Pearl Harbor Survivor from Colorado James Downing
July 5, 2015
Remember Pearl Harbor. Weakness invites aggression. Keep America strong.
Nobody spreads this message better than Jim Downing. For anyone who has had the opportunity to be engaged by his sharp witticisms on life and historical accounts of Pearl Harbor, it’s clear that there is no better authority on the matter than the 102-year-old World War II veteran.
James Willis Downing was born on August 22, 1913 in Oak Grove, Missouri. Job options were scarce during the Great Depression, so, shortly after graduating from high school, he enlisted in the Navy. That September 1932 decision was his ticket out of small-town life; he was sent to Long Beach, California where most of the U.S. Naval fleet then resided.
On board the USS West Virginia, Downing was a Gunner’s Mate. He befriended shipmate Dawson “Daws” Trotman, the eventual founder of The Navigators®, an interdenominational ministry. On April 8, 1935, Downing became a Christian.
Trotman was also instrumental in encouraging Downing to court his wife-to-be, Morena. They were married on July 11, 1941, in Honolulu.
PEARL HARBOR STORY
On the morning of December 7, 1941, Downing and his wife were hosting breakfast for 8 of his shipmates. Suddenly, an anti-aircraft shell landed in their backyard, creating a 25 foot crater. The radio announced the enemy attack and the men immediately jumped in a truck headed for Pearl Harbor, about 20 minutes away.
By the time Downing made it to the West Virginia, it had already been hit by 9 torpedoes courtesy of Japanese bombers. Being moored in only about 40 feet of water, his ship sat on the bottom of the shallow harbor, but the portion above the waterline was aflame. He assisted the injured and borrowed a water hose from the USS Tennessee to prevent a secondary explosion of the ammunition.
The oil from the damaged battleships was ablaze, covering the water’s surface. During an interview with NBC 7’s Matt Rascon, Downing describes the scene: “The saddest thing I saw that morning was sailors being blown off the ship, come up out of the water, feel the oil on their bodies…and they just became human torches.”
Over 100 of his shipmates were killed, including 70 who were trapped below deck.
Downing recalls coming to peace with his own mortality as machine gun shots whizzed overhead, dangerously close to an aviation gasoline tanker in port. During a speech at Mission Hills Church, he recalls thinking, “Lord, I’ll see you in a minute.” Japanese planes had very few airborne targets, having destroyed a large number of U.S. planes before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Downing felt sure that a massive explosion of the gas tank would be his demise, but miraculously it never happened.
Instead, amidst the chaos, he tried to memorize the names off the dog tags of his fallen comrades. He later visited the naval hospital, notebook in hand, and took down the names and any messages that he could from the burn victims and others who were near death.
Being the postmaster, he had access to all the home addresses for the men. He would later send notes to each family, sensitively explaining what happened. “I wanted their families to know what their sons’ last days on earth were like,” he told Karen Stubbs of USAA News. “I wanted them to have more than just a cold note from the Navy Department.” Downing received many letters in return thanking him for his kind gesture.
The next day, Downing was still covered in oil, but happily reunited with his wife of only 5 months. In December of 1941, Morena boarded a ship to return to the mainland. They would not be together again until 1943, when they moved to Washington, D.C.
POST PEARL HARBOR ATTACK
Downing would go on to make a career in the Navy.
His accomplishments include acting as an advisor to the Brazilian Fleet in Rio de Janeiro, serving aboard the USS Nespelen, and becoming an assistant professor of Naval Science at the New York Merchant Marine Academy.
Downing spent 24 years in the Navy, eventually becoming the commanding officer of the USS Patapsco, which served as a tanker during the Korean War.
In 1954, Downing and his crew would be exposed to 20,000 times the acceptable level of radiation from the initial hydrogen bomb test at the Bikini Atoll.
In 1956, Lieutenant Downing retired from the Navy.
That same year, his friend Trotman had died. Downing, known as Navigator #6 (Trotman’s 6th disciple), helped fill the void by taking over Glen Eyrie, the home of the Colorado Springs Navigators. He served as deputy president, chairman of the board of directors and director of the Navigator ministry in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
He retired from his second calling, full-time ministry, in 1983.
Downing and his wife had a large family – 7 children. Morena passed away in 2010 after almost 70 years of marriage.
Downing currently lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado and is the second-oldest living Pearl Harbor Survivor (see tribute to Ray Chavez). He has lived a long life following the four “Ds”:
- Discover your gift
- Dedicate your gift to a higher power
- Develop your gift to the maximum
- Deploy your gift.
Age hasn’t slowed him down as he continues to develop and deploy his gifts with continuous learning and publicly speaking about his experiences and his beliefs. He’s kept up with the times, learning to use the computer around 20 years ago to put together his presentations and stay connected to the world.
“Being 101 is not much different than being 81. I’m glad to be 101 because I make contacts with people that otherwise I wouldn’t,” he said in a story for Lilly Broadcasting.
For example, on January 20, 2015, Downing was the guest of Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet at President Obama’s State of the Union address. His daughter, Marobeth, was able to see Downing honored, thanks to Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz’s donation of his lone guest ticket.
The more people he knows, the more exposure he gets, and the farther his message travels.
Downing has made the trip to Hawaii to commemorate the 74th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor and spread the word. On December 7, 2015, we will all remember Pearl Harbor.
Reflecting on the tragedy of Pearl Harbor, Downing reported feeling a gamut of emotions –surprise, fear, anger, and finally, pride. “I’m very proud of our response,” Downing proclaimed to Sarah Rose for The Daily Record. “Every veteran is a hero.”
You are a hero, Jim Downing. And we want to share that with the world.