By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
There are moments in time that generations of Americans will never forget: Sept. 11, President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and for those who are still around from the Greatest Generation, Pearl Harbor.
I was lucky enough to meet one of the few men in this world who has the remarkable distinction of being intimately involved with two of those events.
Several of the veterans who survived Pearl Harbor revisited Hawaii during the 75th commemoration of the Dec. 7, 1941, attacks. One of those men was survivor Jim Leavelle, and if his name doesn’t sound familiar, maybe this photo is:
This iconic photo captured JFK murder suspect Oswald being assassinated two days after the president was killed. What you probably didn’t know was that Leavelle was the man in the tan suit escorting Oswald.
“I told him, ‘Lee, if anybody shoots at you, I hope they’re as good a shot as you are,’” Leavelle remembered of a private conversation he had with the accused killer moments before he died. “He kind of laughed. That was the only time he laughed while he was in custody.”
Leavelle had similarly intimate details to tell about being a Pearl Harbor survivor, too.
Being involved in two major surprise attacks that shocked the world wasn’t exactly what he had planned for his life, but both put him in the limelight.
“I just did the best I could with what I had,” he told me.
When I met the 96-year-old Leavelle in Hawaii, he was surrounded by other gracious World War II vets being honored at the former Wheeler Army Airfield on the island of Oahu. With his granddaughter, Kate, escorting him in a wheelchair, he was easily recognizable in two signature items: a cowboy hat and a leather vest.
The humble Texas native and former sailor downplayed his role at Pearl Harbor, saying his ship, the USS Whitney, hadn’t been assigned to Pearl Harbor at the time and wasn’t damaged that day, but he and his shipmates were indeed there.
“We could see it all because we were tied up about a mile from [Ford] Island. We could identify some of the ships as they were hit,” he said. “I sympathize with those brave people and want to honor them very much for their services and the valor they displayed.”
The Whitney was stocked with valuable supplies and equipment that were needed in the aftermath of the attacks. Leavelle and his colleagues spent the next several days repairing damaged ships and doing what they could to help.
The Texan has been back to Pearl Harbor several times since 1941, including in 2006, when he met a former Japanese pilot involved in the attack, who told him the raid – which had been planned a full year before – was a surprise to most Japanese fighters, too.
“They were on a 12-day sail to where they wanted to launch,” Leavelle said. “But he said when they launched [from Japan], they were out for three days before [leaders] announced to the ships involved that they were going to bomb Pearl Harbor. The Japanese man said, ‘We didn’t have a clue, and we looked at each other in astonishment.’”
Leavelle witnessed a lot of history during the rest of the war, but the next major incident wouldn’t come until 22 years later, when he was a veteran homicide detective with the Dallas Police Department.
Kennedy was shot in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. That day and the few that followed were clear in Leavelle’s mind all these years later.
Leavelle said he had been taking witness statements regarding the president’s shooting when the call for an officer down came in. The officer just happened to be Oswald’s second victim, who was shot 45 minutes after the president. Leavelle was the detective sent out to investigate the officer’s shooting, which meant he was assigned to Oswald’s case.
“Anything that had to do with him went through me,” he said.
The detective only knew Oswald for two days, but he remembered the murder suspect as being kind and polite.
“When I asked him a question, he’d answer it right away,” Leavelle said. “Of course, he didn’t always answer them truthfully, but he never gave me any static at all.”
On Nov. 24, 1963, he was tasked with escorting Oswald through the police station’s basement to the parking lot, which was crowded with people hoping to get a look at him. Leavelle was handcuffed to Oswald when Jack Ruby, a local nightclub owner, walked up and shot the suspected murderer to death.
Leavelle only knew Oswald for a very short time, but the photo of that moment would link them forever.
His Biggest Accomplishment?
While that assassination photo made Leavelle famous, it’s the successes he had in much smaller cases that he considers his biggest accomplishments.
“There are a lot of youngsters that got caught up in something wrong, and I was able to straighten them out and put them on the straight and narrow,” he said. “I could entertain you for hours with the stories of who I’ve helped, and they all thanked me. And that does my soul more good than all the ones I put in jail.”
Leavelle spent 25 years with the DPD before retiring. He continues to live in Texas.
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