Monday, January 7, 2019

The Man In The White Stetson



Navy Veteran Witnesses Two Major Events In American History

By Larry Provost


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 even before the assassination of President Kennedy.

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.  “And that is how we got engaged” he said.

The first two nights of their marriage, Leavelle and his wife slept 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.

The Kennedy Assassination

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.

In Leavelle's previous experience, suspects in cases in which policemen were shot had simply denied shooting the officer in question, but not a more generalized denial of shooting anybody.  But 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 same man he was looking for regarding the murder of the President.

On Sunday morning, Nov. 24, Jim Leavelle was the Dallas detective escorting and handcuffed to Oswald when he was being transferred to the Dallas County Jail.  Leavelle tried to pull Oswald out of the way of Jack Ruby before Ruby shot and killed Oswald.  Oswald's murder was broadcast via network television to a shocked national audience.

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's wife Taimi passed away in 2014.  Leavelle stays busy answering fan mail and giving interviews.  At the age of 98 he still drives. 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.

Although Jim Leavelle is connected to two major historical events, those events do not define him.  He keeps his Kennedy items in his office, while the rest of his house contains troves of photographs and items that revolve around his large and loving family, whom he still keeps in touch with.  

[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.]



From Vantage Point (November 24, 2018)

17 comments:

  1. In November 2011, Leavelle had a serious fall while visiting his daughter Karla and was flown to Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas for immediate surgery to remove his eye due to the severity of damage. As a result, he now wears a glass eye. Poor guy. :(

    ReplyDelete
  2. Jim Leavelle when questioned on what he thought about JFK's death: "no different than a south dallas nigger killing" wow. wow, leavelle. he actually said that.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Did you ever know a before-1965 southern cop? Given the negro's high proclivity for crime, the prevailing racial attitudes of the time, and Kennedy's support of MLK and Civil Rights in general, JFK was not too highly regarded in the deep South, especially among cops.

      (MD)

      Delete
    2. For the record, Mcbride who had taped/recored that particular interview with Leavelle, did say that Leavelle did preface that comment with “As the old saying goes back then.” But Mcbride also said Leavelle said it with a little smile, as if he were genuinely amused by the remark, even saying that Leavelle never even apologized for saying it. He really did say that, yes, and I think it’s quite the shocking statement to make about anybody’s death. The origin of the quote lies in a conversation that author Joseph McBride had with Leavelle some years ago during McBride’s research. McBride had seemingly commented from hearing the recordings of the police interactions of November 22, 1963, that everyone sounded so calm considering the fact that the President had just been shot. Leavelle responded with the line quoted above, with the addition that he had seen many of those. The fact that Leavelle spoke about the death of the President that way may be surprising to many when it’s taken out of its significant historical and sociocultural context.

      Back in the 1920s, Dallas took centre stage as the main chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. It is estimated that Dallas membership at the time presumably represented one out of three eligible men. Elections had seen Klansmen gain control over public offices. Both the city police commissioner and the county sheriff were a part of the Klan, as were many others working in law enforcement capacities. The Klan eventually closed its headquarters back in 1929.

      Yet, racial issues in Dallas didn’t quite stop at that. In the early 1960s, it was one of the few cities still resisting integrating its classrooms – long after the decision ordering school desegregation. The civil rights movement was kept at bay in Dallas for the longest time. There are various notions out there that the existence of racial prejudice was predominant in the Dallas Police Department in those days as well, which would definitely fall in line with Leavelle’s quote that he shockingly never even apologised for saying. John F. Kennedy himself may have been of Irish descent, but his endorsement of the civil rights movement would not have endeared him any to those within Dallas wishing to uphold their old status quo. He would, in other words, “be no better than a n*****” – hostilities against Kennedy’s viewpoints were widespread in Dallas, regardless of the warm welcome he received on the day of the assassination, and I think that Leavelle’s quote comes from a very deep-set place of prejudice that is informed by the city’s history and the context of the times they were in.

