Books

10.03.13

The Man Oswald First Tried to Kill Before JFK

Months before Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated John F. Kennedy 50 years ago this November, he tried to kill someone else: General Edwin Walker, an ultra-right winger who was arrested for sedition on Kennedy’s orders. In an excerpt from their new book, Dallas 1963, the story of Walker’s anti-civil rights tour through the south and Oswald’s personal collapse that led to their almost fatal encounter.

On February 27, General Walker boards a specially equipped tour bus owned by his close friend, the anti-​communist televangelist Billy James Hargis. The two men are departing on a speaking tour to twenty-​nine cities, mostly in the South: “To alert the public to the enemy within and without.” Taking their inspiration from Paul Revere, they are calling their tour Operation Midnight Ride.

Hargis is a thirty-​seven-​year-​old, three-​hundred-​pound Texas-​born leader of the Christian Crusade, a fervent group of a hundred thousand paid followers based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He has an unusually boyish and doughy face, prefers tailored suits, and decorates his office with pictures of Jesus and a large flagpole with the Stars and Stripes. He distributes autographed pictures of himself, often signed: Go With God!

He possesses an honorary doctorate in divinity from Bob Jones University, a conservative bulwark in South Carolina, and he is armed with an abundant gift for self-​promotion.

Early in his career, Hargis wrote speeches for Senator Joseph McCarthy. Then he hit upon the idea of getting Bibles into communist countries by attaching them to one million hydrogen-​filled balloons that would float over the Iron Curtain. Hargis enjoys traveling in luxurious style, and he personally toured great portions of Europe in order to supervise his Bible balloon launchings into the airspace of the godless nations.

He publishes a weekly newsletter and a monthly magazine along with numerous tape recordings and albums. His daily broadcasts are carried by 250 television stations and can be heard on over five hundred radio stations across the country. And during his religious revival appearances, he will often call out for a $10,000 donation in the name of God. One of his aides planted in the audience will shout out that he has heard the Lord’s call and will volunteer the money. The idea is to stampede others into pledging their money, too. Anyone who donates $25 or more receives a free copy of his record album: The United Nations Hoax.

Hargis and Walker are at ease with each other. Their politics are apparent. Their loathing of Kennedy, of Washington liberals, of Martin Luther King Jr., makes for a perfect match. What only a few might suspect is that Hargis—like Walker—has a secret sexual life.

Hargis began courting Walker even before the general resigned from the army. Now he’s invited him to join the board of the Christian Crusade, and he shamelessly flatters Walker at every opportunity, telling him: “God knows, we need you for President!”

Among Hargis’s most devoted followers is Walker’s mother. In letters to her son, she likes to sign off by writing: “Go with God, as Billy James Hargis always says.”

[Oswald’s] political rhetoric is also growing increasingly strident. She hears him say that she will soon need to take the baby and return to the Soviet Union.

As they board the bus and begin their tour of America, Walker confesses something to Hargis: After the failed gubernatorial race and the snuffing out of my American rebellion in Mississippi, I know that I will never be president. The best I can hope for is to be a lightning rod for patriots until the communist establishment locks me up again.

As the Operation Midnight Ride tour bus, complete with sleeping bunks, begins to curl down the interstate highways leading out of Texas, Hargis tells aides that he and General Walker are on a mission to “expose the communist clergymen” who support civil rights—Clergymen like Rhett James in Dallas and Martin Luther King Jr.

Staring out the window of the tour bus, as Operation Midnight Ride moves across America, Walker sees crowds of protesters—including whites and blacks from the local NAACP. He stares down at them, his face impassive, as they wave signs: this isn’t ole miss, walker, and we don’t need racists here, Walker

Escorted by police guards inside one venue after another, Walker and Hargis wait patiently until an entire row of American flags is carefully arranged on the stage behind them.

As the caravan rolls on, Walker seems to grow even more fanatical in his opposition to Kennedy, perhaps spurred on by the religious inviolability he thinks that Hargis affords him. Walker condemns the “Kennedy dynasty and dictatorship . . . T here is no law left . . . We have got to start all over.”

He refers to Robert Kennedy as “little stupid brother Bobby, as they call him in Mississippi.” The Kennedy brothers are just like the Castro brothers in Cuba: “Jack has Bobby and Castro has Raul.”

