On December 7, 1941, Missouri native Jim Downing was one of the many brave Americans who defended their country proudly during Japan’s attack on U.S. naval base Pearl Harbor. Downing, who is 103 years old, is the second oldest living survivor of the battle.
Part of his childhood included living in western Missouri’s Oak Grove and northeastern Missouri’s Plevna. Downing is in Missouri this week to speak with service members, veterans and religious groups about Pearl Harbor and what it means to live a life of faith.
Downing was six miles inland when he learned about Japan’s surprise military strike. He raced to defend his shipmates and rescued many of them. Downing, who was the captain of the USS West Virginia, jumped on board to try and keep the fire from reaching the lockers where live ammunition was kept.
He tells Missourinet he had several close calls that day.
“The first Japanese plane that got close to me, it banked, came down toward me, this machine gun opened up. The pilot was at the wrong angle. So the bullets went over my head and dug a trench behind me,” says Downing.
There were 164 ships in port – 22 were seriously damaged. Of the eight battleships, the USS Arizona and USS Oklahoma were total losses. The USS Tennessee, USS Maryland were not damaged. The USS Pennsylvania and USS California had little damage.
“Of course, they (Japan) didn’t want any aircraft to follow them back to their ships. So they destroyed almost 400 aircraft,” says Downing.
More than 2,400 people were killed and 1,100 were injured in the attack which marked America’s entry into World War Two. Downing lost about 105 crew members – 16 or 17 were his close friends.
“The way that the men responded and behaved that morning, everybody was a hero,” says Downing. “Just instinctively, without leadership, without training, they saw what needed to be done and they did it. I was very proud.”
Japan attacked eight nations on December 7, 1941. Pearl Harbor did not take the biggest hit.
“They (Japan) used 360 airplanes at Pearl Harbor. They used 500 in the Philippines at 3 ‘o clock that afternoon,” says Downing. “They attacked Guam. They attacked Indonesia, Singapore, China, and Hong Kong. The Japanese lost eight attacks because they were intent on dominating that part of the world.”
For Downing, who also recently wrote about his experiences in The Other Side of Infamy, the events of Pearl Harbor were not just a matter of the attack and military response. He made it a personal mission to reach out to the families of many of the men who were killed or injured that day, either providing information about those who had died or passing along the sentiments of survivors who were not well enough to write their own letters.
“If the Department of Defense ever decided to decorate the people who deserved it, they would have to get a copper mine in Utah and a cotton field in Texas to mold the medals because everybody was a hero,” says Downing. “I think you can say that about all wars.”
His book has sold more than 10,000. The message he wants to spread to the nation includes inspiration from President Ronald Reagan. He cites a speech by Reagan called “Peace through Strength”, which coined the phrase weakness invites aggression.
“Keep America so strong in cyberspace, in space, in the skies, on the ground, on the sea and under the sea that no nation will think about attacking us,” says Downing.
Downing served in the Navy for 24 years.