Robert F. Kennedy Shot after Victory Speech
Only 4½ years after his brother, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated—and just two months after civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been gunned down—America awoke on June 5, 1968, to read the horrifying news that another of the nation’s young leaders had been shot: Senator Robert F. Kennedy. He was shot three times by a Jordanian, Sirhan Sirhan, in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles right after giving a victory speech in the California Democratic presidential primary. Five others were wounded as well.
Kennedy had only entered the presidential primary in March, but was rapidly gaining momentum. Winning the California Democratic primary over his rival Senator Eugene J. McCarthy on June 4, Kennedy gave his victory speech to a gathering of about 2,000 buoyant supporters in the hotel’s ballroom. He ended his speech shortly after midnight and headed for the hotel’s kitchen, a shortcut to get to a press conference. At 12:15 a.m. Sirhan struck and Kennedy fell to the floor, bleeding and mortally wounded.
He clung to life for 26 difficult hours, but died early in the morning of June 6. He was 42 years old. America had lost another leader, felled by an assassin. Sirhan later said he was angry over Kennedy’s support for Israel.
Here are some of the reports Americans found in their newspapers on June 5, 1968, while Kennedy was struggling to survive after nearly four hours of brain surgery earlier that morning. The first article is an initial report published in a Dallas, Texas, newspaper. The other articles all appeared in a Seattle, Washington, newspaper—by the time of this West Coast paper’s later publication more details had become known, including some chilling, eyewitness details of the actual shooting.
This copyrighted article was published on the front page of the Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas) on June 5, 1968:
Kennedy Shot During Victory Speech
Los Angeles (AP)—Robert F. Kennedy, brother of the assassinated President John F. Kennedy, was shot early Wednesday in a moment of political triumph.
The nature of the wounds could not be immediately ascertained, but Associated Press reporter Bob Thomas saw blood gush from the senator’s face.
Doctors at Central Receiving Hospital reported his condition was critical.
Kennedy had just made a victory statement on the California Democratic presidential primary.
At least two other persons were reported hit by the gunman.
The apparent assailant, a man about 25 years old, curly haired and of Latin appearance, [was] captured by Kennedy supporters. He was rushed through the Ambassador Hotel lobby by police.
The scene of shock and turmoil was nationally televised, for the shooting came moments after Kennedy had gone before the cameras with his primary victory statement.
A television reporter said the man who fired the shot was about 10 feet from Kennedy.
The reporter said Stephen Smith, Kennedy’s brother-in-law and campaign manager, also was shot.
Kennedy was taken to Los Angeles Central Receiving Hospital.
Before he was removed from the hotel, a priest said he attempted to give the senator final rites of the Roman Catholic church but the surging crowd pushed him away.
The priest said, “I gave him the rosary and he clenched it tightly and I was pushed away. There was blood on his head.”
The arrested man was hurried through a lobby throng still yelling and screaming at the news of the shooting.
“Kill him! Lynch him!” many in the crowd shouted. Many tried to reach the man.
But police hustled him out of the lobby and down the stairs to an exit.
Senator Kennedy was brought into Central Receiving Hospital on a stretcher.
David Esquith, Michael Agron and Ron Udell, all of Los Angeles, brought in a friend whom they said was also wounded in the shooting.
They identified him as Irwin Stroll, 17, of Los Angeles. They said he didn’t appear to be seriously injured.
The gunman was caught standing on some sort of box. The shooting occurred in a small anteroom off the main ballroom.
Only those near the door knew at first there was a shooting.
Five doctors treated the senator before removal to the hospital.
Several Kennedy supporters called for towels immediately after the shooting. A news reporter hastily stripped off a velvet tablecloth and rushed into the kitchen area, jammed with shouting political supporters of the senator.
The scene was complete confusion. Television cameramen and men carrying tape recorders stood on serving tables and tried to hold their equipment close to where first aid was being applied to the wounded.
All the men were bleeding.
A tablecloth was used to stem the flow of blood from a blond man who was stretched over a chair. His shirt was up and he was bleeding profusely around the body.
Kennedy’s eyes were reported to be open. He was licking the blood on his lips. The wife of one of the doctors said his condition seemed not to be critical.
