J.D. Tippit was the eldest of seven children sired by a Texas sharecropper father and a mother who went by “May Bug.” J.D. was his actual name. It didn’t stand for anything else.
J.D. saw combat in World War II as part of the 513th Parachute Infantry. He earned the Bronze Star for Valor during Operation Varsity, the Allied airborne crossing of the Rhine. After failed post-war efforts as a rancher, cattle farmer, and stove installer he took a job as a patrolman with the Dallas Police Department.
In eleven years’ service with the Dallas PD Tippit was twice cited for bravery. He also worked two part-time jobs to help support his wife and three children.
On November 22, 1963, Patrolman J.D. Tippit heard a radio call about a nearby shooting. Following a physical description of the suspected shooter, Tippit pulled his cruiser up to question a suspicious man walking purposefully along East 10th Street.
When Officer Tippit stepped out of his patrol car the suspect produced a Smith and Wesson .38 revolver and fired four rounds. One shot caught Tippit in the chest, while a second hit him in the belly. A third struck the policeman in the right temple. The fourth bullet struck a button on his uniform and stopped there. Tippit was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital some ten minutes later.
Tippit’s killer was a former Marine-turned-Marxist revolutionary named Lee Harvey Oswald. It was for Tippit’s murder that Oswald was initially apprehended. Multiple witnesses identified Oswald via lineup later in the day, and the shots that killed Tippit were conclusively matched to the revolver Oswald had on his person. A bystander quoted Oswald as having muttered, “That poor dumb cop” as he ran away following the shooting.
Forty-Five Minutes Prior…
Forty-five minutes before the shooting death of J.D. Tippit, the official account holds that Lee Harvey Oswald crouched behind a surplus bolt-action 6.5x52mm scoped Italian Carcano M91/38 rifle on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. His vantage gave him a perfect field of fire over the Presidential motorcade passing below. Oswald purportedly fired a total of three rounds from ranges of between 53 and 81 meters over a span of 8.3 seconds.
Abraham Zapruder, a local garment manufacturer and amateur cameraman, captured the entire sordid episode on silent 8mm color film. This film became the most analyzed moving picture in history. In 1999 the US Government paid Zapruder’s heirs $16 million, or $615,384 per second, for the rights to include the film in the National Archives.
Oswald’s first round purportedly missed. The second bullet, a round-nosed design that was obsolete by the end of World War 1, struck President Kennedy from behind in the upper back.
The long blunt bullet tore through the President’s neck, slightly damaging a vertebra as well as the apex of his right lung before exiting the centerline of his throat just beneath his larynx. This injury caused Kennedy to reflexively raise both clenched fists upward. The tumbling bullet also nicked the edge of the President’s necktie.
This still-energetic round now punched deep into the back of Governor John Connally below his right armpit. The round struck sideways and created an oval-shaped entrance wound before smashing through four inches of his right fifth rib and blowing out the front of his chest just beneath his right nipple. The exit wound was 2.5 inches long. The bullet track created a pneumothorax wherein air entered the pleural space and allowed the Governor’s lung to collapse.
This same bullet then struck Connally’s arm just proximal to the wrist and shattered his radius bone into eight distinct fragments. The bullet finally exited his right palm and came to rest within his left thigh. Connally ultimately survived. The wildly circuitous route of this single bullet has spawned countless conspiracy theories. However, I have myself seen bullets do some extraordinary things as they transit through human flesh.
Oswald’s third round killed the President outright. This bullet penetrated Kennedy’s head from behind before fragmenting and creating a massive exit wound. Pieces of scalp, skull, and brain were subsequently liberally disseminated. Watching the Zapruder film on YouTube remains breathtakingly horrible more than half a century later.
Lee Harvey Oswald’s upbringing was decidedly troubled. During childhood, he burned through twenty-two residencies and a dozen different schools while manifesting a wide variety of behavioral problems. At age 17, he had his older brother sign an underage release form and enlisted in the United States Marine Corps.
