By Kenneth Scearce
In the Zapruder film, the earliest obvious reaction we can see to the commencement of the assassination is that of Rosemary Willis. Rosemary Willis was 10 years old when she witnessed President Kennedy’s murder. She can be seen in the Zapruder film after it resumes at frame 133, running along the south side of Elm Street, in a red skirt and a white, hooded jacket. During the first 5 seconds of the restarted film, Ms. Willis turns her gaze away from Kennedy towards the Book Depository, slows from a run, and stops abruptly. Her body language clearly strikes a pose of thunderstruck bewilderment while almost everyone else visible in the Zapruder film appears nonplussed.
The two animations below were created by Gerda Dunckel from the Zapruder film (the copyright of which is owned by The Sixth Floor Museum). The animations run from the Zapruder film’s first frame, Z133 to Z221, ending just before the second shot was fired at Z222.
The first animation is a close-up focused on Ms. Willis:
The second animation is an extreme close-up of Ms. Willis:
Initially, during frames 133—160 of the Zapruder film, Ms. Willis keeps time with the president’s Lincoln Continental. Soon, however, certainly by no later than Z161, Ms. Willis begins to slow down noticeably (her swinging arms have dropped by Z161 as she slows, compared to the height of her arms in previous frames). By Z197 (and probably earlier), Ms. Willis has come to a complete stop. During this sequence, Ms. Willis is facing in the direction not of President Kennedy to her right front, but of the Book Depository to her right rear. This is very odd—unless something more significant than watching President Kennedy had caught her attention.
Ms. Willis has explained, several times since the assassination, that she looked back at the Book Depository and stopped running because she was following the sound of the first shot. Although Ms. Willis’s unusual movements have been remarked on for more than 40 years as suggestive of the first shot’s timing, until now it has not been clear exactly when Ms. Willis’s reaction to the first shot began.
Look closely. In frames Z133—Z143 Rosemary Willis turns her head quickly to her right, looking away from JFK and towards the direction of the Book Depository. This head movement is subtle (these images are close-ups of grainy film) but unmistakable. The animations above show that Ms. Willis turned her head quickly towards the Book Depository in the first ½ second of the restarted Zapruder film. This is strong evidence that the sound of the first shot occurred at some point prior to Z133.
The pre-Zapruder film first shot hypothesis, first set forth in Washington Decoded in March 2007 and then expanded upon in November 2008, dredges up old concerns about the Secret Service’s performance in Dallas. The consensus of many “Oswald did it alone” advocates (e.g., Gerald Posner, Dale Myers, Larry Sturdivan, and Vincent Bugliosi) is that the shooting took from 8.4 to 8.7 seconds. The pre-Z133 shot analysis criticizes that old consensus as inconsistent with the Zapruder film, which shows that the first shot must have fired before the film begins and, therefore, that the shooting must have taken more than 10 seconds (it took more than 11 seconds, if the first shot ricocheted off a horizontal traffic light mast between Oswald and Kennedy). The more time the agents in Dallas had to act, the more troubling seems their failure to act quickly.
In the weeks after the assassination, the mainstream view of both the government and media was that the shooting happened very quickly. Reflecting this rapid-timing consensus, LIFE magazine’s 6 December 1963 issue included an essay analyzing the shooting sequence titled “End to Nagging Rumors: The Six Critical Seconds.” The initial consensus that the shooting was very rapid had the happy coincidence of exonerating the government from guilt for what it could not have prevented.
But the early rapid timing hypothesis eventually became an albatross around officialdom’s neck. Although the Warren Commission established that the shooting could have been accomplished in six seconds or less, it failed to perceive just how strong the evidence was for both a first shot miss and the single bullet theory—which combined, pointed to a timing considerably longer than six seconds. While the Warren Commission allowed for the possibility of a longer timing, in popular understanding it was perceived to have adopted the early rapid-timing scenario. This scenario eventually became a meme of rejection of the official explanation, best captured by the caustic title of Josiah Thompson’s 1967 book, Six Seconds In Dallas.
