Center for Politics’ new app provides dramatic, living history of Kennedy assassination

The JFK Half Century App, produced by the University of Virginia Center for Politics, is now available for download on Android and Apple devices. The app features the complete Dallas police recordings from Nov. 22, 1963, which the Center acquired from the National Archives and is available to the public in one easily accessible place for the first time. What follows is the text of Center for Politics Director Larry J. Sabato’s introduction to the app, which you can listen to below. — The Editors

Welcome to the JFK app. I am Larry Sabato, author of The Kennedy Half Century. My book traces the effect John F. Kennedy had over 10 Presidential administrations. This app allows you to listen to the audio recordings from the day of the assassination made by the Dallas Police Department and you can follow along with the written transcripts.

As I demonstrate in the book, the Dictabelt is not the time tunnel to ultimate truth about the source of the Dealey Plaza shots as it was once heralded to be, but the recording is invaluable nonetheless.

What we call the Dictabelt is actually a collection of belts that recorded all police communications on two channels from 9:44 am until 3:57 pm on Nov. 22. Channel 1 was used for the transmission of routine police radio messages and Channel 2 was an auxiliary channel designated for use by Dallas Police officers in the motorcade.

Actually, the Dictabelt was used only to record channel one. Channel two was recorded using a separate machine called a Gray Audograph. This device recorded onto a plastic disk resembling a phonograph record.

This App of the day’s events is akin to listening to a modern police scanner, and it is more complete than any ever compiled due to the sound techniques we employed. It includes comments by dozens of police personnel and officers stationed at key locations around Dallas.

These Dictabelt recordings are dramatic living history, a kind of “black box” for the crash that occurred on Nov. 22, 1963. They give us new insights into a day that dramatically changed America. Collectively, they serve as a police sound track that can supplement, though not precisely match, the silent films taken along the motorcade route.

In the morning, there are standard police communications about a presidential visit, from the arrival of Air Force One at Love Field to the difficulties of holding back enthusiastic crowds pressing to get a better view of the Kennedys.

Occasionally, due to transmitting over the same lines, non-police conversations from telephone calls bleed over into the police channels. For example, a man profanely curses his favorite but losing football teams, another man and woman alternate between romance and argument, and someone asks a friend for money — and the friend begs off.

There is a peculiar reference approximately 50 minutes prior to President Kennedy’s assassination when a patrolman calls in to the dispatcher and asks whether “Chicago Red is in town”. There is no response to this odd question on the audio recording.

Perhaps it is a benign question or could it be something else?  Could it be a reference to a Chicago Mafia figure, Paul “Red” Dorfman? Dorfman was an operative for Al Capone and later became a friend and associate of Jimmy Hoffa. There is clear evidence that Jack Ruby had connections to “Red” Dorfman when Ruby lived in Chicago.

Could it be a reference to Hy “Red” Larner — a mobster who reported to Chicago mobster Sam Giancana and first came to the attention of law enforcement in the 1950s when he was identified at Senate racketeering hearings as a mob higher-up. Hy “Red” Larner also had close personal connections with Paul “Red” Dorfman.

Did a policeman spot someone who resembled one of these men, or was it someone else entirely?

We found this part of the audio to be clear and easy to understand, much more so than some other sections, yet the final report of the Warren Commission includes no transcription of it and says, “There was considerable interference, and there did not appear to be any relative radio activity during this period of interference.” This is manifestly not true.

Mysteriously, the line about Chicago Red was also not included in the Dallas dispatcher’s transcript of the recording, nor has it been mentioned in other accounts about the dictabelts.

Many believe the Mafia was connected to JFK’s murder, and that number includes Robert Blakey, the staff director of the 1970s House re-investigation of the assassination, yet fifty years later the dictabelt still contains new mysteries and raises many undiscovered questions.

As the motorcade approaches Dealey Plaza, suddenly the routine conversation ends, and police work turns chaotic. Sheriff Decker issues an order to investigate the area behind the grassy knoll: “Have my office move all men available…into the railroad yard in an effort to determine what happened in there and hold everything secure until Homicide and other investigators should get there.”

There is discussion about supposed “victims” remaining in Dealey Plaza, the possible shooting of a Secret Service agent (which of course did not happen), and an early description of “a suspect.” Officers report the contradictory claims of witnesses about the sources of the gunshots: some said the shots originated at the grassy knoll, others at the Dallas Courts Building and still others at the book depository.

The Dictabelt captures the chilling moments of absolute panic as President Kennedy was taken to Parkland Hospital for a futile attempt at resuscitation. One Dallas police officer, after he arrives at Parkland and views the extent of President Kennedy’s wounds, calls in a report to the dispatcher, which is on the dictabelt: “I believe the president’s head was practically blown off.” That officer immediately regretted his comment and declined to repeat it when asked, noting, “It’s not for me to say, I can’t say.”

In a sad moment, officers at the Trade Mart ask what they can tell the hundreds of people assembled for a speech that President Kennedy would never deliver. The dispatcher asks, “[Is] the president going to appear at the Trade Mart?” The terse answer from Dallas Police Chief Jesse Curry: “It’s very doubtful…I feel reasonably sure that he will not.”

There are also Dictabelt references to a series of post-assassination events, from the shooting of Officer J.D. Tippit to the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald to the police transporting of Vice President Lyndon Johnson, First Lady Jackie Kennedy and JFK’s body back to Air Force One.

At the end of a historically ghastly day, there is also a bizarre, jarring reintroduction of everyday life as the police dispatcher tells an officer to pick up some hamburger buns and deliver them to the Deluxe Diner.

Yet no out-of-place note of normality can expunge the earth-shattering words of Nov. 22, 1963. From tiny sound impressions made on crude recording devices on that long-ago day, the shock and horror comes to life again, and one cannot help but be mesmerized. It was a day like no other–one that set in motion the events of the next half century and perhaps beyond.

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