On Sunday, November 24, 1963, as Dallas Police Detective James Leavelle was conveying murder suspect Lee Harvey Oswald through the basement at department headquarters, a familiar figure approached. Jack Ruby pulled a pistol and shot Oswald in the stomach. Still and motion cameras captured Leavelle’s horrified reaction, which became an iconic image of one of the American Century’s two most notorious events: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the Japanese attack that catapulted the United States into World War II. Against all odds, Leavelle had been at Pearl Harbor, too—as a sailor aboard a U.S. Navy supply ship. Leavelle, 95, still lives in Dallas, where he spoke by phone about his unusual brushes with history and tragedy.
Tell us about your upbringing.
My folks were farmers. When I was little we lived in east Texas, near the town of Detroit, until we moved to west Texas. I was the next to last of six boys. Besides farming, my daddy and my older brothers worked on rural electrification, installing poles. For some years my parents rented a 160-acre farm near Lubbock. We moved further west, to Anton, where my daddy kept stock and also hired out with his team of horses to pave the roads with caliche rock. I worked on the farm into my teenage years.
You participated in one of the New Deal’s legendary programs.
In 1937 President Roosevelt started up the Civilian Conservation Corps to help the people. I was 17—old enough, so I joined. I spent a year in New Mexico, doing whatever needed doing. We worked on a pretty big spread—90 sections, each a mile square. We built roads and fences, put in stock water tanks for the animals. I got promoted to driving a truck; I’d drive up a mountain to where fellows had broken up rock and they would load it. I’d drive down to where crews were filling in wetlands, and in would go the rock as fill to make farmland. In ’38 I came back to Detroit and started my last year of school at Detroit High.
How did you come to be at Pearl Harbor?
I decided to join the U.S. Navy in late 1939, and started basic training at San Diego in 1940. I was an ordinary seaman, assigned to a new destroyer. We ran protection for the carriers in and out of Pearl Harbor. I was making $25 a month when I heard about openings on the destroyer tender USS Whitney. On the Whitney I could make $36 a month. I struck for that job, as we put it, and was taken on.
What is a destroyer tender?
A destroyer tender is the supply ship for a group of destroyers. We carried everything from toilet paper to torpedoes, and we had people aboard with knowledge about everything that might need to be repaired. Say your ship had a problem with its electrical system; you could tie up alongside the tender and use its auxiliary power while someone aboard fixed your ship’s problem. I worked on torpedoes and got to where I could tear apart that gyroscope real easy, but I was 10 or 12 feet below the waterline, and I wanted to be topside. I struck for storekeeper—managing supplies—and moved to that.
Where was the Whitney based?
The Whitney had no permanent base. We would follow the fleet.
You had a piece of bad luck on one mission.
The ship got caught in a typhoon. The waves were more than 100 feet, enough to rock even a ship as big as a tender. I was on a stairs with my hands full when a wave threw me over the rail. I fell 12 or 15 feet and landed on my knees on the steel deck. Didn’t break anything, but my knees swole up like footballs. The doctor said I’d have to go stateside for care.
Did that happen right away?
We came back to Pearl Harbor in early December 1941. We anchored off Ford Island, with five destroyers tied up alongside. Early Sunday morning, December 7, I was on deck talking with a boatswain’s mate. At 8 a.m., shore boat crews would be ferrying sailors from the ships to the shore for leave; if the Japanese had waited a few minutes to attack they would have had a bay full of shore boats loaded with sailors for targets. The bosun’s mate noticed the planes first. He saw the red balls on their wings. “Look at that!” he said. “They must have been up there for target practice.” One of the Jap pilots dropped a bomb on Ford Island. The bosun’s mate grabbed a microphone for the public address system and told everyone to get to their battle stations. My station was as a loader on the ship’s 5-inch gun, but that gun fired a round that traveled a far distance, so my crew didn’t fire a shot. Our 3-inch guns got into action a little.
After the attack the navy sent you stateside.
I wound up at the Hotel del Coronado, near San Diego, which the navy had taken over as a convalescent facility. I was one of the first patients—there weren’t many then—and I got to know the doctors and nurses. I got to where I could get around without crutches. I wanted to go back to sea but the doctors said in combat I would be more of a liability than an asset. They suggested I take shore duty, but I didn’t want that.
How did this standoff resolve itself?
The head doctor knew a fellow from the Army Air Forces, which was building a big warehouse for airplane parts at San Bernardino. They needed a manager for the warehouse, and the doctor sicced them on me. The man asked what I made as a storekeeper. $36 a month, I told him. He said if I took a discharge and came to work at the warehouse as a civilian, he would pay me $125 a month.
Was that how you spent the duration?
I had taken up with Taimi Trast, a nurse from Minnesota. She was an officer. We were out on one of the trails around the hotel when I asked her if I was to move to San Bernardino, would she come with me. She said yes. She resigned her commission and I took a discharge and we went to San Bernardino. We got married in 1942. I worked at the parts warehouse for a year and then took a job with California Power. After a while my legs broke down again and I had to go to the VA hospital. We returned to Texas for my rehab. In 1950 I saw a classified ad in the Dallas paper recruiting for the police department. I joined up and worked homicide for 12 or 15 years. I had a little polygraph business on the side that I kept going part-time.
What’s your take on the amazing coincidences of your life?
People ask me about that Sunday in the basement in November 1963 when Jack Ruby shot Lee Oswald. I don’t know what they expect me to say. I did my best to protect my prisoner, tried to get him behind me. In 2006, Tom Brokaw interviewed me. He said something about one man being fortunate or unfortunate enough to be at both of the places associated with the most notorious events in America in the 20th century, but to tell you the truth I don’t much think about it.
Right after the assassination, I couldn’t go out but people would recognize me and come up to me. I couldn’t walk around. I stopped wearing my white hat, which helped a little. But after about three weeks I put the hat back on, and sure enough, I couldn’t get across the police department parking lot. Folks would ask for my autograph. Some years I’d get 400 letters. It’s dropped off a good bit, but I still get asked. I travel around and give speeches. Recently I was in Washington, DC, to speak.
How long were you with the Dallas police?
I retired in 1975 and went full-time for a few years with the polygraph business. I had good rapport with the district attorneys, and they relied on me. If I reported a subject guilty they would pursue the case but if the subject came up innocent, they’d drop the charges. I had private lawyers as clients, and Braniff Airways. For relaxation I watched sports, and did some hunting and fishing.
Did those bum knees ever get better?
My knees still bother me; the right one is half again as big as the left, but really, what bothers me more is my back. Taimi died October 1, 2014. We were married 72 years. I miss her terribly.