Day of Infamy
A Survivor Remembers Pearl Harbor
December 7, 1941 dawned an ordinary Sunday for now-retired Lt. James "Jim" Downing. He and his wife of five months had invited a few other Sailors to breakfast, and were sitting around the table when they heard explosions. Boom. Boom. Boom. They could see smoke in the distance, across the island of Oahu.
We turned on the radio," he remembered, "and the announcer said, 'We have been advised by Army and Navy intelligence that the island of Oahu is under attack. ... The enemy has not been identified. Keep tuned.' A few minutes later, he came on and said, 'The enemy has been identified as Japan.'
"We felt that we might get into war with the Japanese sometime, but peace negotiations were going on, so we didn't think it would come when it did. It was a great shock to me."
Then a chief, Downing kissed his new bride goodbye and headed for his ship, USS West Virginia (BB 48). He had been assigned there for eight years, so the ship was home. He liked to joke that he had a rich uncle named Sam who built him a $45 million mansion. As the postmaster, he knew almost every man aboard. Many were, like Downing, children of the Depression who joined the Navy because they couldn't find jobs at home. They were his shipmates, his family, and he was proud of them: "Everybody did the right thing instinctively, without leadership, without training. What needed to be done, somebody jumped in and did it."
The crew fought back. They fought back hard. The skipper, Capt. Mervyn S. Bennion, was wounded in the abdomen by shrapnel when a bomb blew up the command deck. Cook Third Class Doris "Dorie" Miller and others tried to help Bennion to an aid station, but the captain, crumpled on the deck in pain, refused. He held his wounds closed with one hand as he commanded West Virginia's defense. His last words before he finally bled to death, according to a Sailor, were to order the ship abandoned. Bennion would later receive a posthumous Medal of Honor.