A life of Secret Service
By RICK WATSON
Inverness resident and former Secret Service agent Lem Johns holds a photo of himself standing behind President Lyndon Johnson and Jacqueline Kennedy as Johnson took the oath of office following President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Photo by Rick Watson.
On November 22, 1963, four shots rang out at Daley Plaza in Dallas, the shots that were heard around the world.
Former Secret Service agent Lem Johns of Inverness remembers all too well where he was on that fateful day – less than 150 feet behind John F. Kennedy’s Lincoln Limosine.
“I was in the right rear seat of the car following the vice president’s limo, and I heard a shot that came from the right,” he said. Johns was riding in the third car in the motorcade with his door cracked, and the instant he heard the shot, he bolted from the vehicle and raced toward Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson’s limo.
Johns’ primary responsibility was protecting Johnson, and he needed to be in the car with him.
Film taken at the time of the assassination showed that Johns and his boss Rufus Youngblood both reacted instantly to protect the vice president when the first shot was fired.
But even with the lightning reflexes of the Secret Service, it was too late for Kennedy, the target of the bullet.
In a historic photograph taken later that evening, Lem Johns stands just behind Jacqueline Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson on Air Force One as he took the oath of office to become the thirty-sixth president of the United States.
After the assassination, Johns continued his role as Assistant Special Agent in Charge (ASAIC) but his duty station moved to the White House. He already had experience in the White House protecting President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the late 1950s.
“Being in the White House with Eisenhower gave me a chance to learn how things were done there,” said Johns.
The Secret Service had been understaffed for years, but after the Kennedy assassination, the organization ramped up its protection of high-level government officials as well as candidates for the presidency.
As the role of the Secret Service expanded, Johns became ASAIC for not only the presidential detail but for all the Secret Service. His role as ASAIC put him in a position to implement a number of initiatives that helped the Service to be more effective.
For example, he made presidential drivers and mechanics part of the Service. The drivers helped with advance team preparation whenever the president traveled. Johns also upgraded the weapons used by agents and acquired a bulletproof limousine, even though the president was hesitant to approve the expenditure.
During Johns’ time at the White House, President Johnson ushered a law through Congress that gave the Secret Service more power to coordinate with the military and other security organizations. Once enacted, the law was useful when the Service needed additional resources.
Another example of Johns’ creative problem solving came during the 1968 Republican National Convention in Miami. The Secret Service needed 500 rooms to house the agents necessary to provide security for the convention. He soon learned there were so many candidates, delegates and media personnel at the event that there were no rooms available for the Secret Service.
Johns phoned the Joint Chiefs of Staff and requisitioned a naval ship to serve as lodging for agents. The ship was in dry dock in Norfolk, Va., undergoing renovation, but it was the only ship large enough to fit the bill.
“I asked them to double the work crews and complete the renovations on the voyage to Miami,” he remembered. And his strategy worked.
Hoover-based filmmaker John Jenkins took interest in Johns’ remarkable experience with the Secret Service and recently produced a documentary about his life that aired on Alabama Public Television.
Still, his life was not all the glamour worthy of films. Civil unrest of the 1960s made the job of the Secret Service even more stressful. There were a lot of divorces because of the demands on the agents, according to Johns.
“I always said, being an agent requires a team of two: the agent and his wife,” he said.
Johns and his wife, Nita, have been married 65 years, and his service must have made an impression on his family. His son, Jeff, became a Secret Service agent for Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, and his grandson Michael has served as a Secret Service agent for the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.
Perhaps they were inspired by how Johns never regretted the stress and risks in his work.
“At any given moment, an agent is a foot away from history, but I’ve always considered it a great honor to serve.”