For 50 years, the idea that the shooting took only six seconds has struck most people as implausible. The widespread belief (incorrect, but hard to dislodge from popular perception) that the government adopted an implausibly rapid shot timing has done much of the damage to the Warren Commission’s conclusion that Oswald acted alone.
It was not widely understood until the HSCA’s work 15 years after the assassination that the “six seconds” timing was clearly wrong and that the shooting took longer. But even in the months just after the assassination, questions about the Secret Service’s alertness in Dallas raised doubt about a rapid timing. While putting up a stoic public front, Mrs. Kennedy complained bitterly to her secretary that Secret Service Agent William Greer (the driver of JFK’s limousine) “might just as well have been Miss Shaw!”, her children’s governess. In December 1963, muckraking columnist Drew Pearson publicized Washington whispers that several agents in the Secret Service follow-up car had been drinking into the early hours of November 22, perhaps sapping their alertness. Senator Ralph Yarborough—who had witnessed the assassination from two cars behind Kennedy—wrote “reluctantly” that “all of the Secret Service men seemed to me to respond very slowly, with no more than a puzzled look” and lamented “the lack of motion, excitement, or apparent visible knowledge by the Secret Service men, that anything so dreadful was happening.” “Knowing something of the training that combat infantrymen and Marines receive,” Yarborough said, “I am amazed at the lack of instantaneous response by the Secret Service, when the rifle fire began.” The perception of many witnesses to the assassination was that the event did not happen so rapidly as to exonerate the Secret Service.
Nearly all of the hundreds of witnesses to the assassination interpreted the first shot’s sound as non-threatening. Many thought the sound was a firecracker: disrespectful, but not dangerous. Others thought the sound was a motorcycle backfire; those in the motorcade had become habituated to that frequent, loud “pop.” Still others thought the sound might be a tire blowout—not a worrisome sound given the motorcade’s slow speed. But a handful said they thought the sound was ominous. Among these few were Governor John Connally and Senator Ralph Yarborough, both of whom later said that they had “immediately” recognized the sound as a gunshot.
Why did so few recognize the first shot as a gunshot? Why—in particular—did the Secret Service agents not interpret the first shot’s sound as dangerous?
The best explanation is that because Oswald’s first shot missed, there was nothing visible to the agents to narrow the explanations for the loud noise from the many benign possibilities to the one deadly. Not until the second shot was there a gunshot-corroborating effect: Kennedy and Connally jerked convulsively, having both been struck by the same bullet. From that instant of relative clarity, the Secret Service agents had a mere five seconds before the headshot at Z313 to do something that might protect Kennedy.
During those five seconds, the photographic record shows that Greer looked into the back seat, twice, while slowing the limousine down; Agents Paul Landis, John Ready, and George Hickey looked to rear, searching for the source of the seeming threat; and Agent Clint Hill literally leapt into action, jumping off the follow-up car and running for the presidential limousine. (Other agents may have made other vigorous movements, but these are the obvious ones we can see in the photographic record).
Judged from the more appropriate reaction time—five seconds from the unambiguous second loud sound rather than 10 (or more) seconds from the very ambiguous first loud sound—the agents’ performance in Dallas was livelier than Yarborough, who had the benefit of hindsight, would allow. To expect more of the agents than what they did in the mere five seconds available is to engage in the worst kind of “Monday-morning quarterbacking.”
One witness’s recollections go far in helping us understand why the Secret Service reacted as it did. Landis, standing on the right rear running board of the Secret Service car just behind Kennedy’s limousine, explained his thinking process during the shooting in exhaustive detail. He wrote that he “heard what sounded like the report of a high-powered rifle” and that “there was no question in my mind what it was.” Yet doubts immediately began to sap his initial certitude. Landis elaborated that he looked around, “observed nothing unusual,” and “began to think to think the sound had been that of a firecracker.” Landis recalled that Agent John Ready, in front of Landis on the running board, asked him “What was it? A firecracker?” Landis answered, “I don’t know; I don’t see any smoke.” Landis then thought that the sound might have been a tire blowout; he looked at the right front tire of the president’s limousine and saw that it was intact. He could not see the right rear tire from his position. Landis then saw Kennedy’s head “split open” and realized that the first loud sound had been a gunshot, just as he initially thought.
