Pictures of his face and Stetson hat are familiar ones to Americans of a certain age. On 24 November 1963, half a century ago, Dallas Police detective Jim Leavelle was handcuffed to Lee Harvey Oswald, suspected assassin of President John Kennedy. Oswald, who never admitted his guilt, was to be moved through the basement of the Dallas police station and then transferred by car to the county jail.
American citizens, already shocked by the Kennedy killing, were further stunned as they watched a live telecast of Leavelle and Oswald walking together. Suddenly, nightclub owner Jack Ruby stepped from the crowd, pointed a pistol at Oswald, and shot him at close range. Associated Press photographer Bob Jackson captured the instant that Oswald and Leavelle reacted, and the photo went on to win a Pulitzer Prize.
Jackson’s photo shows the detective’s stunned reaction as he leaned away from the prisoner. The shutter clicked just as Owsald’s face contorted in surprise and pain. In the foreground is Ruby with his hand and revolver at practically point-blank range from his victim. The attire of the men adds another interesting element to the picture: Leavelle in light-colored suit and hat, Oswald in a dark sweater-and-trousers outfit, and Ruby in a dark suit and gray fedora. It is classic visual symbolism of good guy and bad guys.
That shooting in the basement was not Leavelle’s only brush with history. Twenty-two years earlier, he was wearing a different type of headgear, a sailor’s white hat, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He had enlisted in 1940 and served for a time in the destroyer Hammann (DD-412) as she did plane-guard duty with the carrier Enterprise (CV-6). In the spring of 1941 he reported to the destroyer tender Whitney (AD-4) as a storekeeper, and on 7 December the ship was moored in Pearl’s East Loch with five destroyers alongside.
After breakfast, Leavelle was out on deck when a boatswain’s mate nearby spotted a plane he presumed to be American. When bombs began hitting Ford Island, all doubts about the nationality of the aircraft vanished. Leavelle, a loader for a 5-inch gun, hurried to his battle station. As he recalled, “Things got hectic,” a feeling reinforced by a ship-wide announcement that “This is no B.S.” The Whitney’s guns barked often that morning, firing at Japanese aircraft. When the hullabaloo ended, the tender provided services to other ships, including the damaged cruiser Raleigh (CL-7).
In April 1942, the Whitney left Pearl and headed for the South Pacific to support operations there. One day while the ship was in a storm at sea, Leavelle was descending a ladder when a large wave hurled him to the deck. The impact seriously damaged his knees, and he was evacuated to Oak Knoll Naval Hospital near Oakland, California.
It turned out to be a happy change of duty for Leavelle. He was not able to persuade doctors that he should be cleared to return to sea duty, but he did persuade Navy nurse Taimi Trast to marry him. Fraternizing between officers and enlisted personnel was not officially sanctioned, but they pulled it off. The new Mrs. Leavelle had to resign because Navy women in that era could not be married. Around the same time, Leavelle left on a medical discharge to take a civilian supply job with the Army Air Forces in Southern California. After the war he returned to his native Texas and became a policeman. Earlier this year, the Dallas police chief presented Leavelle, now 93, with the Police Commendation Award for his quarter century of service with the force.
In December 2006, during the 65th anniversary observance of the attack on Pearl Harbor, my wife Karen and I were taking a bus tour of the Oahu battle sites. Seated across the aisle from us were the former Dallas detective and his wife. Karen took advantage of the situation to ask the personable Leavelle about his experiences in 1963. He remembered being the first detective to question Oswald, asking him about the killing of Dallas patrolman J. D. Tippit. Oswald told him, “I didn’t shoot anybody.”
When it came time to move Oswald out of the police station, Leavelle and other officers urged Dallas Police Chief Jesse Curry to do so out of public view for the sake of security. But Curry had promised the news media an opportunity to cover the transfer, so reporters and cameramen were in the basement. Leavelle said he joked with Oswald, “Lee, I hope that if anybody shoots at you, they are as good a shot as you were, because I don’t want to get hit.” He said Oswald grinned and replied, “Nobody’s going to be shooting at me.”
Leavelle recounted the scene: When he saw Ruby’s pistol, he jerked Oswald to the side to get him out of the way but wasn’t quick enough. The bullet entered the left side of Oswald’s chest, plowed through vital organs, and hit a rib. Otherwise, the detective said, it might have hit him as well. He rode in an ambulance with Oswald to the same hospital where Kennedy had died two days earlier. There, doctors pronounced Oswald dead. Leavelle could feel the fatal bullet under Oswald’s skin and asked a doctor to remove it with a scalpel. Leavelle then used his pocketknife as he and a nurse put their initials on it to authenticate it as evidence. One can’t get much closer to history than that.
Fifty years later, Mr. and Mrs. Leavelle still live in Texas, and the memories are still vivid.