Service and survival: Pearl Harbor vet visits Prep School Jan 6

  • Published
  • By Ray Bowden
  • U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs

Retired Navy Lt. Jim Downing is many things: World War II and Korean War veteran and, at 103, the second oldest known survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor.


The Colorado Springs resident shared his story of military service with scores of Air Force Academy Preparatory School students here Jan. 6.


“The first Japanese plane I saw was flying straight toward me,” Downing said of the Dec. 7, 1941 sneak attack by the Imperial Japanese. “It banked and fired but it banked too high and the bullets went right over my head.”


The attack began at 7:48 a.m., when 353 Japanese fighter planes, bombers and torpedo planes struck in two waves. All eight Navy battleships were damaged, and four ships were sunk.


Downing was 28 years-old on that Sunday morning attack, a gunners mate 1st class and postmaster assigned to the anti-aircraft battleship, U.S.S. West Virginia. He lived off base with his wife of five months, Morena.  


After narrowly surviving a hail of Japanese bullets, he caught a ride to the harbor. He arrived to find the West Virginia in flames and the beach shrouded in clouds of oily smoke.


“It was hit by a Japanese torpedo and was sinking, and oil from the damaged ships was rising to the surface of the harbor,” Downing said. “A battleship is designed to be bulletproof. It carries about 1 million gallons of crude oil so most of the smoke came from oil.”


Downing grabbed a fire hose from one ship to try quenching a fire on another.


“I didn’t want the fire to reach the ammunition on that ship,” he said.


He noticed several bodies and memorized their names.


“We had fireproof name tags,” Downing said. “I thought, ‘their parents will never know what happened to them.’”


Downing wrote as many relatives of the deceased as he could.


“I thought they would want to know,” he said. “The main thing I wanted to provide was closure.”


In all, 2,404 Americans were killed and 1,178 wounded in the attack, which led the U.S. to enter World War II.


Downing said the surprise of the attack overwhelmed him, but this emotion soon gave way to resolve and pride.


“I felt pride because we were without leadership but everyone relied on their training and instantly did the right thing,” he said. “Everyone was a hero. I was proud of the reaction everyone had.”

“Castle Bravo”

Later in his career, Downing earned an on-the-spot promotion to ensign and became the commanding officer of the U.S.S. Patapsco, a gasoline tanker.


As nerve-wracking as his Pearl Harbor experience was, Downing said the most exciting event in his military career occurred while aboard the Patapsco in the Central Pacific Ocean near the Marshall Islands. He survived Castle Bravo, the code name given to the U.S.’s first test of a hydrogen bomb.


Downing said a mysterious man boarded the vessel April 30, 1954 and peppered him with ominous questions.


“He asked, ‘What type of protective equipment does your crew have?’” Downing said. “When I asked why he was asking all these questions, he said, ‘I’m sworn to secrecy.’ He asked me ‘how fast can this ship go?’ and suggested I take the ship in a different direction.”


Downing said he’d need orders from a senior officer to take the ship off course.


“He said, ‘I am that officer” so I changed course,” Downing said.  “It was about 6:30 a.m. March 1, 1954, and we were about 100 miles from where we’d been. We saw this light coming over the horizon. It was a fireball four miles wide, 1,000 times hotter than the sun.”


The damage radius of a hydrogen bomb is 1,000 miles and the Patapsco and its crew were exposed to radiation levels 470 times above the safe limit.  


“Most of the crew was seriously burned and damaged,” Downing said. “When I got back to the harbor, there were people who wouldn’t shake my hand.”


Morena died in 2010 but Downing carries on, routinely attending Pearl Harbor memorial ceremonies across the U.S. and sharing his story with his Colorado Springs community.


He said his Christian faith helps him cope with the challenges of life, but proved especially handy during his Pearl Harbor experience.


“I knew I’d had my ticket punched in a minute,” he said. “I said, ‘Lord, I’ll be with you in a minute.' I’m glad instead of fear, that I had a deep peace.” 


Prep School Cadet Candidate Jonathan Imperial said Downing’s life of service is an example for all cadet candidates.


“He exemplifies the action and risk it takes to be ‘that guy’ -- the leader we all look up to and can take advice from, even at 103,” Imperial said. “It was an honor and privilege to hear him talk, look him in the eyes, and shake his hand and say ‘thank you.’"

(Editor’s note: Downing was born Aug. 22, 1913 in Oak Grove, Missouri. He enlisted in the Navy in 1932 and retired in 1956. He’s the father of seven children and author of “The Other Side of Infamy: My Journey through Pearl Harbor and the World of War.” The oldest known survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor is 104 year-old Ray Chavez, 104.)