      Delete
  3. I would dispute the comment, "Leavelle began questioning Oswald (after his arrest on the 22nd)". Leavelle’s Warren Commission testimony states the exact opposite - that he only interrogated Oswald on the 24th - the morning Oswald was shot, and that he had never talked to him before. Not accusing Leavelle of being unrealible or a liar but his interviews he has done in recent years are in contray to his WC testimony. Memory always distort from time to time.

    When Leavelle testified before the Warren Commission, he claimed that the first time he had ever sat in on an interrogation with Oswald was on Sunday morning, November 24, 1963. When Counsel Joseph Ball asked Leavelle if he had ever spoken to Oswald before this interrogation, he stated; "No, I had never talked to him before". Leavelle then stated during his testimony that "the only time I had connections with Oswald was this Sunday morning [November 24, 1963]. I never had [the] occasion to talk with him at any time..." In various interview since the 1970s and up to the mid 2010s, Leavelle said that he was the first to interrogate Oswald after his arrest (contrary to his Warren Commission testimony).

    In the course of my research into the JFK case, I encountered a number of examples where I had testimony or accounts by people from 1963/64 as well as from years or decades later. It became apparent that the testimony and writings from 63/64 were superior. These were obtained when the events was still fresh in their memories, and as a result were clearer, usually more detailed, and consistent with what other people wrote or recalled at the time. Whenever I had conflicting accounts by a person to deal with, I would use the earlier of the two. As Jim Leavelle’s interview testimony to the Warren Commission were so specific that the first time he had ever sat in on an interrogation with Oswald was on Sunday morning, November 24, 1963, and that he had never talked to him before. I would place no value on second-hand information based upon various interviews with Leavelle which had occurred over two/three/four decades after the event.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree that testimony of a recent event is much more likely to be accurate than testimony of an event which happened 30 or 40 years earlier. Human memory is often imprecise, and becomes more so over time. I myself have had instances when my memory has been contradicted by available documentation. It seems to happen particularly when trying to recall a sequence of events in the order they actually happened, etc.

      Jim Leavelle is now ninety-eight years old. It would be a miracle if his memories of events over fifty-five years ago were correct in every detail.

      (MD)

      Delete
    2. I don't think it is wise to think that Leavelle's memory is as good as he seems to think it is. Leavelle himself during his W.C. testimony, used “I do not recall” 30 times in two testimony sessions and “I don’t remember” 9 times. Quite a few instances of failed memory when it comes to his actions during that big important day only about 4 months later. But in later years, and today, he is able to give precise details surrounding those days without any trouble. This by the way, is something that seems to be present with almost all D.P.D. law enforcement officers memories from the Kennedy assassination; collective amnesia when it comes to remembering details of Oswald’s interrogations.

      Another thing to point out about Leavelle's current claims; his claim that he joked with Oswald, "Lee, if anybody shoots at you, I hope they’re as good a shot as you are." Leavelle never mentioned any such thing back in 1963/64, and the first known time he spoke of this was at least more than 10 years after Oswald's death. There is no corroboration for any of this from anyone else who was with Leavelle or Oswald, not from L.C. Graves (who was also handcuffed to Oswald) or Captain Will Fritz (who was leading them). No mention of any light hearted banter whatsoever. From the footage that is available when they are coming out, not much was being said at all. I have always wondered if Leavelle is misrembering that. A good example is Charles Lightoller on the fate of Jack Phillips during the Titanic disaster. http://wormstedt.com/GeorgeBehe/Page13.htm

      Delete
    3. Actually, I read his WC testimony again; Leavelle never "interrogated" Oswald about the JFK assassination or Tippit murder on Sunday morning, Nov. 24th, or any other day. He merely "spoke" to Oswald about the upcoming transfer while Oswald was changing clothes.

