By John Glendinning
Published October 2007 in The Bell: Journal of the Stewartstown and District Local History Society, No.11
What were you doing when you heard Kennedy was dead? To those of us who lived through the 1960s, that question usually evokes an accurate and immediate response, as the news spread across a shocked and horrified world that John F Kennedy, 35th President of the United States, had fallen victim to an assassin’s bullet. But to one person, born just outside Stewartstown, County Tyrone, the assassination had a deeply personal and traumatic effect which was to impact on the rest of his life. That person, William (Bill) Greer, was at the wheel of the presidential car on the day Jack Kennedy died.
William Greer was born on 22 September 1909 in the townland of Drumbanaway, two miles north of Stewartstown, the fourth child of Richard Greer and Mary Ann Greer née Arbuthnot. He received his early education in the local primary school at Ballymaguire after which he emigrated at the age of seventeen to Canada, where an uncle lived. He worked as a farm labourer before moving to Boston where he found employment as a chauffeur. After the bombing of Pearl Harbour, Greer joined the US Navy. He was assigned to the presidential yacht in May 1944.
At the end of the Second World War he joined the US Secret Service and was appointed to the White House staff in November 1950. Over the next thirteen years he worked as a chauffeur for three US Presidents – Harry S Truman, Dwight D Eisenhower, and John F Kennedy.
On 22 November 1963 Greer was assigned to drive the presidential car in the motorcade through Dallas, Texas. Several witnesses said that Greer stopped the car after the first shot was fired. Jean Hill, who was the closest witness to the car when Kennedy was shot, claimed “The motorcade came to almost a halt at the time the shots rang out.” James Chaney, one of the four presidential motorcyclists, stated that, “after the shooting, from the time the first shot rang out, the car stopped completely, pulled to the left and stopped.” Journalist Mary Woodward wrote, “Instead of speeding up the car, the car came to a halt after the first shots.” Kenneth O’Donnell, special assistant to Kennedy, who was riding in the motorcade, later wrote, “If the Secret Service men in front had reacted quicker to the first two shots at the President’s car, if the driver had stepped on the gas before instead of after the fatal third shot was fired, would President Kennedy be alive today?” He also claimed, “Greer had been remorseful all day, feeling he could have saved the President’s life by swerving the car or speeding suddenly after the first two shots.”
However all this criticism of Greer and his immediate superior, Roy Kellerman, was predicated on the ability of two Secret Service agents to instantly identify the sound of a shot echoing among the buildings of the Dealey Plaza whilst the motorcade proceeded along Elm Street, surrounded by motorcycle outriders and flanked on both sides by cheering crowds of onlookers. Jacqueline Kennedy initially believed the noise was from a motorcycle.
Others in the motorcade, including James M Chaney, mounted on a motorcycle six feet from the Lincoln car, thought that another machine had backfired. Many of the agents in the motorcade, including Kellerman, thought that a firecracker had gone off. Critics claimed that the failure to react instantly after the first shot allowed the assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, time to take aim and fire his second shot, and the third shot which hit Jack Kennedy in the head.
Greer gave his own version of events in evidence to the Warren Commission which was established by the United States Government to carry out an official inquiry into the Kennedy assassination. In March 1964 William Greer was interviewed by Arlen Specter on behalf of the Warren Commission. Pat of Greer’s testimony reads –
To the best of my memory [as I made the turn into Elm Street] the crowd had thinned out a great deal and there was not too many people in front of that building……When we were going down Elm Street I heard a noise that I thought was a backfire of one of the motorcycle policemen. And I didn’t – it did not affect me like anything else. I just thought that this is what it was. We had so many motorcycles around us. So I heard this noise. And I thought that is what it was. And then I heard it again. And I glanced over my shoulder. And I saw Governor Connally like he was starting to fall. Then I realised there was something wrong. I tramped on the accelerator and at the same time Mr Kellerman said to me, “Get out of here fast.” And I cannot remember even the other shots or noises that was. I cannot quite remember any more, because I was occupied with getting away.
Arlen Specter: Now, how many shots or how many noises have you just described that you heard?
William Greer: I know that there was three that I heard – three. But I cannot remember any more than probably three. I know that there was three anyway that I heard.
The Warren Commission report did not bring closure to the terrible events of that day. In 1979 a House Select Committee on Assassinations, having reviewed the evidence, published its findings, concluding that “President John F Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy.” The committee’s report was critical of the Secret Service. Saying it was “deficient in the performance of its duties” and that it “possessed information that was not properly analysed, investigated, or used by the Secret Service in connection with the President’s trip to Dallas.” In addition, Secret Service agents were “inadequately prepared to protect the President from a sniper.”
There were others however who defended the actions of the agents that day, among them Agent Rufus Youngblood who was in the motorcade and who covered Vice-President Lyndon B Johnson with his own body as soon as the first shot was fired. In his book My Life With Five Presidents he wrote – “particularly caustic and unfair were the criticisms heaped upon the two Secret Service agents in the President’s car, Bill Greer and Roy Kellerman, apparently for not having pulled some miracle out of a hat to save the President.”
Although Bill Greer spent most of his life in America he never forgot his homeland and made several visits to friends and relatives in the Stewartstown area and in Belfast. On one occasion President Eisenhower gave him leave to visit County Tyrone during a Presidential visit to Dublin. In the 1970s he visited the Drumbanaway district to inquire about his old school friends and to visit the grave of his parents in Ballyclog churchyard. William Greer died on 23 February 1985. It is known that he is survived by at least one child, a son Richard.