Jim Leavelle is known to most Americans as the Stetson wearing Dallas Police detective holding President Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, when Oswald was shot by Jack Ruby on Nov. 24, 1963. Yet, Leavelle had an interesting life as a Veteran before the assassination of President Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963.
Leavelle was born in 1920 and raised in the small town of Detroit, Texas. During the Great Depression, Leavelle worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The civilian camps were partially run by the Army and the CCC was Leavelle’ s exposure to the military. Seeing a guaranteed paycheck in military service, Leavelle joined the Navy in 1940. Thereafter, Leavelle was transferred to the destroyer tender USS Whitney which supplied destroyers with everything from “fuel to toilet paper” as Leavelle said.
Leavelle said that during the Pearl Harbor attack the Japanese strafed his ship but the “bullets bounced off the steel deck.” No one from his ship was hurt, Leavelle said, but he was deeply saddened to see the bodies of American sailors “floating like logs” in the waters of Pearl Harbor.
After the attack, Leavelle was transferred stateside to a Navy hospital. It was there he saw a lovely nurse named Taimi who was dating a friend of his. Leavelle’s friend asked him to take care of Taimi when he shipped out. Leavelle did, and soon after they started dating. Leavelle asked Taimi, “How would you like to see Detroit, Texas?” and she replied that she would like to. “And that is how we got engaged” he said.
The first two nights of their marriage, Leavelle and his wife slept on a wooden pallet on the kitchen floor of a friend’s house. Despite this humble beginning, Leavelle was very happy recalling his marriage saying “He (my friend) asked me to look after her and I did … for 72 years!”
A few years after getting married, Leavelle applied and was accepted as an officer and later detective for the Dallas Police Department. Leavelle said there were many Veterans on the job including officer J.D. Tippit, who was also murdered by Oswald on Nov. 22, 1963. Tippit served in the European Theatre of World War II and earned a Bronze Star with the 17th Airborne Division.
Leavelle was not even supposed to be working on Nov. 22, 1963 as he did not have a partner that day, and every Dallas Police Detective had to work with a partner. He hung around police headquarters until another policeman came in and said that the President had been shot. Shortly thereafter, word also arrived that Officer Tippit had been shot and killed in a Dallas suburb.
A suspect named Lee Harvey Oswald was brought into police headquarters after being arrested for Tippit’ s murder. Leavelle began questioning Oswald and when asked if he killed Officer Tippit, Oswald replied, “I didn’t shoot anybody” which Leavelle thought strange because the response indicated to him that the suspect not only shot the policeman, but also someone else.
Suspects in other cases were policemen were shot had, in Leavelle’s career, simply denied shooting the officer in question but not a more generalized anybody. Before Leavelle could pursue this line of questioning, the legendary Dallas Police Homicide Captain Will Fritz came in the interrogation room and said that Oswald was the man he was looking for regarding the murder of the President.
Lee Harvey Oswald, suspected assassin of President John F. Kennedy, grimaces as he is shot to death at point-blank range by nightclub owner Jack Ruby in the basement of the Dallas police headquarters Nov. 24, 1963. Plainclothes officer at left is Jim Leavelle. Photo by Bob Jackson
Leavelle was escorting and handcuffed to Oswald while transferring the assassin to the Dallas County Jail on Nov. 24, 1963. He tried to pull Oswald out of the way of Jack Ruby before Ruby killed Oswald with a gun.
Despite the tough circumstances of that weekend in November, 55 years ago, Leavelle has good memories of his service to America and the City of Dallas. He said he worked with a great group of police officers and the police department and the Navy both, in Leavelle’s words, “taught me everything I needed to know.” He retired in 1975 yet has barely slowed down.
Leavelle stays busy answering fan mail and giving interviews. He still drives at age 98. The City of Dallas named its Detective of the Year award after Leavelle in 2013 and, as the oldest living Dallas Police Officer, policeman check in on him several times a week along with other well-wishers.
Despite his prominence, Leavelle also has a humble nature about him. When coming to Washington, D.C. recently on an Honor Flight he refused to bring any of the photographs of himself from November 1963 that he normally carries, saying he did not want to distract from his fellow Veterans. He also personalizes his autographs so as to lessen the chance they will end up for sale.
Despite his connection to two major historical events, the events do not define Leavelle. He simply keeps his Kennedy items in his office and the rest of his house contains troves of photographs and items that revolve around his large and loving family whom he keeps in touch with. U.S. Navy and Dallas Police Veteran Jim Leavelle not only has an interesting life, but a very rich one indeed.
Larry Provost is the outreach officer for the National Cemetery Administration. An Army Veteran, he is a former assistant legislative director and assistant national security director for The American Legion. He has a Masters in History from Liberty University and a Masters in Legislative Affairs from the George Washington University.