He describes his arrest in Mississippi as the result of a preconceived Kennedy plot against him.

“I wouldn’t conform to the ‘National Policy,’ ” he rails to half-​puzzled audiences. “They had to get rid of me because I knew too much about Mississippi.”

As the barnstorming tour moves across America, Walker also seems to become increasingly fixated on Cuba. He begins calling on President Kennedy to use military might to remove Castro. And really, not to oust him—but to simply kill him. To assassinate him.

Dallas 1963
Dallas 1963 By Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis 384 pages. Twelve. $28. ()

Walker shouts: “I challenge the Commander-in-Chief of the United States of America to . . . liquidate that scourge that has descended upon the island of Cuba.”

Lee Harvey Oswald’s beatings of his wife Marina are now more frequent—and even more violent. He’s gone from slapping her around to actually punching her square in the face, leaving her with purple-​and-​black eyes. She lowers her head in shame, so the neighbors can’t see it—but they do, and they are shocked. His political rhetoric is also growing increasingly strident. She hears him say that she will soon need to take the baby and return to the Soviet Union.

From the beginning of their relationship, not long after they met at a dance in the Soviet Union, she knew he had a remote side to him. But now he locks himself in his room for hours at a time, reading books on communism and writing political tracts. At the typesetting and graphic arts firm where he works, he has created a phony ID card for himself, using the name A. J. Hidell. He orders a Smith & Wesson .38 snub-​nosed revolver through the mail, using the same alias. She spots him poring over a city map and the Dallas bus schedule, and he is focusing his attention on a particular stretch of Turtle Creek Boulevard.

Then, three days after Walker’s blistering, unfiltered speech about killing Castro, Oswald leaves their duplex and begins doing reconnaissance at the general’s home. His mission is entering the action-oriented phase. He takes photographs of the back of Walker’s house from the narrow, bush-​lined alley.

Back at his home, he must have realized that a pistol will not be sufficient, because he also orders a Mannlicher-​Carcano rifle with a telescopic sight from a sporting goods store in Chicago. He pays $19.95 plus $1.50 for shipping and handling. Although inexpensive, the Carcano is a reliable, accurate weapon, similar to the U.S. Army’s M14. He achieved “marksman” status in the Marine Corps, and a few rounds of target practice in Dallas are enough to acquaint himself with his new weapon.

Marina has gotten used to him closing the door as he steps inside a back room. He is preparing his operations manual for the anti-​Walker mission, filling a folder with photographs and a map with various routes. It would be easy to hide a rifle along some railroad tracks near the general’s house.

He sends a long letter to the Militant, which appears in a March 1963 issue under the headline news and views from Dallas. In the letter, he describes Dallas as a city where poor renters live at the mercy of exploitative landlords, and he congratulates the paper as “the most informative radical publication in America.”

Marina wonders where he goes when he leaves the house for hours at a time. When he returns home he tells her that he was doing target practice, or attending a typing class. There have been so many beatings at his hands that she knows enough not to argue with him.

On the last Sunday in March, Marina is hanging diapers on a flimsy clothesline stuck in the grass in the small backyard. Oswald steps outside, gives her his camera, and shows her how to operate it. He stands facing her, squinting in the sunlight as a trace of a smile plays across his face. He is outfitted entirely in black. He holds the Carcano rifle proudly, even jauntily, pointing its barrel toward the sky. In his other hand he displays two papers—the Worker and an issue of the Militant that contains his published letter.

The Militant’s front page also carries a story about a black civil rights worker who has been shot by three white racists in Mississippi. The message must be clear: The extreme right is engaged in violence, even assassinations. Now is the time for the other side to be heard.

For a second, Marina isn’t sure what to make of her husband’s odd request to be photographed with his two newspapers and new rifle. She laughs nervously, but takes the picture anyway. He tells her he will send the photo to the Militant.

Afterward, Oswald develops the photographs at his job, furtively. He knows by now that he has been steadily alienating his boss and co-workers, just as he has in virtually all the jobs he’s ever held. Even back in Russia, one of his supervisors wrote a report on him: “Citizen Lee Harvey Oswald reacts in an over-​sensitive manner to remarks from the foremen, and is careless in his work. Citizen L. H. Oswald takes no part in the social life of the shop and keeps very much to himself.”

