Surviving History

ADVENTURE, WAR, MURDER, SLAVERY, ESPIONAGE: from the internationally bestselling author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg and eight other history books. New post each Tuesday.

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Monday, November 21, 2011


A small group of well-wishers had gathered to greet their newly-elected president.
'Honey, I forgot to duck': Reagan's memorable words
Ronald Reagan, just 69 days into his presidency, was warmly applauded as he left the Washington Hilton.
He turned to wave at the cheering crowds and then gave an additional wave to the press corps. It was Monday, 30 March, 1981, and it was to prove a fateful day for Mr President.
No one noticed that one member of the crowd was not cheering. No one was aware that one young man - John Hinckley, Jnr - had a loaded revolver in his pocket.
A wave to the gathered crowd
As Reagan made his way to the waiting limousine, he passed right in front of Hinckley, the would-be assassin.
Hinckley had long dreamed of killing an American president. Just five months earlier, he had hoped to kill Jimmy Carter. But the attempt had failed when he was arrested at Nashville Airport and charged with illegally possessing a gun.
Anything to impress Jodie Foster
There was a deeply disturbing side to Hinckley’s character - one that was all-too familiar to actress Jodie Foster. Hinckley had become obsessed with Foster after her graphic portrayal of a 12-year-old prostitute in the film Taxi Driver. He had been stalking her ever since.
He was equally obsessed with Travis Bickle, the film’s principal character, who had attempted to assassinate a would-be presidential hopeful.
Now, Hinckley decided to emulate Bickle and shoot Reagan.
His motive was neither political and nor was it an act of hatred. He was so obsessed with Foster that he wanted to do something truly spectacular - something that he hoped would impress her and cause her to admire him.
Now, as Reagan passed the cheering crowd, Hinckley seized the moment. He whipped out his Rohm .22 revolver and fired six shots in rapid succession.
Chaos as shots are fired
The first bullet hit White House Press Secretary James Brady in the head: he collapsed to the ground.
The second lodged itself in the neck of police officer Thomas Delahanty as he spun round to protect the president.
The third shot missed everyone: it shattered the window of a nearby building.
The fourth bullet struck Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy in the stomach.
The fifth hit the limousine window, while the sixth bullet also hit the car, then ricocheted off the metal and struck Reagan under his left arm.
The president was clearly hurt, but in the moment of panic and confusion no one realised how serious were his injuries.
Even Reagan himself was not aware he’d been shot; he thought he’d broken a rib when Special Agent Jerry Parr pushed him into the limousine.
The bodyguards are hit
As Hinckley was wrestled to the ground, Reagan’s motorcade sped off towards the White House. ‘Rawhide [Reagan’s codename] is OK,’ said Parr. But when Reagan started to cough up frothy pink blood, it was clear that all was not well.
The limousine now swung round and headed instead for George Washington University Hospital.
Reagan managed to get out of the limousine unaided and struggle into the hospital, but then his knees suddenly gave way and he had trouble breathing.
He was rushed to the emergency room where his suit was cut off. FBI agents quickly removed his wallet that contained the Gold Codes - the nuclear launch codes.
The road to recovery
Reagan’s blood pressure had fallen to 60 (it should have been 140) and he was in deep shock. It suddenly dawned on hospital staff that he was unlikely to survive.
Foster: stalked
The president retained his customary humour, even though he was in serious pain. ‘I hope you’re all Republicans,’ he joked to the operating staff. When his wife, Nancy, arrived a few minutes later, he uttered the memorable line: ‘Honey, I forgot to duck’.
The operation to save Reagan lasted three hours. The surgeons removed the bullet from Reagan’s lung, unaware that it was still explosive and could have gone off there and then.
Reagan made a rapid recovery, despite losing some five pints of blood. He left hospital after 13 days and was given a heroic welcome back to the White House. He was the only serving US president to survive being shot in an assassination attempt.
James Brady was not so fortunate. Hit in the head with a bullet, he has been paralysed and in a wheelchair ever since. He has devoted all his energies to lobbying for stricter handgun control.
As for Hinckley, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity.
He remains under institutionalised psychiatric care to this day.

UK paperback
Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War available here for just £5.30

And for my American readers, it is now published under the title: The Boy Who Went to War: The Story of a Reluctant German Soldier in WWII available here
Newly published US edition
'Idiosyncratic and utterly fascinating... an extraordinary tale of hardship, horror and amazing good fortune' James Delingpole, The Daily Mail 


  1. "The surgeons removed the bullet from Reagan’s lung, unaware that it was still explosive and could have gone off there and then, killing them all."

    Really? Don't you think you may want to edit that falshood?

    The Devastator Ammunition used was devoloped for use by Air Marshalls, to avoid over penetration. It has no where near the explosive properties you imply in your mis-statement. It did however, once blow the tips off of a pair of tweezers in a lab accident. Hardly the deadly explosion you describe.

  2. Donald, thanks for this. I see my post has raised a lot of debate about the explosive properties of the Devastator. I must confess I'm not an expert. I'll change it now.