Oswald studied to be an Aviation Electronics Operator but was, like all Marines, also trained as a rifleman. His best-recorded score with a rifle was 212 out of 350 for a rating of Sharpshooter. Oswald was ultimately court-martialed for accidentally shooting himself in the elbow with an unauthorized .22-caliber handgun. He was court-martialed a second time for fighting with one of his sergeants. Oswald was punished yet again after he inexplicably discharged his weapon into the jungle during nocturnal sentry duty in the Philippines.
In 1959 after his discharge from the Marines Oswald took all his worldly savings and made his way to the Soviet Union where he requested citizenship. When this request was refused he attempted to slit his wrist and was hospitalized in a Russian psychiatric hospital. He was subsequently allowed to remain in the country. The former Marine’s defection made front-page news in many American newspapers. After living in Minsk for three years he returned disillusioned to the United States with his Russian wife, Marina.
Frustrated with life in both Russia and the US a radicalized Oswald attempted to murder retired Army Major General Edwin Walker at his Dallas home with the same rifle he subsequently used to kill Kennedy. Walker was an outspoken segregationist who was relieved of his Division command for distributing right-wing literature to his troops. Oswald fired from a range of less than 100 feet but struck a window frame. Walker was only mildly injured in his forearm by bullet fragments. Oswald’s connection to this murder attempt was not conclusively established until after his death.
The handgun that Oswald used to kill Officer Tippit was a .38-caliber snub-nosed Smith and Wesson Victory model he had purchased by mail under the alias A. Hidell for $29.95. This equates out to about $240 today. We have discussed the S&W Victory Model in detail in a previous GunsAmerica article.
Oswald bought his scoped Carcano 91/38 for $19.95 via an advertisement in the back of the American Rifleman Magazine. He paid $12.78 for the rifle and $7.17 for the attached scope. That equals about $160 today. The advertised rifle was actually a Carcano Model M91 TS Carbine, but the company had sold out of these particular guns. The 91/38, a very similar weapon, was substituted. The easiest way to differentiate between the two guns is the slightly longer barrel on the Oswald example (20.9 inches as opposed to 17.7). The sling also mounts on the side of the stock on Oswald’s gun rather than the bottom.
The Carcano 91/38 is a surprisingly accurate rifle for its abbreviated dimensions. Numerous recreations of the shooting attempted by trained marksmen have shown the proposed course of fire to be difficult but technically achievable. Subsequent ballistic tests showed the Oswald rifle to shoot 2.5 inches high and one inch to the right when fired from a rest at fifteen meters.
Nine months before the Kennedy shooting Oswald had his wife Marina take several photographs of himself wielding both of these weapons in his backyard. Three of these photos were discovered among Oswald’s personal effects after his death.
The Rest of the Story…
Oswald vehemently denied having shot either Tippit or Kennedy despite overwhelming physical evidence tying him to both crimes. During an interview by the press corps while in prison, he specifically claimed to have been an innocent “patsy”.
Two days after Kennedy’s murder Oswald was being transferred from Dallas Police Headquarters to the County Jail under heavy escort.
A local nightclub operator named Jack Ruby was a well-known fixture at the Dallas PD HQ and subsequently raised no suspicions as he moved through the crowd.
Ruby rushed forward and discharged his short-barreled .38-caliber Colt Cobra revolver into Oswald’s belly at point-blank range. A still image of the event earned photographer Robert H. Jackson of the Dallas Times Herald a Pulitzer Prize for photography.
Ruby’s round entered Oswald’s left side and transited his spleen, stomach, aorta, vena cava, kidney, liver, and diaphragm before deflecting off of his 11th rib and coming to rest on his right side. Oswald bled out in short order. Ruby claimed to have killed Oswald to “Save Mrs. Kennedy the discomfiture of coming back to trial.” Jack Ruby died in prison of lung cancer in early 1967.
The murder of JFK, not unlike the 9/11 attacks, changed the very fabric of American culture. Presidential security was taken much more seriously, and the subsequent 1968 Gun Control Act established the current system of Federal Firearms Dealers that remains in operation today. These two pitiless killings ultimately proved just how devastating a single determined assassin could be.