Former agent opens up about the day JFK died

Hill talks in book, at local fundraiser about Nov. 22, 1963

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter




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Clint Hill had planned to become a high school history teacher.

He's now giving history lessons that can only be told by a Secret Service agent who was with President John F. Kennedy 50 years ago.

On Nov. 22, 1963, Hill was in the car right behind the Kennedys' convertible as the presidential motorcade drove past the Texas School Book Depository.

What happened in the next few seconds changed America, Hill said.

It certainly changed the life of the Secret Service agent, who was photographed climbing aboard the presidential car after the first shot rang out, and then using his body to shield the Kennedys.

For years, Hill tried to bury his memories:

• How he used his suit coat to cover up the horrific wound in Kennedy's head.

• How he was assigned to come up with a presidential casket.

• How he had to tell Bobby Kennedy about what happened to his brother. ... And just how do you tell the attorney general that the president is dead, anyway?

"I hadn't described it with friends, family or fellow agents," Hill said.

On Friday, Hill shared some of those memories with a crowd at the Hilton Vancouver Washington. The "Symbol of Freedom" event was a fundraising lunch for CDM Long-Term Care Services, a local nonprofit.

Hill and Lisa McCubbin have collaborated on two books about his Secret Service career. Their book focusing on the assassination, "Five Days in November," will be released later this month in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's death.

Friday's presentation was more like a conversation, with McCubbin offering some scene-setting comments that offered Hill a chance to tell a story.

It's taken almost 50 years for Hill to get comfortable with that conversation. In a Thursday session, McCubbin told how she met Hill while working on a 2009 book about Kennedy's Secret Service detail.

"He was so pivotal," McCubbin said. "He was the only Secret Service agent who reacted during the assassination."

They talked for two hours, and all she got was material that was already available on the Internet, McCubbin said. And then Hill made what he called "my mistake." He gave McCubbin his phone number.

After a series of calls, Hill relented. "All right," he said. "I'll tell you the whole damned story."

Their first book was "Mrs. Kennedy and Me."

Hill said that protecting the first lady was not his idea of a plum assignment.

"I was very disappointed. I wanted to be with the president. In the past that's where the action was," he said.

Assignments with previous first ladies Bess Truman and Mamie Eisenhower had filled his days with fashion shows and tea parties.

But his time with Mrs. Kennedy turned out to be a wonderful assignment, Hill said. It was a far cry from tea parties — like the trip to India and Pakistan, when Jackie decided to ride a camel.

In "Five Days in November," Hill provides an inside look at the fateful campaign swing through Texas, the assassination and Kennedy's burial.

Friday's presentation included archive news footage of that day, as well as segments of the home movie filmed by Abraham Zapruder as the motorcade drove through Dealey Plaza.

After he heard the first shot, Hill said, he saw the president grab his throat. Hill jumped from the follow car, a Cadillac convertible with running boards, onto the back of the presidential Lincoln. When he saw the wound in Kennedy's skull, "I gave a thumbs-down to the follow car."

At Parkland Hospital, "Mrs. Kennedy had hold of him and wouldn't let go" of the president, Hill recalled.

"She doesn't want anybody to see his condition," Hill realized. "I took off my suit coat and covered his head, and she let go."

When Hill called his boss in Washington D.C., Bobby Kennedy wound up cutting into the conversation, asking, "How bad is it?"

"I didn't want to tell him the president was dead. I said it was as bad as it can get."

Hill was asked to come up with a casket for Kennedy's flight back to Washington.

"It was too wide. We had to break the handles off to get it through the airplane door," Hill said.

The next day, Hill accompanied Mrs. Kennedy, as well as other family members, to Arlington National Cemetery so she could choose her husband's burial site.

Looking back on it, Hill said, "the event was the end of the age of innocence" for this country.

"People who are 55 and older all remember where they were" that day, Hill said.

Even people who were too young to understand what was happening knew it was something bad, Hill said.

"All of a sudden mom and dad were crying, and they didn't understand why."