These copyrighted articles were all published on the front page of the Seattle Times (Seattle, Washington) on June 5, 1968:
Robert Kennedy’s Condition Remains Extremely Critical
Associated Press and United Press International
Los Angeles—Senator Robert F. Kennedy emerged from more than three hours of surgery in extremely “critical condition” today after he was shot in the head by a mysteriously silent gunman early this morning. The shooting occurred after he had won the California Democratic presidential primary.
The gunman was identified at midmorning as Sirhan Sirhan, 23, a Jordanian born in Jerusalem.
Kennedy was shot down about 4½ years after his brother, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated by a rifleman in Dallas, Tex.
An aide said all but a fragment of a bullet was removed from Kennedy’s brain and a second bullet, less serious, remains in the back of his neck.
Vital signs—pulse and breathing—are in good order, Frank Mankiewicz, Kennedy’s press secretary, told newsmen, but the next 24 to 36 hours will be critical. He said there “may have been some impairment of the blood supply to the center of the brain”—which controls pulse, blood pressure and tracking of the eye—but “not the thinking processes.”
A series of tests conducted on the senator “do not show measurable improvement” in his condition, which remains extremely critical, Mankiewicz reported at 2:15 p.m.
Mayor Samuel Yorty said identification of the gunman was made by the suspect’s brother, Adel Sirhan of Pasadena, who was traced through the death weapon.
The 42-year-old New York senator came from behind in California’s crucial primary to accrue a winning lead over Senator Eugene J. McCarthy around midnight. Kennedy had proclaimed his win to about 2,000 supporters at an Ambassador Hotel rally and was taking a shortcut through the kitchen to a meeting with newsmen when shots rang out.
With stunning rapidity at 12:15 a.m., a man police described as a Caucasian, 5 feet 6 inches and 140 pounds, with dark hair and complexion, emptied the chamber of an eight-shot .22-caliber pistol.
Kennedy fell, hit three times. Five others near him were wounded, none as badly as Kennedy.
Pandemonium broke loose. Roosevelt Grier, giant Negro tackle for the professional Los Angeles Rams, quickly grabbed the much smaller gunman, wrestled the gun from him and held him for police.
The man under arrest was arraigned secretly at 7 a.m. as John Doe and bail was set at $250,000. The arraignment was on six accounts of assault with intent to commit murder.
Police Chief Thomas Reddin said the man remained silent for hours, then broke that silence and proved to be “extremely articulate with an extensive vocabulary,” but he refused to identify himself or discuss the shooting.
Kennedy was taken first to Central Receiving Hospital, where a doctor said he was “practically dead” upon arrival.
Physicians there administered closed cardiac massage, oxygen and adrenalin. “At first he was pulseless,” a doctor who treated him said, “then his pulse came back and we began to hear a heartbeat and he began to breathe—a little erratically.”
The doctor, Victor Baz, said Ethel Kennedy, who accompanied her husband in the ambulance, was frightened. “She didn’t believe he was alive because she couldn’t see that he was responding. I put the stethoscope to her ears so she could listen and she was tremendously relieved.”
Kennedy was taken to Good Samaritan Hospital near downtown Los Angeles. There a team of six surgeons began brain surgery at 3:12 a.m. that lasted about 3 hours and 40 minutes.
Doctors said one bullet struck near the right ear and entered the brain. Another hit in the shoulder. A third apparently grazed his forehead.
The actual surgery here was performed by Drs. Maxwell Ambler of the University of California at Los Angeles Medical School and Nat Downes Reid and Henry Cuneo of the University of Southern California Medical School.
Kennedy’s brother, Edward, senator from Massachusetts, flew here from San Francisco and was taken by helicopter to Good Samaritan.
Wounds were suffered by Paul Schrade, 30, United Auto Workers official; William Weisel, 30, unit manager for the American Broadcasting Co.; Ira Goldstein, 19, a radio newsman; Irwin Stroll, 17; and Mrs. Elizabeth Evans. All but Weisel, of Washington, D.C., are from the Los Angeles area.
The gunman appeared in the kitchen area behind the bandstand of the Embassy Room, where Kennedy backers, including movie stars and students, were listening to their candidate’s light-hearted victory speech.
Kennedy finished his speech and began working his way off the platform and into the kitchen, followed by close associates and members of his family.
