December 7, 1942 was a historic day in United States history. This fateful day was the final catalyst that led to the United States unequivocally deciding to enter World War II and forever changed the course of history. When sitting in your history class worrying about what information is pertinent for the next test, sometimes it’s easy to forget that all of these events were a reality for millions of people. At Atlantic Teen it’s our hope that we can take the impersonal out of history, and inspire you all with the very real, human part of our history.
In honor of Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, we would like to introduce our readers to Lieutenant Jim Downing, the 103-year-old Pearl Harbor survivor and tell you a bit of his story. This poignant retelling is an excerpt from our new book, Events That Changed the Course of History: The Story of the Attack on Pearl Harbor 75 Years Later.
Regarding that dreadfully historic day of December 7, 1941, Downing believes the experience provided him and future generations with important obligations. “Well that’s just a part of my life,” he says. “I enjoyed yesterday, I’m gonna enjoy today,I’m gonna enjoy tomorrow.”
On the West Virginia, Downing and the rest of his shipmates were pummeled by nine Japanese torpedoes. Downing was also shot at with machine guns from a plane that flew over.
“One hundred and five men were killed in the attack on my ship,” Downing says. “The main damage was done in the first 11 minutes.”
After a reprieve in the aerial assault, Downing went into rescue mode. “I got aboard the ship after, and all that was left to do was to take care of the wounded and to try to fight the fire.”
The West Virginia was stationed next to the USS Tennessee which was undamaged. Downing, wanting to avoid another explosion if his ship’s ammunition caught on fire, grabbed one of the Tennessee’s fire hoses.
“As I had the fire hose in one hand, I saw bodies lying around, and one was a friend of mine lying on his back,” Downing remembers. “So I tried to turn him over, and then I discovered that the back of his head was blown off.”
That painful image didn’t steal Downing’s eyes for long. He noticed his friend’s identification tag and remembered that all of the fallen could be identified this way. Downing was the postmaster on the West Virginia and had access to all of the crew’s addresses. “Their parents would never know what had happened to them, so I resolved to write letters.”
Downing explains that the standard military letters of death notification didn’t go into much detail as to how servicemen died, no matter how heroic. He spent the rest of the morning fighting flames and memorizing the names of the fallen.
The nearby USS Arizona and the rest of the battleships carried about a million gallons of crude oil that had spilled into the harbor. Downing said the blaze spread to about 200 feet. Even the ocean was on fire.
“I saw sailors who had been blown off their ships submerge and then surface with a film of oil on their bodies. They became human torches and could do nothing about it,” he says, admitting this was the saddest sight of that fateful day. “You’d think once they got off the ship in the water they were safe, but if they landed where the oil was on fire, they burned to death.”
Some of them were rescued, but many were in areas of such intense heat that rescue boats couldn’t get close enough. That afternoon, Downing visited friends and fellow sailors in the hospital, with the intent of writing more letters. Downing spent roughly two hours going down the line, writing down what they said and later transcribing his notes on his manual typewriter.
“They probably couldn’t have read my handwriting,” Downing laughs.
The content of the letters to families was dictated from the wounded sailors themselves, and most of it came as a bit of a shock to Downing.
“I was kinda surprised at the messages that they sent their parents,” Downing says. “Most of them said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m fine, I’ll get well, I’ll see ya again.’ They never made a complaint, but most of them died that night.”
His position as postmaster not only made him popular on payday, it also made him a lifeline of communication in an age when even telephone calls were a luxury.
We hope that Downing’s emotional and moving story has created a newfound appreciation for the facts and dates we memorize in school and allowed you to have a human connection with our history. If you want to read the rest of Downing’s story or learn more about Pearl Harbor in general, be sure to check out our book on Amazon.