A firecracker. Somebody just threw a firecracker at me.

Despite his professed love for the working class, Oswald usually refuses to associate with the other workers in Dallas. He makes a show of reading Russian-​language magazines during his lunch breaks. His contempt for his work and his colleagues seems on display at every moment.

The day after Marina photographs him in the backyard, his boss at the typesetting and graphic arts firm summons Oswald and tells him he is being fired.

Robert Surrey, Walker’s day-to-day aide, arrives at the general’s grand house on April 8 to welcome him home after Operation Midnight Ride.

The national revolution, this mixture of Christianity and anti-​communism, didn’t seem to soar like Walker and his army thought it would. In Dallas, at least, the Walker team knows the campaign has been well received and that the Dallas Morning News has been faithful.

As Surrey turns his car into the alley behind the home, he spots a late-​model Ford and two strangers, who appear to be looking over the fence at Walker’s house. Surrey waits until the men get in their car and drive away. Then he follows them. The car manages to escape, but Surrey is sure of one detail—it does not have a license plate. He returns to Walker’s home to greet the general.

As they slip into the quiet of the home, they both wonder if the place has been bugged. Walker and his aides talk, make jokes, about the possibility that the FBI went into his home—maybe while he was away on Operation Midnight Ride—and put listening devices in the walls. Walker is well aware that his high-​profile political activities are making him a target. He knows that the FBI is monitoring him. Possibly the CIA and KGB, too. Who knows who his volunteers really are?

Walker is certain that some of them are undercover officers or double agents. He is convinced that someone is out to get him.

Two days later, Oswald finally confesses to Marina that he has been fired from his job. He blames it on the FBI, claiming that they made his employer nervous by asking questions about him. Near twilight, he finishes dinner and then leaves without telling her where he is going. Marina hopes he is off to his typing class.

It’s been unseasonably hot in Dallas. The temperature reached ninety-​nine degrees earlier in the day as a wall of hot southwesterly winds stalled over the city. Now it is still warm, close to eighty degrees, as Oswald walks quickly away from the duplex. He moves past the thick-​trunked oak and pecan trees, headed for the city bus stop two blocks away. With darkness coming on, he wants to get to that comfortable neighborhood of larger, carefully manicured homes north of downtown.

He did not tell his wife that he left a note behind for her: a very detailed message, written in his careful, flowing cursive. The note is on the dresser in his small private room where he likes to read and think. If he doesn’t return home this evening, Marina will be sure to find it:

1. This is the key to the mailbox which is located in the main post office in the city on Ervay Street. This is the same street where the drugstore, in which you always waited is located. You will find the mailbox in the post office which is located 4 blocks from the drugstore on that street. I paid for the box last month so don’t worry about it.

2. Send the information as to what has happened to me to the Embassy and include newspaper clippings (should there be anything about me in the newspapers). I believe that the Embassy will come quickly to your assistance on learning everything.

3. I paid the house rent on the 2d so don’t worry about it.

4. Recently I also paid for water and gas.

5. The money from work will possibly be coming. The money will be sent to our post office box. Go to the bank and cash the check.

6. You can either throw out or give my clothing, etc. away. Do not keep these. However, I prefer that you hold on to my personal papers (military, civil, etc.).

7. Certain of my documents are in the small blue valise.

8. The address book can be found on my table in the study should need same.

9. We have friends here. The Red Cross also will help you.

10. I left you as much money as I could, $60 on the second of the month. You and the baby can live for another 2 months using $10 per week.

11. If I am alive and taken prisoner, the city jail is located at the end of the bridge through which we always passed on going to the city (right in the beginning of the city after crossing the bridge).

It is 8:30 p.m. on April 10 and General Walker is settling into the study on the first floor of his sprawling home. His handful of devoted aides have headed for their cars, and he is by himself on this uncomfortably warm Wednesday night. Though he likes to retire early, he decides to stay up a little later. He needs to finish his income tax forms, which are due in five days.

