Meanwhile, Miller, who was the ship's heavyweight boxing champion, had been collecting laundry when the alarm for general quarters sounded, according to the Navy's History and Heritage Command. His battle station, the midship antiaircraft battery, had been wrecked by a torpedo, so he headed for the deck where he carried several wounded shipmates to safety. After the captain refused Miller's help, Miller famously grabbed a .50 anti-aircraft machine gun, a weapon he had never used before. He fired back at the Japanese, remaining at his post until he ran out of ammunition and the ship was abandoned, about 15 minutes by his own estimation. Miller would receive the Navy Cross for his actions, then a rare award for an African-American. (He went missing and was presumed dead later in the war when the escort carrier USS Liscome Bay (CVE 56)
was torpedoed by an enemy submarine in Nov. 1943.)
Downing arrived to find a ship in flames, smoke billowing high in the sky. Even the water, by now filled with fuel oil, burned. West Virginia fared better than USS Arizona (BB 39)
or USS Oklahoma (BB 37)
, but the ship took seven 18-inch torpedoes and two 15-inch, armor-piercing bombs, and was sitting on the bottom, the lower decks flooded. A torpedo went off close to Downing's office. Had he been on the ship that morning, he would likely have died.
"It was quite a shock," Downing remembered. "I thought my battleship was almost not vulnerable. To see it sitting on the bottom, and everything above the waterline burned, it was a real shock that I don't think I've gotten over even today."
The only way to board his wounded ship, Downing realized, was via USS Tennessee (BB 43)
next door, which had received less damage. During the battle, another veteran remembered, several Sailors had been trying to shimmy across on a rope and escape West Virginia, only to be killed by machine gun fire.
I trained a gun out on the Tennessee and slid down the gun barrel to get onto my ship. There wasn't much to do except take care of some of the dead and wounded, and then try to put out the fire, so I got a fire hose from ... Tennessee, and tried to put out the flame as it approached live ammunition. ... I was able to keep the ready ammunition from exploding." - Jim Downing
Japanese planes still circled above, looking for any type of target. "The pilot came flying in low and slow," Downing recalled. "As soon as he got at the right angle, why, he cut loose with his machine guns. Fortunately ... they went over my head and then dug a trench behind me. The war became very personal at that point."
As the flames came under control, Downing looked all around, at the fallen shipmates scattered on the deck, about 130 of them, dead of horrific burns and of gunshots and of shrapnel wounds. "I thought, 'Their parents will never know what their last moments were like.'" So he looked at as many of the Sailors' dog tags as he could, memorized the names and later wrote to their families.
Hours that seemed like minutes later, when there was nothing left to be done aboard West Virginia, Downing headed to the hospital to visit a shipmate who had been burned. Horrified at the scores of injured men there, he decided to perform a similar service.
"I took a notebook and went down the line, had the ones who could talk and said, 'If you will give me your parents' address and dictate a short paragraph, I'll see that they get it,'" he explained. "I was able to write the parents of probably 50 or more men. I thought, 'The parents will never know how their sons died. They'll just get a letter from the Navy saying they were killed in action.' ... It actually turned out that my letters ...were the first word their parents got.
"What surprised me is that the ones who could talk were so cheerful. Dictating letters to their parents, they said, 'I'm alright. Don't worry about me. I'll be home for Christmas.' Most of them died that night."