At that moment the gunman pushed through the throng, reached his arm around others in front of him and shot the senator.
Grier, the football player, grabbed the man’s arm. Joe LaHive, a local Kennedy campaigner, wrested the gun away. Grier and a former Olympic decathlon champion, Rafer Johnson, lifted the assailant and spread him on a steel kitchen table.
“Nobody hurt this man!” one of the athletes shouted. “We want to take him alive!”
Women were screaming, “Oh no!” “God, God, not again!”
Kennedy was stretched on the floor, his face covered with blood. “Give him room! Step back!” someone yelled.
Kennedy seemed to hear nothing. His face was blank, his eyes staring sightlessly.
Grier, Johnson and two or three others held the gunman on the table 10 feet away. Screams began to be heard in the ballroom as news of the shooting spread to the campaigners, who had been cheering their candidate two minutes before.
Kennedy was given emergency treatment by a doctor summoned from the ballroom.
The gunman, apparently unharmed, was rushed through the Ambassador lobby by police 10 minutes after the shooting. By this time the crowd knew that Kennedy had been shot.
“Kill him! Lynch him!” onlookers shouted. They milled forward to get at the man, but the police ran him down the stairs and got him to the central jail.
‘Might Not Make It,’ Says Doctor
New York (UPI)—Senator Robert F. Kennedy “might not make it,” according to one of the three surgeons who operated on him.
Dr. Henry Cuneo said that even if Kennedy lives, he may suffer extensive brain damage.
Dr. Cuneo gave his opinion to Dr. Lawrence Pool, director and professor of neurosurgery at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, who reported it on a newscast.
Dr. Cuneo told Dr. Pool that several major arteries were severed and Kennedy’s brain suffered extensive loss of blood and oxygen as well as several blood clots.
In summation, Dr. Cuneo informed Dr. Pool that it is unlikely Kennedy “will be able to recover fully…and…doubtful that he could live.”
‘No Words…’ Says President
Washington (AP)—President Johnson issued this statement today on the shooting of Senator Robert F. Kennedy: “There are no words equal to the horror of this tragedy. Our thoughts and our prayers are with Senator Kennedy, his family, and the other victims.
“All America prays for his recovery. We also pray that divisiveness and violence be driven from the hearts of men everywhere.”
One of the President’s first actions was to order the Secret Service to assign a protective detail to each major candidate, borrowing from other federal law enforcement agencies as needed.
Shooting Suspect Identified
Associated Press and United Press International
Los Angeles—Police today identified the man who shot Senator Robert F. Kennedy and five other persons as Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, 23, who has a brother who lives in nearby Pasadena.
Mayor Sam Yorty and Police Chief Tom Reddin told a news conference that Sirhan was traced through the .22-caliber pistol used to wound Kennedy and the five others.
Yorty said Sirhan was born in the former Jordanian part of Jerusalem. Kennedy had made several campaign appearances before Hebrew congregations in California. He called for Arab recognition of Israel and an end to Jordanian aggression against the Jewish state.
Sirhan was identified by his brother, Adel Sirhan, with whom he lived. Yorty said the pistol used in the assassination attempt was owned by another brother, Munier (Joe) Sirhan. The latter told officers he had no idea how his brother got the weapon.
Yorty said the brothers recently came to the United States from Jerusalem. Yorty said the suspect had four $100 bills in his possession and a newspaper clipping critical of Kennedy.
In San Francisco, Attorney General Thomas Lynch said the weapon was a .22-caliber, eight shot, Iver Johnson Cade with a 2½-inch barrel. The pistol fires .22 long shells, which have a harder impact than short bullets.
The suspect attended high school in Pasadena, where his fingerprints were taken when he applied for a state job.
The suspect was “very cool, very calm, very stable and quite lucid” under a drumfire of questioning, Reddin reported.
During “a number of lengthy conversations,” he talked freely and with interest—until asked who he was and anything about Kennedy, Reddin told a news conference.
Anytime the questioning got around to the shooting of Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel, the man would say, “I prefer to remain incommunicado.”
Reddin said the gunman carried a few scraps of paper but had no identification. “We have advised him of his legal rights,” the chief reported. “He doesn’t want a lawyer now.”
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