03:12, is the loudest and clearest use of that phrase during this overheard, "hot mike" conversation.  The phrase "black Cadillac" could barely be heard (and just once) on the LBJ Library tape when I reviewed it at the Archives in 1995, but was extremely faint and the context was uncertain, which I pointed out in my 1995 ARRB memo.  Now, in the "Clifton" version of the Air Force One tapes, the phrase "black Cadillac" is unmistakable, and its overall context is clear---it is preceded and followed by discussions about where the autopsy site should be, and about how to get JFK's body to the autopsy site (i.e., the tug-of-war over whether to use an ambulance or a helicopter).  The immediate context of the speaker's comments above is clearly about getting the body to the autopsy site as fast as possible, and matches the general context, which is the aforementioned ongoing discussion about where the autopsy should be held and how the body should be transported there.  This mention of a "black car" and a "black Cadillac" strongly corroborates Dennis David's consistent account (for more than three decades now) about how his working party met a hearse (a black Cadillac) and unloaded a shipping casket---the first of three casket entries that night at the Bethesda morgue.  [It is important to note that Dr. "J" Thornton Boswell, the Navy pathologist who assisted the chief prosector, Dr. James J. Humes, confirmed to Dennis David later that evening after the conclusion of the JFK autopsy that the President had indeed been inside the casket that David's working party offloaded from the black Cadillac, or hearse, at 6:35 PM.]  If any more evidence was needed as to Dennis David's veracity, it has now been amply supplied.  Many of the speakers using the "Crown" handle that night were national security officials (such as Chief of the Secret Service White House Detail Gerald Behn; and McGeorge Bundy, the National Security Advisor to the President).  They surely had their staff assistants with them.  The "black Cadillac" remarks cited above were probably spoken by Secret Service agents, or by persons working for McGeorge Bundy.  Someone with sensitive sound equipment may, in the future, be able to recover more of the conversation cited above.   I have quoted for you here what I could glean myself from turning my speakers up to maximum, and through the use of studio headphones.

II.    General LeMay's aide, a Colonel Dorman, urgently attempted to contact General LeMay by radio shortly before his inbound plane from Canada landed.  This conversation is recorded on "side 2," the 66.3 MB MP3 recording, between times 11:05 and 12:04.  Why have I declared this to be of such interest?  Why is it more than just a passing, random, historical curiosity?  Because: (1) General LeMay, returning from Canada to the United States following learning about the assassination, disobeyed the orders of the Secretary of the Air Force (his nominal superior), Mr. Eugene Zuckert, and instead of landing at Andrews AFB as he was directed, landed at Washington D.C.'s National Airport adjacent to downtown Washington, D.C., instead; and (2) because Paul K. O'Connor, a Navy corpsman who assisted the Navy pathologists with the autopsy on JFK, stated many times before his death that General LeMay attended the autopsy of President Kennedy on 11/22/63.  I documented the great antipathy that LeMay (Air Force Chief of Staff) and President Kennedy had for each other---as well as LeMay's disobedience toward the Air Force Secretary the day of the assassination---in volume 2 of Inside the ARRB, on pages 481-488.  The real question here is, "Why did the editor of the LBJ Library version of the Air Force One tapes decide to remove this conversation from that version of the recordings?"  Perhaps the whole subject of General LeMay, particularly whether or not he was present at JFK's autopsy, was "radioactive" when the tapes were edited in the 1960s.  General LeMay did not retire from the U.S. Air Force until 1965; presumably he was still Air Force Chief of Staff when the edited and condensed tapes were assembled, and perhaps he had personally ordered the removal of that conversation from the record.  Alternatively, someone else may not have wanted LeMay's name even remotely associated with the events surrounding the autopsy, especially if he had been present at JFK's post-mortem examination.  More than one third of the air time on the Air Force One tapes is devoted to the autopsy arrangements, and "someone" may have been quite uncomfortable about the urgently expressed desire of LeMay's aide to contact him early that evening.  LeMay landed at National Airport 52 minutes prior to the "on the blocks" time for Air Force One, and 83 minutes prior to the arrival of JFK's body at Bethesda (at 6:35 PM).  He had plenty of time to be driven to Andrews if he had wanted to be there; and he certainly had plenty of time to drive from National Airport (or the nearby Pentagon) to Bethesda Naval Hospital, prior to the body's arrival.

