Macon native protected Johnson that fateful day

November 21, 2013 

You probably have never heard of the late Rufus W. Youngblood Jr., which is the way it was supposed to be.

When he was growing up, many folks knew him as “Wayne.” He was born in Macon, moved to Atlanta and spent 20 years in the Secret Service protecting five presidents.

He made the front page in the days following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy 50 years ago. He was assigned to protect Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson and was riding in the motorcade through Dallas, Texas, two cars behind Kennedy.

Youngblood was in the front seat when the fatal shots were fired at 12:30 p.m. He did not know if a car had backfired or if someone had exploded a firecracker on one of the streets along Dealey Plaza.

He immediately turned and jumped into the back seat, pushing LBJ down on the floorboard of the Lincoln convertible and shielding him with his body.

At Parkland Hospital, he guarded the sequestered vice president with his revolver drawn.

Four hours later, Johnson climbed aboard Air Force One. It was Youngblood who handed a Bible to Lady Bird Johnson, who gave it to her husband to use as he was sworn in as the 36th president by federal Judge Sarah Hughes.

Youngblood was promoted to chief of the White House security detail. The following year, the year he turned 40, he returned to the city where he was born as part of a campaign rally on Oct. 26, 1964. An estimated crowd of 35,000 gathered in front of Macon City Hall.

Youngblood would go on to be appointed deputy director of the Secret Service before he retired in 1971. Two years later, he wrote a book called “20 Years in the Secret Service: My Life With Five Presidents.” His publisher, Simon and Schuster, sent him on a book tour. He appeared on “Today” and “The Tonight Show.”

He was born in Macon in 1924. His father, Rufus W. Youngblood Sr., worked as a conductor for the Central of Georgia Railroad. Rufus Sr. died in a train accident in Fort Valley when Rufus Jr. was a year old.

The family moved to Atlanta, and Youngblood graduated from Tech High in the spring of 1941. Seven months later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He had to get his mother’s permission (he was only 17) to join the Army Air Force.

He was a navigator and a gunner on the B-17s and participated in some of the first bombing raids over Nazi Germany. He was wounded during an air raid and received a Purple Heart.

Youngblood went to Georgia Tech on the G.I. Bill and graduated with a degree in industrial engineering. He thought about joining the FBI. He considered enrolling in law school at Mercer University.

He was working for an air-conditioning and refrigeration company in Waycross when he learned through the placement office at Tech about a job in the Atlanta office of the Secret Service. His first duties were as a criminal investigator for counterfeiting and check fraud.

Within two years, he was transferred to Washington, where he was assigned to protect Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. Richard Nixon was the last president he protected.

He was 47 when he retired and moved with his wife, Peggy, to Savannah, where they sold real estate.

He died of lung cancer in 1996 at age 72. His heroic actions of 50 years ago earned him the Exceptional Service Award, the highest honor bestowed by the Treasury Department.

Reach Gris at 744-4275 or egrisamore@macon.com.

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