Sunday, August 15, 2010

Oswald Escort to Celebrate 90th Birthday

by HUGH AYNESWORTH / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

James Leavelle was handcuffed to Lee Harvey Oswald that November morning when Jack Ruby lunged forward to put one well-placed .38 bullet into the accused presidential assassin.

The photograph of that moment by Robert Jackson of the Dallas Times Herald not only won a Pulitzer Prize – it became one of the most reprinted photos in history. And it made Leavelle, a Dallas homicide detective, perhaps the most recognized police officer ever.

The famous lawman will celebrate his 90th birthday Saturday with a private party at the Dallas Police Pension Building.

Many know about how Leavelle was escorting Oswald toward a waiting police car to transfer him to the Dallas County jail on Nov. 24, 1963. Not so many are aware that he had narrowly escaped injury during the Pearl Harbor attack some 22 years before that.

Leavelle, a 1939 graduate of Detroit High School in East Texas, had been in the U.S. Navy a few months and was a supply officer aboard the USS Whitney on Dec. 7, 1941.

The Whitney was a small ship called a destroyer tender, assigned to keep the bigger ships stocked with food, ammunition and other needed supplies.

With dozens of destroyers and larger ships in the harbor at the time, the Whitney was relatively unscathed. But Leavelle and his shipmates watched helplessly as the attackers strafed and bombed the larger craft.

Though he wasn't injured in the attack, he remained on duty and was later injured seriously when tossed by a raging typhoon onto the ship's steel deck. He was hospitalized back in the U.S. for eight months.

That was how he met his wife, Taimi, a nurse at the Navy hospital. They married in 1942 and still live in Garland.

Leavelle recalls fondly the 65th anniversary convention of survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack, held in Hawaii in 2006. He was interviewed by dozens of newsmen and made one of the major speeches. About 100 American servicemen attended, along with a handful of Japanese pilots who had fought in the Pacific.

Many there wanted to talk to him about the events surrounding the Kennedy assassination – particularly about the time he spent with Oswald. He had been assigned to the investigation following the murder of police officer J.D. Tippit, whom Oswald had gunned down as he escaped from downtown Dallas.

"When I interrogated him, it was about the officer's murder, not the president's. He had not been accused of that yet," Leavelle recalled. "He kept telling me, 'I didn't shoot any officer.' "

Leavelle was one of a small group of officers who worried about transferring Oswald to the Dallas County jail, because of a rash of telephone threats against the onetime Russian defector. But he said Police Chief Jesse Curry told him that he "had promised the media to move him publicly, and he was going to do it that way."

Leavelle was told to handcuff himself to Oswald. As they walked into the basement area to exit into the police garage, where a squad car was idling, Leavelle said to Oswald, "Lee, I hope that if anybody shoots at you, they are as good a shot as you were."

He said Oswald grinned and replied, "Nobody's going to be shooting at me."

An ambulance rushed Oswald to Parkland Hospital , where President John F. Kennedy had died almost exactly two days before. Leavelle kept trying to revive Oswald, trying to get a pulse. "But he never did gain consciousness," he said. "We were about halfway to the hospital, when he took a deep breath and then relaxed. I think that is when he died."

The officer's last moments with Oswald prompted thousands of questions for Leavelle later, as a stunned world searched for answers. "They'd say, 'Did he confess? Did he admit it?' But he never uttered a word."

After Leavelle retired from the Dallas police force in 1974, he became a polygraph operator for a number of years.

These days, he seldom goes to his mailbox without finding a handful of letters there to greet him. His telephone rings constantly from those who want to interview him or just praise him. Recently, he received four letters asking for autographs, including one from a Russian newsman who sent a picture to be signed.

His fame occasionally embarrasses him. "Some people want to make a hero or a celebrity out of me," he said. "I am neither. I was just doing my job."

Hugh Aynesworth, a Dallas freelance writer, covered the Kennedy assassination for The Dallas Morning News.

Source: Dallas Morning News

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