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History and Heritage

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.

Photo collage of Jim Downing.

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."

Photo collage of Jim Downing.

The next few days and months were spent setting up machine gun nests and foxholes, saying goodbye to his wife before she was evacuated, salvaging West Virginia and sleeping in a mosquito-infested sports arena. As postmaster, Downing had to account for thousands of dollars' worth of stamps and money orders in his destroyed office. And he had to return Christmas mail to the families of Sailors who had been killed. The spirits of those fallen shipmates were everywhere.

"One day I was going down a ladder from one deck to another, and I stepped on this object, and my feet slid out from under me," Downing said. "It's pretty gory to talk about, but I had stepped on a body, on the foot, and my foot just went down and took the flesh right off of that body, which had been there for several months.

"One of the holes in the ship was 140 feet long," he added. "The people in the naval shipyard took reinforcing rod and welded it to the ship and then a put a patch on it with concrete. That can take several months. Once the patch is on, you can begin to pump out the ship and get it afloat again. ... West Virginia got back in the war and got credited with sinking a Japanese battleship. ... The ship distinguished itself very much. I'm proud of it."

Downing eventually became a naval weapons instructor in Washington, D.C., where he spent the majority of the war. He went on to become an officer, and served in the Korean War. Now 104, he's believed to be the second-oldest living Pearl Harbor survivor, one of a dwindling number of Americans who can remember that day of infamy first-hand.