Landis’s summary of his complex thought process is surely one of the most reflective and honest statements by any person about the assassination. Landis got the “right answer” right away, but then began to have second thoughts. He doubted himself when he could not find corroboration for his initial conclusion. In the Muchmore film, spectators to the assassination do not react in apparent alarm to the shooting until after the third shot, which struck JFK in the head. The event was confusing to everyone, just as we should expect for an ambush in the midst of a noisy, happy public celebration, by a sniper who was striving to evade capture.
But is it not fair to expect the Secret Service agents to have had perceptions as accurate as Connally and Yarborough, who said that they had recognized the first explosive sound as a gunshot “immediately?”
Before we accept Yarborough’s and Connally’s claims at face value, we should review the photographic record. We can see in the Altgens photograph (taken at the same time as Z255) that Yarborough (sitting next to Mrs. Johnson and LBJ) has not taken any protective action even two seconds after the second shot. Connally had a quicker obvious reaction—he jerked his head left, then right within a single second (from Z149 to Z167) under the severe stress of hearing what he thought was a gunshot. But Connally sat in place for four seconds after beginning this noticeable reaction, before the second shot struck him. Neither man ducked out of the way or moved to protect anyone else (e.g., Mrs. Johnson or Mrs. Connally) prior to the second shot. Their own lack of immediate protective action reveals that they, too, were uncertain.
When we compare the objective evidence with Connally’s and Yarborough’s subjective assertions about their “immediate” certitude that the first sound was a gunshot, we begin to appreciate that even the most accurate earwitnesses doubted themselves. It is one thing to perceive something, and quite another to act on that perception.
Because of emotionally-deadening repeated viewings, the Zapruder film’s gory fatal shot at Z313 is no longer the film’s most distressing moment. Now, the most dreadful image in the Zapruder film is that of President Kennedy breaking into a smile between Z160—Z180, which he does after Oswald has shot at him. Kennedy must have heard the loud cracking sound of the first shot—everyone else did. He must have pondered its meaning. But from the spectrum of possible scenarios running from harmless to deadly, Kennedy chose a benign explanation.
In that choice, Kennedy accidentally contributed to his death because he did not react to the first shot in a manner that would have alarmed his guards. If one thinks that a shooting might be under way, one then expects to see evidence of a bullet impact—or some other effect indicating danger—contemporaneous with the putative gunshot sound. When one does not, benign explanations become more and more likely with each successive moment of apparent safety. When we realize from the relatively long shot timing proven by Ms. Willis’s reaction (and other evidence) that many seconds went by after the missed first shot with nothing visibly corroborating that sound as threatening, it makes sense that the agents did not leap instantly into action.
Ms. Willis’s sudden head turn towards the Book Depository in the first ½ second of the Zapruder film is the film’s earliest unambiguous evidence that the first shot happened before Z133. With this new evidence of when the first shot was fired, we have extracted the last of the Zapruder film’s often elusive secrets. The film’s images imply that Oswald missed with his first shot and therefore took his time with second shot, in order to salvage his murderous plan. The film also refutes the unduly rapid “six seconds” timing that, to so many, has made multiple gunmen seem necessary. The Zapruder film shows that Oswald had more than enough time to accomplish his purpose without help.
Over the past 50 years, ever more accurate examinations of the Zapruder film have sometimes haltingly, but nonetheless steadily pushed the first shot back, and then back yet further, in time. This silent movie has been calling out to us for five decades with a consistent message: earlier . . . no, still earlier. What the Zapruder film mutely cries out to us is the simple truth it has always told: that Oswald acted alone.
©2013 by Kenneth Scearce