The Curious Case of John Garrett Underhill, Jr. and his ties to JFK – Lattingtown, New York
To mark the tragic circumstances surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, we thought it fitting to highlight the story of an Underhill relative who had a brush with that sad chapter in our nation’s history.
John Garrett Underhill, Jr. (1915-1964), was born August 7, 1915, the son of John Garrett Underhill, Sr. (1876-1946), and Louisa Mann Wingate (1869-1927). Wingate’s father General George Wood Wingate played a role in forming the National Rifle Association. Sadly, Underhill’s mother Louisa died in 1927 when John Garrett was only 12 years old.[i]
Underhill went on to study linguistics and graduate from Harvard College in 1937. This continued a family tradition. His father, John Garrett Underhill, Sr. translated the plays of Cervantes from Spanish and was a professor at Columbia University.
In 1940 it was announced in The New York Times that Underhill was to wed Miss Patricia Semple Dunkerson, a graduate of Vassar College.[ii] They were married on June 12 that year at St. Bartholomew’s Protestant Episcopal Church in Brooklyn.[iii]
John Garrett Underhill, Jr. put his linguistic skills to good use during World War II. He served as a Technical Editor and later Chief Editor of the War Department’s Military Intelligence Division between July 6, 1943 and May 1946.[iv],[v] During the war he specialized in photography and enemy weapons. Underhill rose to the rank of Captain General Staff G2. For his service he was awarded the Army Commendation Medal for meritorious service.
Following the war Underhill was a military correspondent for Life magazine for five years.[vi]His hard work helped to make their Foreign News Department one of the most knowledgeable centers of military intelligence in the world. U>nder the pseudonym Garrett Underhill he wrote the “Report on the Red Army.” The report was published on October 16, 1949. In the report it was noted how Garrett Underhill was a writer and editor, and served for 3 1/2 years on the War Department General Staff. It noted how he “is owner of a large private collection of Soviet small arms, acquired during a fifteen-year interest in foreign armaments?”[vii]
From late 1949 to the mid-1950s Underhill was in informant who had contact with the office of the Domestic Contact Service of the CIA.[viii] In 1951 he wrote a 6500 word essay with Ronald Schiller entitled “The Tragedy of the US Army” for Look magazine that was published February 13, 1951.[ix] After writing the article the Harvard Alumni Bulletin printed Underhill’s own words of how he “Got recalled to brown suit service just after finishing a 6500 word article.”[x]
John Garrett Underhill, Jr., volunteered and served as Deputy Director for the Civil Defense of Washington, D.C. An exercise meant to simulate an evacuation in the event of a hydrogen bomb attack called “Operation Alert” was carried out in 1955. Underhill was outspoken in his criticism of the exercise, stating in the press it was not a “drill but a show.” During the exercise he declined heading to the command post for the exercise claiming, it was “so inadequate it couldn’t cope with a brushfire threatening a doghouse in a backyard.” Samuel Spencer, one of the commissioners who govern the District of Columbia, upon hearing Underhill’s criticism ordered his dismissal just as “Operation Alert” began.[xi]
John Garrett Underhill, Jr., took an active interest in family organizations. One letter from November 1950 expressed his interest in “the revival of the three Underhill organizations.”[xii] He would have ample opportunity to play a hand in that revival between 1954 and 1956 when he served as President of the Underhill Society of America.
Near the end of his life Underhill became surrounded in controversy surrounding facts related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Following the assassination of President, Underhill told his friend, Charlene Fitsimmons, that he was convinced that Kennedy had been killed by “a small clique in the CIA.” He knew the people involved and what they knew. He also said: “Oswald is a patsy. They set him up. It’s too much. The bastards have done something outrageous. They’ve killed the President! I’ve been listening and hearing things. I couldn’t believe they’d get away with it, but they did!”
Jim Garrison, District Attorney from Louisiana conducted an investigation into the assassination of Kennedy. Among the witnesses he sought out was John Garrett Underhill, Jr. In an interview that Garrison gave for Playboy magazine, he referred to a CIA agent with valuable information pertaining to his investigation. The name of Gary Underhill was used interchangeably in sources with John Garrett Underhill. A Memorandum from the CIA to the Justice Department in 1967 referred to the interview and John Garrett Underhill, Jr. in some detail:
15. Who is the J. Garrett UNDERHILL referred to in Garrison’s Playboy interview as a former CIA agent? UNDERHILL was born 7 August 1915 in Brooklyn, was graduated from Harvard in 1937, and committed suicide on 8 May 1964. He served with the Military Intelligence Service from 6 July 1943 to May 1946 as an expert in photography, enemy weapons, and related technical specialities. He was in infrequent contact with the New York office of the Domestic Contact Service, of CIA from late 1949 to the mid-’50s. The contact was routine. Mr. UNDERHILL was not an employee of CIA.[xiii]
CIA agent Gary Underhill, again, a name used interchangeably with John Garrett Underhill, Jr., was said to have a connection with Harold Isaacs who in turn knew Oswald’s cousin Marilyn Murret.[xiv] Prior to Garrison being able to meet and interview Underhill, he was found in bed with a bullet wound behind his left ear.[xv] He died on May 8, 1964, at his home on 3035 M St, NW in Washington, D.C.
Sources differ on whether the cause of his death was suicide[xvi] or if people or groups had motivations to see him removed before had secret information that he threatened to divulge. His Death Certificate from the District of Columbia Department of Public Health listed the cause of death as “shot self in head with automatic pistol.”[xvii]
Surviving John Garrett Underhill, Jr., were his wife Patricia D. Underhill, one son John Garrett Underhill III, and a sister Mrs. Ernest Eltinge of Warwick, New York. After his death he was buried in the Underhill Burying Ground in Lattingtown, New York.[xviii] His wife Patricia D. Underhill died on December 15, 1973. A memorial service was held in her memory at Christ Church, Washington, D.C.[xix] John Garrett Underhill III lived at 10220 Memorial Dr. in Houston, Texas. An obituary for him ran in the March 22, 1987 issue of the Houston Chronicle, Section 2, Page 15.
On the occasion of the 50thanniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, it is helpful to take a moment to reflect on the life of John Garrett Underhill. Neither a hero or a rogue, instead, he was another person in a long line of family members who made great sacrifices and in so doing contributed to the character of their nation. Relatives of Underhill in their own times served Queen Elizabeth I, nurtured Shakespeare’s talent. After the family immigrated to America they founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony, defended New Amsterdam in the Indian Wars, and served their nation with distinction in military service and other areas of American life in the decades and centuries to follow.