Lt. Jim Downing, the second oldest living survivor of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that propelled the United States into World War II, passed away at the age of 104 last week.
Downing, who joined the Navy at 19 years old and devoted 24 years to the branch, was serving aboard the USS West Virginia the morning of December 7, 1941. That date, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt put so eloquently, would go on to live in infamy, as Japanese bombers and attack aircraft swooped down from the clouds in a surprise attack that claimed the lives of some 2,400 Americans. The U.S. Navy lost 18 ships that day, and found itself reluctantly thrust headlong into the largest conflict the world had ever seen.
In 2016, Downing returned to Pearl Harbor for the 75th anniversary of the attack, recounting for a crowd of service personnel and civilians the harrowing events that unfolded that day, Downing, who was serving as a gunner’s mate first class, was eating breakfast when the first of nine torpedos ripped through the hull of his ship.
“Nine [torpedoes] hit the West Virginia — and we sunk pretty quickly after that — and everything above the waterline was on fire,” he recalled. More than a hundred sailors died as the West Virginia went down.
“The ones that I didn’t know, while I was fighting the fire, I memorized their identification tags and wrote to their parents so that was a sense of closure, both on my part and on the part of their own parents,” Downing said.
Downing, and his career as a sailor, survived that historic day, and he’d eventually go on to take command of a vessel of his own, the USS Patapsco, which Downing maintained command of for three years, from 1952 until 1955. Despite his long and storied career, however, the events of December 7, 1941 continued to drive him in retirement. In 2016, he published a book entitled, “The Other Side of Infamy: My Journey through Pearl Harbor and the World of War.” It, like many of Downing’s speaking engagements, was born out of an intent to ensure the American people don’t forget the tragedy, and heroism, on display that fateful morning, a sentiment he echoed from Pearl Harbor.
“I understand this is going to be the last big anniversary, so I am sorry to see it pass down into history, but there are not enough of us left to commemorate it,” he said.
“I hope history books and history teachers won’t forget. There’s a tendency as time passes to forget about the past, so I’m hoping history books and teachers will keep the memories alive,” Downing added.
Downing, who also did an interview for SOFREP Radio discussing his experiences, left the Pearl Harbor ceremony in 2016 with an important message for the next generation of Americans.
“I tell them: ‘You’re the leaders of tomorrow; you’re the voters of tomorrow; you’re the taxpayers of
Downing is survived by his wife, Crystal, and family, including six children, nine grandchildren, and 10 great-grandchildren
Author’s Note: I spent a fair amount of time in nursing homes as a kid. My father, a nursing home administrator, would often bring his family around to meet with the residents. It gave us an opportunity to meet and interact with our elders, and gave many of them the opportunity to break up the monotony of nursing home living by putting up with some mouthy kids for a while.
As a result, an important part of my upbringing, and my innate respect for my country and the sacrifices that secured it for me, was instilled through my opportunities to interact with veterans from World War II. These men and women found themselves embroiled in a type of conflict it can be hard to appreciate through the lens of our perceptions of modern warfare, and while I still struggle to understand the breadth of their sacrifice, those shared moments between the World War heroes of the Vermont Veterans Home and myself continue to shape me to this day.
It’s a tragic truth that my daughter, and others of her time, will grow up in a world devoid of such heroes; their stories fading from the ether of public consciousness as we all go about our lives and build our own tales to share… So let us take it upon ourselves, as the lucky survivors, the beneficiaries of the sacrifices made on our behalf, to ensure the world doesn’t forget about men like Jim Downing.
Downing may have moved on from his mortal coil, but his memory lives on in the lessons he taught us, the stories he’s shared – and they will continue to in my children, as I hope they will in yours.
Feature image courtesy of the Department of Defense