Pearl Harbor Day: A Time to Honor Local Heroes

Words and Photos: Susan Fletcher

Historical photos courtesy of James W. Downing

On December 7, 1941, James W. Downing of the USS West Virginia awoke to a quiet Sunday morning. The night before, he and his new bride Morena had led a Navigator Bible study for Jim’s fellow sailors at a local house in Honolulu. The couple was keeping an eye on the place for the traveling homeowners and planned to spend Saturday night before Jim returned to his ship the next day. As Morena prepared breakfast for her friends, the ground below the house began to vibrate and an explosion filled the sky.  At 7:55 AM, radio station KGMB solemnly announced, “The island of Oahu is under enemy attack.”

As the sailors hurriedly put on their uniforms, one of their friends pulled into the driveway in his car.  Jim said goodbye to his wife and raced out the door, not yet knowing the exact nature of the sudden attack. The men arrived back at Pearl Harbor just as the second wave of the Japanese assault came.

Downing survived the attack that day, and went on to serve a distinguished career in the Navy during World War II and the Korean War. At 101 years old, he is thought to be the oldest living Pearl Harbor Survivor. He resides in Colorado Springs, where he continues to be active in the community and in the work of The Navigators. In honor of the 73rd anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day, Lt. Downing tells historian Susan Fletcher about his remarkable life.

Tell me about how you joined the Navy.

In a few months I will be 102 years old.  At the beginning of the first 100 years I lived in rural Midwest America. There were no highways, just dirt roads and no radio, no television, so it was pretty isolated. I didn't know about electricity or running water until I joined the Navy at age eighteen. I graduated from high school during the Great Depression...absolutely no work available of any kind. The only way a person like me could get of out of a small town was to go into the military.  A friend of mine two years ahead of me joined the Navy. He was an electrician on a submarine so he got extra pay. His take home pay was $90 a month, so he was a capitalist. My dad was a banker; he supported his family on $90 a month and this friend of mine would come home every month in a brand new Harley. Joining the service was an economic escape. There were so many people trying to get in that there was a long waiting list. After high school, I signed up with the Navy but there was an eight-month waiting list, so I thought I could change my mind before I got called up. But I got a letter the next month after I signed up. I found out later that the recruiter acted as a doctor and dentist, and I was in perfect physical condition. On the written exam I made 98% so the recruiter pushed me up to the top of the list. So without having time for thought I got called up.

In 1932, Downing left for Long Beach, California where most of the United States Naval fleet was stationed. He served aboard the USS West Virginia and quickly made friends with his fellow sailors. A year later, Downing joined a small group from the West Virginia for a Bible study on shore, beginning his 81-year career with the ministry that eventually became known as The Navigators. In ­­­­1940, the majority of the naval fleet moved to Pearl Harbor on Oahu, and Downing and the other Navigator sailors left California for Hawaii. He was serving as the postmaster of the West Virginia in the fall of 1941.

Tell me about your experience on December 7, 1941.

I went in the Navy in 1932, and nine years later was the attack on Pearl Harbor. We had no advance warning and there was no radar, so the only way we knew that the Japanese were attacking was when we saw it with our eyes.  The Japanese used about 350 aircraft that morning and they painted their aircraft olive drab just like the [United States] Army so it wasn't anything unusual on that Sunday morning to see all the aircraft flying about. The army was also testing new guns they had put up, so we saw a lot of airplanes and heard a lot of noise. I saw this airplane coming in flying low and slow. When it got closer it had machine guns and it had to bank a little bit to avoid flying straight down. It didn't bank far enough so when the gunner fired the machine guns, the bullets went right over my head and dug a trench behind me. As the airplane came up I could see the red circle on the bottom for Japan—that’s when the war became personal.

The Japanese had dropped 40 aerial torpedoes, and nine of them struck the West Virginia. The next nine hit the Oklahoma, so our two ships suffered the main brunt of the torpedoes. They were so powerful that one of the holes on the side of our ship was 140 feet. [The West Virginia] sunk within 10-15 minutes. Everything above the waterline was on fire. We didn't have any weapons to use.

Official records indicate that seven torpedoes struck the West Virginia that day. Immediately after impact, four casements and the galley caught fire, and the deck collapsed. Mortally wounded, Captain Mervyn S. Bennion oversaw the evacuation of the crew. Downing boarded the USS Tennessee, which was moored to the side of the West Virginia. He slid down the Tennessee’s gunbarrel to the flaming deck of his ship, fire hose in hand.

