When audio engineer Ed Primeau learned in 2011 about a previously unknown recording of radio communications to and from Air Force One on November 22, 1963, he volunteered his own time and expertise to enhance the tape for public consumption.
That was the day the President John F. Kennedy was shot dead on a Dallas street and the new President Lyndon Johnson and First Lady Jackie Kennedy flew back to Washington with JFK’s body.
“I thought this could really be exciting,” Primeau said in a phone interview. “I’ve always been fascinated by history and the JFK conspiracy questions.”
Primeau, known nationally for his work analyzing recordings heard in the Trayvon Martin murder trial, worked with JFK researcher Bill Kelly at no charge to enhance the tape.
The result is an important, if incomplete, historical document, largely ignored by mainstream news organizations on the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination.
The tapes illuminate a pivotal moment in America as the far flung branches of the U.S. military and intelligence agencies responded to the news that the liberal president had been shot dead in right-wing Dallas.
The new tape revealed that Air Force General Curtis LeMay, a harsh critic of President Kennedy’s foreign policy, immediately returned to Washington where he may have attended JFK’s autopsy. LeMay was notorious as an advocate of nuclear war who thought Kennedy a weak-willed liberal. For his part, JFK thought LeMay was bellicose to the point of danger.
(See “Enhanced Air Force One tapes capture a top general’s response to JFK’s murder,” JFK Facts, Oct. 19, 2013.)
“People have always wanted to know where was Curtis LeMay on the day Kennedy was shot,” historian Douglas Brinkley told Piers Morgan. “There have been mixed messages about it. This tape provides exactly where he was.”
Cleaning up the tapes
Primeau’s work was painstaking, taking a total of perhaps 40 hours of his time and many more for one of his assistants. He and his staff applied noise reduction, compression and other techniques to make the conversations on the tape more audible.
Kelly, a veteran JFK researcher who also blogs about the history of golf, compiled a transcript of the conversations heard on the tape, including the dramatic moment when a plane carrying six members of Kennedy’s cabinet turned around in mid-air over the Pacific Ocean to return to Washington.
Primeau and Kelly compared the new tape, which turned up in a Philadelphia auction house, to a different Air Force One recording, made public by the LBJ Library in the 1970s. The two tapes have some conversations in common but the newer tape is longer.
Primeau combined the two recordings to create the most complete account of the communications between the presidential jet and the rest of the U.S. government on November 22, 1963.
Primeau also added video from a jet and a scrolling version of Kelly’s transcript to make for a more listener-friendly experience.
(You can watch/listen to the incomplete Air Force One tape on Primeau’s website here. The Primeau-Kelly recording is more complete and aurally superior to the version posted on the National Archives website.)
After close to year of work Primeau concluded that both of the existing Air Force One tapes came from a longer recording. He stressed that his view is not a scientific finding, but more of “a hunch” based on experience.
“When I was an audio engineer recording music or the spoken word, we always made what we called a safety copy. That was a direct patch from one reel-to-reel machine to another reel-to-reel machine. I would suspect that whoever made these tapes would have made a safety copy of these transmissions before they edited them,” he said.
“Another reason that I don’t think these tapes are originals is the amount amount of noise, the lack of clarity and the lack of signal on the tapes,” Primeau added. “That is a clue that they’re not original recordings.”
Primeau said he detected signs of editing at five to ten different places on each of the two existing tapes. He is not suggesting the tapes have been doctored or falsified, but rather they are shorter, edited versions extracted from a longer recording.
The available tapes are evidence that a more complete Air Force One tape from November 22, 1963, existed at some point,
“The government created these recordings,” Primeau explained. “The editing shows that somebody made decisions about what they wanted the public to know and hear and what they didn’t want the public to know and hear.”
The missing Air Force One tape
At 55 years of age, Primeau was a young boy in Michigan on November 22, 1963. He recalls hearing a neighbor scream that Kennedy had been killed. “It was always in the back of mind after that,” he said.
Primeau says his work with the tapes in the past year has only raised new questions.
“What were the things that were removed?” he wondered. “Were there politically incorrect remarks? Were there conversation about the movements of other governmental officials? Safety considerations?”
If the original Air Force One tape was not copied or destroyed, he added, it may have deteriorated.
“The anticipated shelf life of analog tape is 25 years,” Primeau said. “After that it starts to deteriorate. The metal oxide on the nylon tape starts to crumble and rust.”
Primeau does not rule the possibility out that a more complete version of the Air Force One tape could turn up one day.
Such a tape could provide new details about how the U.S. military and national security agencies reacted to the gunfire that left JFK dead in his arms of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and delivered Lyndon Johnson into the seat of power in the White House.
“It would be wonderful if [the original tape] surfaced,” Primeau said. “I told Bill, if that should ever happen, count me in.”
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