Fastidious and orderly, he rolls up his shirtsleeves, finds a sharp pencil, and arranges his financial statements on a wooden writing desk at the rear of the house. The wood-​framed window in his study faces a very narrow, hidden alley lined with a lattice fence and some thin, tall bushes just beginning to bud. Tonight, he has left the window shades open. Most of the lights in the house are on. He sits at his desk, facing the center of the room.

Oswald knows the dark, quiet path behind Walker’s home. He arrives close to 9 p.m. He is carrying his rifle, which he has retrieved after hiding it earlier in the week near the railroad tracks. From his vantage point, he can see that the worship service at the chapel on the other side of the general’s house is ending. Car doors are slamming and engines start up as people begin driving away. His timing is perfect.

He has a clear view into Walker’s home. The general is easily visible, sitting at his desk. A few feet from the window, a squat-​bodied gas meter is sticking out of the ground like a little silver-​gray figure with spindly arms. There are narrow, ten-​foot-​high bushes just beyond the gas meter. Oswald quickly surveys the area around him. Now is the time.

He steps up to Walker’s pale-​colored, wood-​lattice fence, formed with pickets that are four to six inches wide and five feet high. The fence, with the open squares in the lattice serving as solid notches, is perfect for resting and aiming a rifle. It is 120 feet from the fence to Walker’s desk.

There are escape routes from this vantage point:

Deeper down the dark alley.

A sprint from the alley to the east into the greenbelt and the engulfing woods.

Racing southeast for the hidden trails, those tiny paths, to the railroad tracks. Then a long, quick walk to catch a bus home from a different part of the city.

Oswald lifts his rifle and stares into the window. Surrounding Walker are folders, books, and stacks of packages wrapped in brown shipping paper. The walls are decorated with panels of foil wallpaper embossed with an Asian-​style flower motif. Walker’s head is in profile. He has a pencil in hand, and he is perfectly still, focused on something at his desk. From outside looking in, it must look a bit like a painting—as if Walker is caught in thought with the right side of his face clearly visible.

Oswald squints into his telescopic sight, and Walker’s head fills the view. He looks so close now, and he’s sitting so still, that there’s no possible way to miss. Drawing a tight bead on Walker’s head, he pulls the trigger. An explosion hurtles through the night, a thunder that echoes to the alley, to the creek, to the church and the surrounding houses.

Walker flinches instinctively at the loud blast and the sound of a wicked crack over his scalp—right inside his hair. For a second, he is frozen. His right arm is still resting on the desk alongside his 1962 income tax forms. He doesn’t know it, but blood is beginning to appear. A thought instantly blinks in his mind:

A firecracker. Somebody just threw a firecracker at me. How the hell did some damned kid throw a firecracker through the screen?

He realizes now that there was another noise. A brutish punching, thudding sound. He instantly pushes away from the desk so that he is no longer visible through the window. Looking back at where he had been sitting, he sees a large hole in the wall, very near where his head had been. He carefully, quickly, moves upstairs, looking for his pistol. He grabs it and comes down the staircase, and as he does he glances out a south-​facing second-​floor window.

There is a car beyond the trees, some kind of car, just making the turn out of the alley by the church. Heading to Turtle Creek Boulevard.

Walker makes it to his back door and gingerly steps into the inky night. Gun in hand, he stares hard into the darkness. The taillights he spotted from his upstairs window have vanished.

He returns to the house. By now he realizes that his right arm is bleeding in four or five places. Walker calls the police and asks them to come as soon as possible. Then he calls Robert Surrey.

The first Dallas cops arrive within five minutes. Surrey pulls up to Walker’s house a few minutes later, joined by a second police car with detectives from the burglary and theft squad.

Inside the house, one of the detectives tells Walker to sit down.

Patrolmen are in the backyard, trying to see if they can line up the shot, follow its path. There is a chip, a notch, on the fence—maybe a spot that could be used to rest a rifle.

“He couldn’t have missed you,” one of the officers says to Walker.

“He must have been a lousy shot,” Walker replies.

“It was an attempted assassination,” adds a detective named

Don McElroy.

“What makes you call it that?” asks Walker.

“Because he was definitely out to get you,” replies McElroy.

Excerpted from the book DALLAS 1963 by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis. Copyright © 2013 by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis. Reprinted by permission of Twelve, New York, NY. All rights reserved.