My attention was turned to the ammunition that we had - it was in the path of the fire. I borrowed a fire hose from the [Tennessee] and spent my time trying to put out the fire so it wouldn't reach the ammunition. No matter what you're doing, when you see bodies lying around, that's what attracts your interest. We were equipped with tin nametags with a fireproof cord so it was easy to identity people. I thought of these guys who were killed; their parents would never knew what happened. So I took a fire hose in one hand and went around turning over the nametags and memorizing all of them with the idea of writing their parents and tell them what actually happened. That's how I spent my time for the next couple of hours. I had access to their hometown addresses so I wrote to a lot of parents and got a lot of letters back again.

When I enlisted in the Navy I thought there might be a war during my time, and [that day] I said, ‘This is it.’ I'm asked a lot, ‘What was your reaction?’ My reaction was the whole gamut of emotion. The first thing was fear; ‘how big are they?’ ‘When are they going to stop?’ And then there was anger that our leadership let us get caught in a situation like that. And then there was shame that our mighty fleet got caught. It made me feel ashamed being part of it. And then there was resolve. If I ever get in a position of authority we will never be caught. As I looked around I also felt pride because a lot of the ships lost all power and there was no way to fight back. I just saw so many guys that did the right thing. Instinct, like they had been trained for it. So I was very proud of the way our people responded to that attack.

What happened the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor?

All the fires except the Arizona were put out. They put as many [survivors] as they could on the ships, so there were probably 2,000 who didn't have anything to do. The West Virginia was sunk but we started a salvage operation - mostly cleanup and rebuild.

The paymaster on West Virginia was a very sharp guy and a good friend of mine. He had the welders from the shipyard come over and cut a hole through the deck and weld hooks on the safe. The crane pulled the safe out with all the money in there. He knew that we had lost everything that we had, and that we needed some money. He said, ‘If you give me a sworn statement about the last time you were paid I will pay you from the last time you were paid until now.’ So Monday morning I lined up to see the paymaster. (I had seen him every day on business and we were pretty good friends.)  He turned pale and began to breath heavy and came over and put his hands on my shoulders. He said, ‘Deacon, why I'm glad to see you!’ And I said, ‘I'm glad to see you too but we never had a ceremony like this before.’  And he said," You know who walked out of here just before you came in?  The chaplain! He told me he had just buried you!’ There was a sailor with the same last name as mine who was killed, and it was his funeral. I thought of what the effects of the Resurrection will be!

There was a lot of clean up. There was fuel oil everywhere. Fuel is lighter than water so you tracked it everywhere you went. It took me six months to get it cleaned out of my head so I didn't leave a spot on the pillow.

In ­1942, the navy raised the West Virginia from the harbor floor and put her back into service. Over the course of his 24-year Naval career, Downing would also serve aboard the USS San Carlos, the USS Nespelen, and as the commanding officer aboard the USS Patapsco during the Korean War. In 1954, Jim and the crew of the Patapsco were showered with radiation from the first Hydrogen bomb test at the Bikini atoll, suffering 20,000 times the allowable amount of radiation. Still active at 101 years old, Downing doesn’t seem to have suffered any ill effects from his many harrowing adventures. 

Lieutenant Downing retired from the Navy in 1956 at the age of 43.  That year he and his family moved to Colorado Springs to join the staff of The Navigators. Downing became the manager of Glen Eyrie, which the organization had purchased in 1953.

What were your first impressions of Glen Eyrie and Colorado Springs?

Well, in 1956 Colorado Springs was known as a cow town. Most of the advancements have been since then. I had seen pictures of Glen Eyrie and knew very well what to expect. But Colorado Springs was just a small town. Two railroads, no freeway. Nevada Ave was the main north-south. But I was impressed with the city, and of course, really impressed with Glen Eyrie.

Jim, Morena, and their six children moved into a house in Manitou Springs. The children attended Whittier elementary and eventually Palmer High school, which was the only high school in town at the time.  Downing’s continuing role with The Navigators has included posts as the Overseas Servicemen’s Director, the Vice President, Deputy to the President, and the Chairman of the Board.

As his 102nd year approaches, Downing continues to speak to audiences across the country as his health allows. He has friends of all ages and especially enjoys getting to know college students and people in their twenties and thirties.

When you have the opportunity to speak about your experience to schools and other audiences, what do you tell them?

My application to students is: You are the future leaders and future taxpayers of America. Weakness invites aggression. Keep America strong and alert, because the only language that world conquerors understand is force. Remember Pearl Harbor. Keep America alert and strong.

You can read more about Downing’s remarkable life, and the experience of his fellow crewmates on the USS West Virginia at http://www.usswestvirginia.org. Downing has also written several books published by NavPress, including Living Legacy, a memoir.