III.    The takeoff time of Air Force Two from Dallas, Texas and its prospective arrival time at Andrews AFB is conclusively provided on the new Air Force One tapes.  (This information is not present on the LBJ Library version of the Air Force One tapes.)  Go to "side 2," the 66.3 MB MP3 download, and you can find this short exchange between "Liberty" and "Andrews" beginning at time 12:35, and ending at time 13.11.  Why is this important?  Because previous to this, the only known record of when Air Force Two (SAM 86970) took off from Dallas (at 2115 Zulu time, or 3:15 PM local) was its mention in the reports of two Secret Service agents.  The same takeoff time in these two written reports (2115 Zulu time) is present on the "Clifton" Air Force One tape, corroborating the times given by the Secret Service agents.  Similarly, previous to the public release of the "Clifton" tapes, the only known record of the landing time for Air Force Two---2330 Zulu time, or 6:30 PM local in D.C.---was contained in the "Chuck Holmes Logbook" donated to the ARRB by an Air Force civil servant who "rescued it from the trash."  The anticipated landing time for "970" of 2330 Zulu given on the new recording is identical to, and thus corroborates, the actual landing time of 1830 local (6:30 PM in D.C.) recorded in the "Chuck Homes Logbook" from Andrews AFB.  The importance of these two times cannot be overstated, for they completely dispell and disprove theories that JFK's body was actually transported to D.C. on Air Force Two, instead of Air Force One.  We know that JFK's body arrived at the Bethesda morgue at 1835 local (6:35 PM), per the Boyajian report.  Since AF2 landed at 1830 local time (per the Chuck Holmes Logbook, as corroborated by the new Air Force One recording), it is therefore impossible for JFK's body to have come east on that airplane and then, to have also arrived at Bethesda at 1835 hours, local time.  (Those implementing the JFK medical cover-up did NOT have access to Starfleet "transporters," a la Star Trek, in November of 1963!)  I disposed of one such theory in the Epilogue to my book, Inside the ARRB, in volume V, pages 1777-1796.


In my October 17, 1995 memo, and in my book, Inside the ARRB, I explained that Master Sergeant John Trimble, USAF, the AF1 radio officer, had written in his after action report that he "...had three phone patches going simultaneously most of the time" during the flight from Dallas to Andrews AFB.  Examination of the Air Force One tapes reveals that there were four radio circuits actually in use on the flight, and Trimble's report explains that three of them were in nearly full time, simultaneous use.  The duration of the flight was 2 hours and 17 minutes---Air Force One took off at 2047 Zulu time and was "on the blocks" at Andrews at 2304 Zulu time.  If we shave 17 minutes off of the flight time, just to be conservative, and then multiply the remainder (2 hours) by the number of circuits in nearly full time simultaneous use (3), we get the following sum: 2 X 3 = 6 hours.  That is, assuming all three radio circuits in full-time use were recorded, the Air Force One tapes should actually be at least SIX HOURS LONG.  The "Clifton" tapes are two hours and twenty two minutes long, which means that as much as three and one half hours could still be missing from history.

There are two reasons to believe that this may actually be the case.  The first is the fact that the radio dispatcher and facilitator at Andrews who is heard so often on the Air Force One tapes, "Airman Gilmore," explains numerous times on the recording that Air Force One and "Crown" (the White House Situation Room) had two radio patches going simultaneously with each other, and that this was why so many other entities could not contact Air Force One when they desired.  One gets no sense of two patches going simultaneously from listening to the Air Force One tapes.  It is as if one whole "track" of conversation was missing from the recordings.  If so, what might have been on that "missing track?"

