FAIRHOPE, Ala. (WALA) – James Waters Jr. grew up hearing stories from his father about his days as a naval aviator and a commercial airline pilot.
But there is one story Waters said he father was reluctant to talk about for decades – his brush with presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.
Waters, who settled in Fairhope after a military career that took him all over the country, told FOX10 News that he father told him his reaction when he saw Oswald’s picture plastered on TV screens and newspaper front pages after President John F. Kennedy had been shot in 1963.
“When he realized what it was, he was like, ‘Oh, my God, I met that guy at Dave Ferrie’s,” he said.
Ferrie was an Eastern Airlines captain in New Orleans in the 1960s when James Waters Sr. was a co-pilot. He drew the attention of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, who thought he might have been involved in a plot to assassinate Kennedy.
JFK: GULF COAST CONNECTIONS
- MONDAY: Mobile man who was in the autopsy room.
- TUESDAY: Oswald's Spring Hill College speech.
- WEDNESDAY: The New Orleans connection.
- THURSDAY: The David Ferrie conspiracy?
- FRIDAY: Mystery death in Pensacola?
All week, FOX10 News has highlighted the Gulf Coast connections to that assassination, which took place 56 years ago Friday. James Waters Sr. was on the periphery of a life that his son describes as filled with lavish parties and extracurricular work taken on by many of the pilots.
Waters Jr. said that at the time, co-pilots tended to follow the lead of the captains – even outside of the cockpit. That meant attending parties, he said, including one at Ferrie’s within a year of the shooting. He said his father told him Oswald stood out.
“He didn’t look like the rest of the, the crew of the party, you know? Everybody else was, you know, like I said, 1960s – you know – airline pilots. Little bit of cash-flush, and partying there,” he said. “You know, wives, girlfriends, whatever. And that Oswald just kind of, was kind of a lump on the wall and didn’t really seem to fit in.”
That lump on the wall, of course, would go on to become one of the most infamous assassins in history. But doubts about whether Oswald acted alone – or at all – emerged within just a few years of the Warren Commission’s official findings.
Garrison suspected Ferrie, portrayed by actor Joe Pesci in the 1991 Oliver Stone film “JFK.”
But University of New Orleans history professor John Fitzmorris III dismissed the idea of a conspiracy involving Ferrie and the man Garrison put on trial – businessman Clay Shaw.
“He sort of walks between the legal and illegal side of New Orleans life here,” he said, referring to Ferrie’s work for a lawyer representing a New Orleans mob boss. “I think that he was caught in yet another legal situation, and that he seized upon an opportunity to implicate Shaw and Oswald.”
‘He ought to be shot’
The FBI questioned Ferrie just five days after the assassination. Some of his answers have been grist for conspiracy theories. For instance, he acknowledged being greatly upset by the failure of Kennedy to support the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by anti-communist rebels and admitted that he “might have used an off-hand or colloquial expression ‘He ought to be shot,’” according to the FBI report.
The report also states that Ferrie acknowledged criticizing Kennedy’s habit of riding in convertibles, stating that “anyone could hide in the bushes and shoot a president.”
But Ferrie denied actually wanting Kennedy dead and told FBI agents that he never had met Oswald.
During the 1950s, Ferrie was an instructor in the Civil Air Patrol, a congressionally chartered corporation that serves as a civilian auxiliary of the Air Force. He also was active during the 1960s in an anti-communist organization called the Cuban Democratic Revolutionary Front. He told investigators that he helped collect food, money, medicine and clothing for the organization.
Waters said New Orleans at the time was known as a city where it was relatively easy to get through customs. He said CIA types and the Mafia would approach pilots to fly “special missions” for them.
“A number of those guys kind of got hooked into,” he said, pausing, “something. My dad said he was approached a couple of times. And he just totally avoided it.”
Waters said his father was convinced three or four pilots flew “unknown characters” in and out of Dallas, where the JFK assassination took place.
Whatever role Ferrie may or may not have had, Waters’ father is not the only person to have claimed to see him and Ferrie together. In 2003, the PBS show “Frontline” published a photograph of a Civil Air Patrol unit in Louisiana at a cookout in the 1950s. The photo shows Ferrie, wearing a helmet, with a group of teenagers that included Oswald.
John Ciravolo, a Gretna, La., resident who submitted the photo to “Frontline,” told FOX10 News that he and his fellow teenagers looked up to Ferrie. He had been a flight instructor, although records show the Civil Air Patrol kicked him out in 1954 for giving unauthorized political lectures.
The picture from the following year, though, suggests he still hung around the organization in an unofficial capacity. Ciravolo said the teenagers looked up to him.
“He was a major god when it came to teaching,” he said. “He was enthralling.”
Ciravolo said Ferrie was a strange-looking man. A rare skin disease, alopecia areata, caused him to lose his hair. He wore a wig and fake eyebrows.
Still, Ciravolo said, it would not have been a surprise if Oswald attended one of Ferrie’s parties.
“We would have gladly gone,” he said.
Expert doubts a conspiracy
Those who have sought to counter the cottage industry of conspiracy theories that the assassination spawned long have expressed doubt about a Ferrie-Oswald connection.
Author Gerald Posner, a lawyer and investigative journalist who spent years researching the assassination, concluded in his 1993 book “Case Closed” that Kennedy’s death was not the result of a conspiracy. He noted that in addition to Waters, a half-dozen people in Clinton, Louisiana, reported seeing Ferrie and Oswald together in 1963.
But Posner said contradictions in their stories and other inconsistencies lends credence to the view that they were mistaken.
“There are all types of stories about Oswald and Ferrie in ’63, none of which in the end, I find credible,” he said. “Although I think some of the people believe them, I just don’t find anything that absolutely ties the two together, and even if it did, the question then is, what does it have to do with the assassination?”
The same goes for the Civil Air Patrol photograph, Posner said. It showed Ferrie and Oswald may have known each other when Oswald was 15. Does it have any significance to the events that transpired eight years later?
Posner said there is nothing that ties them to a conspiracy. He said investigators found no evidence that they exchanged phone calls after Oswald moved back to Dallas. By the end of September 1963, Posner pointed out, Oswald left for Mexico City in hopes of defecting to Cuba. He asked how that can be consistent with a conspiracy.
“Well, Oswald, didn’t agree with that, I guess, because on September the 25th, he went down and was on his way to Cuba,” he said. “He would have been in Cuba when Kennedy was killed if the Cubans or Soviets had said, ‘Here’s your visa.’”
But Waters said two or three of the pilots his father worked with ended up dying mysteriously or committed to a mental institution. He said his father’s proximity to Ferrie unnerved him as he continued his career far from New Orleans.
“I’d ask him about the JFK stuff. And he was very, very silent about it, and almost scared to talk about it,” he said. “My dad didn’t fear much, but you bring that topic up, and you could tell that it was a very unsettling.”
Investigative reporter Shelby Myers contributed to this report.