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Pearl Harbor survivor wants memory of attack to live on
By Lisa Ferdinando, DOD
DECEMBER 7, 2016 at 8:59 p.m.

pearl harbor survivor
Pearl Harbor survivor and retired Navy Lt. Jim Downing attends a screening of the "Remember Pearl Harbor" documentary at the Pacific Aviation Museum at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Dec. 4, 2016. Downing, who was among the guests of honor at the event, journeyed to Pearl Harbor to take part in events marking 75 years since the surprise Japanese attack. DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando

HONOLULU — As the second-oldest known Pearl Harbor survivor, retired Navy Lt. Jim Downing, 103, wants the memory of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack to stay alive for future generations.

Downing, of Colorado Springs, Colorado, has come to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, to join other survivors for commemorations of the 75th anniversary of the attack this week.

"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.

The Navy veteran spoke in an interview yesterday after viewing a screening of the World War II Foundation's documentary "Remember Pearl Harbor." Downing and other veterans, including fellow Pearl Harbor survivors, were guests of honor at the event at the Pacific Aviation Museum on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor.

Memories of Pearl Harbor

"[The attack] happened just a few hundred yards over here," Downing said, gesturing toward the harbor. His ship, the USS West Virginia, was severely damaged in the Japanese attack.

"We were right next to Ford Island, so it's hard to forget what happened -- now just being on the spot," said Downing, who was a gunner's mate first class at the time of the attack.

When the surprise Japanese assault began, the then-28-year-old Downing was having breakfast at home with his wife and some of his shipmates. He and the other sailors rushed over to the ship to help.

"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 100 men on the ship were killed, including at least 17 of Downing’s close friends. Despite the loss, he did not despair, he said, explaining his friends were part of his Bible study. He has faith he and his friends will be reunited.

"I rejoiced that I would see them in the future," he said.

For the dead and injured on his ship, he composed personalized letters for the families.

"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.

He heard back from many of them, he said, including parents who learned their sons were actually alive. "They were grateful," Downing said. "They rejoiced; they didn’t know that their sons were still alive until they got the letter."

Return to Pearl Harbor

Downing, who also came to Pearl Harbor for last year’s anniversary, stays connected with fellow Pearl Harbor survivors.

"The greatest pleasure is to renew acquaintance with my shipmates," he said. "I've been coming to these reunions for a long time. There is a lot of camaraderie among the ship's crew, in fact, it never runs out."

But as time passes, fewer survivors remain, Downing pointed out.

"I just wonder how many I will see next year," he said, adding "most of my friends are in heaven, so I look forward to seeing them over there."

Hope for the Younger Generation

Downing said he is grateful for the nation’s support of its military veterans.

"I am glad for this wave of patriotism that is sweeping the country," he said.

Downing said he does have a message for the younger generation.

"I tell them: 'You're the leaders of tomorrow; you're the voters of tomorrow; you're the taxpayers of tomorrow; you're the legislators of tomorrow. My charge to you is, keep America strong,'" he said.

"I want America to be kept so strong -- in cyberspace, in space, in the skies, on the ground, on the sea, under the sea -- that no dictator will even think about attacking us," he said.

'One Day at a Time'

Downing said his optimistic view comes from his life philosophy, to take life as it happens and whatever it brings.

He said he doesn’t worry about yesterday or tomorrow, or weigh himself down with things he can't control or change -- including the events of that day 75 years ago.

"So I live one day at a time. I don't brood over what happened there. It happened and [there’s] nothing I can do about it, so I got to live with it," he said.

Published December 7, 2016

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