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Pearl Harbor survivor witnesses history — twice

For one survivor, Pearl Harbor would be only the first of two Sundays that would change his life, and the course of American history. NBC's Tom Brokaw reports.

For 65 years, Jim Levealle has treated his role in the attack on Pearl Harbor much like many of his fellow survivors — with grace and humility. In fact, until a few years ago, only a few friends and family even knew he had been at Pearl Harbor.

That's because Levealle was too busy talking and giving interviews about another infamous event in American history.

For Pearl Harbor survivors, the 65th anniversary of the attack represents a chance to reflect on the defining moment of their lives.

For Leavelle, Pearl Harbor would be only the first of two Sundays that would change his life, and the course of American history.

Jim Leavelle spent most of December 7, 1941, on the deck of the USS Whitney.

“We were surprised, of course,” he recalls, “and awed by the attack and watching the carnage that was taking place.”

From the Whitney's position in the east side of Pearl Harbor, Leavelle and his shipmates were powerless to stop the assault.

“Many of the sailors like Jim Leavelle felt helpless,” says Daniel Martinez, an historian with the National Park Service. “And from that probably came anger and crying because they cant do anything.”

Leavelle left the Navy shortly after Pearl Harbor and headed for Dallas -- and his second date with destiny.

November 22, 1963: Lee Harvey Oswald assassinates President John F. Kennedy, then guns down Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit less than an hour later.

Homicide detective Jim Leavelle is the first to interrogate the suspect.

“Of course he denied any connection to it whatsoever,” recalls Leavelle.

Within a few hours, detectives tie Oswald to the JFK assassination. The ensuing media frenzy forces police to move Oswald out of police headquarters on Sunday, Nov. 24

“I said, ‘Lee, if anybody shoots at you, I hope they're as good a shot as you are,’” remembers Leavelle. “He kind of smiled and said, ‘Nobody’s going to shoot at me.’”

Wearing a light suit and hat, Leavelle is handcuffed to Oswald when Jack Ruby fires his fatal shot on live television. A photographer captures the moment in a Pulitzer prize-winning picture that makes Leavelle famous around the world.

If there is such a thing as a rock star at these Pearl Harbor anniversary ceremonies, Leavelle is it.

People thank him for his service at Pearl Harbor, but what they really want to talk about is Lee Harvey Oswald and that famous Stetson Leavelle wore on that day.

“The fact that he was at Pearl Harbor and he was in Dallas makes him a very unique individual,” says Martinez. “And, I suspect I will never run across a person like that again in my career.”

The Stetson that Jim wears today is not the actual hat he wore on the day of the Oswald shooting. That hat and the cream-colored suit he was wearing have been donated to the Sixth Floor Museum at the former school book depository in Dallas.

And as far as the Kennedy assassination is concerned, Leavelle says he is positive there was no conspiracy, and that Oswald acted alone.