I explained what may still be missing today from the Air Force One tapes on pages 1660-1664 of volume V of my book, Inside the ARRB.  What I wrote then about the LBJ Library version applies equally today to the "Clifton" version.  Both journalist and author Theodore White (in his book The Making of the President, 1964), and Assistant Secretary of State Robert Manning (who was onboard the Cabinet plane bound for Japan, SAM 86972, when JFK was assassinated), both unequivocally stated that the President's assassin was identified to the occupants of both Air Force One and SAM 86972 by radio---and by implication, therefore, from the White House.  "Crown," the White House Situation Room, is the font of all knowledge on the Air Force One tapes---there is no other reasonable candidate for who would have passed this information to the passengers on the two aircraft.  Anyone who listens to the Air Force One tapes will understand that.  White wrote on page 48 of his book, "On the flight the party learned that there was no conspiracy [and] learned of the identity of Oswald and his arrest...".  Manning told the authors of the 1993 oral history, Let Us Begin Anew: An Oral History of the Kennedy Presidency (p. 450-451), "The news then came in [after Pierre Salinger had been informed of JFK's death] that someone named Oswald who had been in the Soviet Union had done this."

The two accounts corroborate each other quite nicely.  The only problem here is that Oswald had only been arrested on suspicion of shooting a policeman, and had not been charged with the murder of the President while Air Force One was in flight.  Air Force One landed at 5:04 PM Dallas time, and Lee Harvey Oswald was not charged with the murder of the President until near midnight.  It appears, from the accounts of White and Manning, that someone in the White House Situation Room ("Crown") jumped the gun, and prematurely incriminated Oswald, and blamed the assassination on a lone nut, well before the Dallas Police Department had even come to that conclusion.  (And we know now that it was pressure from LBJ that caused Will Fritz, the Chief of Homicide at the Dallas Police Department, to stop blaming the assassination on an international Communist conspiracy, and blame it all on the lone suspect in custody.  As LBJ told Fritz on the phone, "You have your man.") Furthermore, as quoted on Saturday morning in the Dallas papers, late Friday afternoon and early Friday evening, District Attorney Henry Wade was openly proclaiming that the assassination could not have been the work of one man.  If this was Wade's tentative conclusion on Friday afternoon and early Friday evening, then how could the passengers on SAM 26000 and SAM 86972 be told that Oswald had done the assassination all on his own, unless they were being fed a cover story by the conspirators themselves?

If the accounts of White and Manning are correct---White either spoke to someone who had listened to the complete, unedited Air Force One tapes, or someone who had been aboard Air Force One; and Manning himself was aboard SAM 86972 with Salinger and Rusk and personally heard the premature announcement of Oswald's guilt with his own ears---then the serious nature of this gaffe---blaming Oswald for the crime before evidence had been developed to support that contention---would explain why so much of the Air Force One recording still appears to missing.

I encourage everyone reading this essay to download the "Clifton" tapes themselves, and focus anew (or perhaps for the first time, if you have not yet done so) on the disastrous spoken record of the JFK autopsy arrangements that were recorded for posterity by "Liberty" in the American midwest.  (It was "Liberty's" job to monitor and record all Presidential communications while in-flight.)  Even if it is true that three and one half hours of national security discussions about the purported lone assassin are still missing from the "Clifton" recording, the conversations we do have are a damning indictment of a poorly organized cover-up "on the fly," with those involved working at cross-purposes with each other.  The "Clifton" tapes have only made this sorrowful record a bit more interesting, and a bit more definitive.  

Postscript: Researcher Bill Kelly has prepared and posted a transcript of the "Clifton" version of the Air Force One tapes on his blogsite, "JFK Countercoup," as well as much illuminating background information that will better inform anyone interested in this subject---information about Curtis LeMay and JFK; Colonel Dorman, LeMay's Aide; and "Liberty," the Collins Radio facility whose job is was to record air-to-ground Presidential communications, beginning in 1962.  Here is the link to Bill Kelly's Air Force One transcript: 

My own transcript of what I call "key conversations" from the "Clifton" version of the Air Force One tapes is now posted at the Mary Ferrell Foundation website, and can be accessed by clicking on this link:

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