Jim Leavelle just may be indestructible. The 97-year-old member of American Legion Post 23 in Garland, Texas, is a living, breathing participant in two of the 20th century’s most significant events.
A sailor serving aboard USS Whitney, he was at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Twenty-two years later, on Nov. 24, 1963, Leavelle witnessed the slaying of John F. Kennedy assassination suspect Lee Harvey Oswald.
How close was he? He was handcuffed to Oswald at the time.
“Those weren’t even my closest calls,” Leavelle chuckles, noting times he faced gunfire during his 25 years with the Dallas Police Department. But none compares to the sheer firepower he saw as a 21-year-old ship’s storekeeper in Hawaii.
“I was on deck and a boatswain’s mate was standing beside me and we were looking across the harbor,” he recalls. “He saw the first plane coming in. I didn’t notice it. He said, ‘Look at that plane. It’s got a red ball on the wing.’ He said they must have been using it for practice. But that was the plane that was sent first. Then he dropped his bombs and went back.”
Whitney was spared as a target due to its location. About a mile and a half from Ford Island, the destroyer was not at the center of the large fleet that bore the brunt. “The Japanese would come over Ford Island and make a turn to the right because that’s where most of the action was, but we were on the other side,” Leavelle says. “One came our direction. I don’t know how he got lost. He fired a few rounds, I guess at several of us, as it passed over.”
Still, Whitney’s crew saw much of the attack. “We did have a good view of everything. A mile and a half at sea looks like 150 yards on the ground because you can see a lot further on the open sea.”
Though his memories of Pearl Harbor are troubling, Leavelle understands the importance of giving an eyewitness account.
“We saw some destroyers going out with big fires on the back end of them where they had got hit,” he says. “The battleship Nevada was trying to get out of there, burning on each end, front and back, and you could see the firemen fighting it, and they had their guns going. They made a lot of wartime movies later on, but none could match what the scene looked like to us.”
Leavelle manned his battle station, although it was not an effective one. “I was a loader on a 5-inch gun,” he says. “It would shoot 40 or 50 miles, so if you fired it could kill someone in Honolulu, but it was useless here.”
While Leavelle did incur an injury during his time in the Navy, it happened prior to Dec. 7, 1941. A wake from a rough Pacific storm struck Whitney and threw him over the rail of a stairwell onto a steel floor, shattering his knees. “After the attack, the doctors would only assign me to shore duty,” he says. “One doctor said he would never approve sea duty because he was afraid my knee wouldn’t hold up, and I couldn’t man a battle station. Since they weren’t going to send me to sea, I got out.”
After a few jobs in the civilian workforce, Leavelle joined the Dallas Police Department in 1950. “I thought my previous injuries might hinder me, but I passed the physical test without any problems, and the rest is history.”
Major history, actually. Wearing a light suit and a cowboy hat, Leavelle is a prominent figure in the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Lee Harvey Oswald grimacing in pain the moment he is shot by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby. Leavelle, by this time a homicide detective, had earlier interrogated Oswald for the slaying of Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit, who was killed about 45 minutes after President John F. Kennedy.
“I started talking to him,” Leavelle says of the interrogation. “He was real polite. He wasn’t arguing or anything. Of course he wasn’t answering them truthful. He answered one question that I snapped on real quick. When I asked him about shooting the police officer, he said, ‘I hadn’t shot anybody!’ Well, that’s not the answer to that question.”
His interrogation was interrupted by a police captain who asked Oswald where he worked. When Oswald answered that he worked at the School Book Depository, Leavelle lost his prisoner and Oswald became the prime suspect of a much bigger murder case.
Media quickly descended on the Dallas police station. Moving Oswald from station offices to jail became a logistical challenge as reporters crowded the halls. During a walk-through prior to the Ruby encounter, Leavelle felt something move near his legs.
“There was a reporter with a camera trying to take a picture,” he says. “I gave him the backside of my foot and tried to send him about 10 feet down the hallway. I didn’t have any trouble with him after that.”
The trouble began at 11:21 a.m. Nov. 24. Moments earlier, Leavelle had prepared Oswald for another walk from the station offices. “I said, ‘Lee, if anybody shoots at you, I hope they’re as good a shot as you are,’ because he had a marksmanship rating in the Marines. And he started laughing at that. But that’s another mistake. I complimented him and he liked the compliment about his good shooting. That’s what he wanted people to think about him – to think good things about him.”
When they walked into the basement, Leavelle instantly recognized Ruby. Years earlier as a beat officer, Leavelle had been responsible for ensuring the city’s nightclubs closed by midnight in accordance with Texas law. Leavelle describes Ruby as one of the more pleasant club owners he dealt with. “If I ever asked him anything, he’d tell me, and he always told me the truth,” he says.
This encounter was different.
“When I turned the corner and was facing Ruby, I recognized him, but he had that pistol in his left hand pressed against his left leg,” Leavelle says. “But all those reporters and police officers weren’t looking down. They were looking up here (face-level) when I came in, to see what he (Oswald) looked like. But (Ruby) switched that pistol over to his right hand, and I knew immediately what was going to happen. So I tried to grab Ruby. I got my hand on his shoulder, not good enough to do much with him, and I was pulling Oswald behind me at the same time.”
Ruby got his shot off into Oswald, but Leavelle credits his police partner L.C. Graves with saving his own life by grabbing the pistol. “L.C. had the cylinder of that pistol and I knew he wasn’t going to turn it loose, and I knew that nobody could pull that trigger as long as L.C. held that,” he says. “But he already moved over enough. Ruby was still working his finger on his trigger trying to get off a shot. Had he gotten it off, I would have caught it here (the chest). If my partner hadn’t grabbed that cylinder, I wouldn’t be here talking to you today.”
Oswald lost consciousness and died that day.
Leavelle doesn’t buy into conspiracy theories surrounding the Kennedy assassination. “We didn’t leave anything out,” he says. “We had run everything down to the last inch.”
So why did Ruby kill Oswald? “Same reason Oswald did it,” Leavelle says. “He wanted recognition. He wanted to be thought something of.”
When it came time to transfer Ruby to jail, the suspect was understandably nervous. “He was wanting to borrow my hat and get my jacket and camouflage himself. I said, ‘Jack, nobody’s going to shoot you. In the first place, you ain’t worth killing.’ He said, ‘Well, all I wanted to do was be a hero, but it looks like I just messed things up.’ I said, ‘You can say that again.’”
Leavelle is a beloved figure by the Dallas Police Department, which named its Detective of the Year Award after him. Although Pearl Harbor led the United States into the bloodiest war of the 20th century, Leavelle says it’s the JFK assassination he is asked about most often. “So many people were too small back during the Pearl Harbor days,” he says. “I (also) think it’s because the president they saw and were closer to.”
Born just a year after The American Legion’s founding, the legendary lawman has witnessed a lot of history. As far as Kennedy goes, Leavelle is neither a fan nor a critic. “I’m like everybody else,” he says. “I don’t think I voted for him, but I don’t think I disliked him. I don’t know that I ever hated any politician. If you try to hate somebody, you’re just wasting your time.”
John Raughter is press secretary for The American Legion’s national commander.