      Delete
    4. It should be clear that researchers cannot afford to take 'common knowledge' for granted; a review of people's interviews both in the time they were given IMMEDIATELY and YEARS after an event, prove that serious researchers must regard undocumented secondary sources with a great deal of caution and should instead rely on primary sources of information as often as they possibly can. If this cautionary advice is not acted upon, it is quite possible for well-meaning researchers to expend a great deal of time and energy discussing the fine points of historical events that never occurred in the first place. A good example is Charles Lightoller on the fate of Jack Phillips during the Titanic disaster; his claim that Phillips died on board an overturned lifeboat was accepted for many years, even by many of the most respected Titanic researchers, but careful research has shown this is not the case.

      Delete
  4. "Leavelle tried to pull Oswald out of the way of Jack Ruby before Ruby shot and killed Oswald"? I don't know if Leavelle has said this, or if it originated from the author of this article; this claim that Leavelle saw Ruby in the crowd and he was pulling Oswald behind him when he saw Ruby approach. Memorise this and have a look at the photographs and films of Oswald being shot, Leavelle had no clue what was happening until the deed was over and done with. Its obvious from the photos and footage of Oswald's shooting, that when Leavelle comes out with Oswald, he is not even looking in the direction of Ruby, who is to his left. Even when Ruby approaches and plunges the gun into Oswald's stomach, Leavelle is not looking at Ruby, but at the transfer car, where they were to place Oswald in.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "Leavelle had no clue what was happening until the deed was over ..."

      I agree. The expression on Leavelle's face as Ruby shot Oswald is a combination of shock, surprise, and even astonishment. To Leavelle, Ruby's attack was obviously completely unexpected.

      I can sort of sympathize with Leavelle. I would think that murders INSIDE POLICE STATIONS while the victim IS SURROUNDED BY POLICE OFFICERS, is probably rare.

      (MD)

      Delete
  5. In an episode of The Simpsons-"Mayored To the Mob" Leavelle was the design for the bodyguard teacher. The academy is even titled "Leavelle's BodyGuard Academy." Mark Hamil voices the character.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ah, the Simpsons! I remember back in 1987 when the Fox Channel was new and the Simpsons first appeared as characters in short cartoon-breaks during the Tracey Ullman Show. (the voice of Marge Simpson is Julie Kavner, who played Tracey Ullman's sister on Tracey's show).

      From Wikipedia: The Simpsons shorts are an American animated TV series of 48 one-minute shorts that ran on the variety television program The Tracey Ullman Show for three seasons, before the characters spun off into The Simpsons, their own half-hour prime-time show. It features Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie.

      Re: The Simpson's Half-Hour Show, also from Wikipedia:

      Since its debut on December 17, 1989, 656 episodes of The Simpsons have been broadcast. It is the longest-running American sitcom, and the longest-running American scripted primetime television series in terms of seasons and number of episodes.

      (MD)

      Delete
    2. Oops, my memory failed me. Julie Kavner played Rhoda's sister on Valery Harper's sitcom. Kavner DID also play in comedy skits on Ullman's show, which was a 'Variety Show', not a sitcom.

      (MD)

      Delete
    3. Kind of proves Anonymous's point about the unreliability of memory, especially in old people ...

      (MD)

      Delete
  6. In December 1992, while demonstrating how L. C. Graves grabbed Ruby’s gun in an attempt to stop him from firing, Leavelle accidentally shot researcher and photographer Bob Porter in the arm, using the same model gun Ruby had used. Porter recovered at Parkland Hospital, the same facility where Kennedy, Oswald, and Ruby either died or were pronounced dead.

    Scary.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "In December 1992, while demonstrating how L. C. Graves grabbed Ruby’s gun in an attempt to stop him from firing, Leavelle accidentally shot researcher and photographer Bob Porter in the arm, using the same model gun Ruby had used."

      My first question is: "What the heck was a gun doing loaded with real bullets during a demonstration like that? Unless that demonstration included actually shooting somebody, it seems really stupid to me to load it with live rounds. Just sayin' ...

      Delete