MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — 104 years worth of stories will be condensed into the memories of just a few hours when the second oldest living Pearl Harbor survivor reunites with the mast of the U.S.S. West Virginia Friday morning.
“We heard the explosions, saw the smoke, turned on the radio,” Retired Naval Lt. Jim Downing said Thursday on MetroNews “Talkline” with Hoppy Kercheval. “We’ve been advised by Army-Navy Intelligence that the island of Oahu is under attack. The enemy has not been identified.”
Downing, the Guiness Book of World Records oldest male author, will be honored at WVU’s Oglebay Plaza Friday morning before hosting a book signing across the street at Barnes & Noble to feature his book, The Other Side of Infamy.
Separated from the U.S.S. West Virginia during the first 20 minutes of the attack, Downing slid down the barrel of the gun to reach the U.S.S. Tennessee during the attack. It was then that he came to a startling realization.
“I saw these bodies lying around,” he said. “It occurred to me that their parents would never know how they spent their last hours.”
After he tried to keep the flames at bay aboard the U.S.S. Tennessee, Downing stopped to memorize the names of the dead aboard the warship. Afterwards, he went to the infirmary to meet with the injured, hoping to help them send letters to their families.
“They were probably 50 or 60 in suspension, been burned, blinded, hair burned off,” Downing, also the postmaster, said. “So the ones who could talk, I took a notebook and said, ‘If you’ll give me your parents address and dictate a paragraph, I’ll see that they get it.'”
A devout Christian who began to embrace religion in the mid-1930s, Downing said that was in part what allowed him to forgive Commander Mitsuo Fuchida. Fuchida led the first wave of attacks on Pearl Harbor; he’s also credited with coordinating much of the aerial battle plan. In the 1950s, Downing met Fuchida — then a Christian missionary — in the United States.
“The last time I remember seeing him, he was bombing a ship right next to mine,” Downing said.
“Some of my friends had been killed and wounded [at Pearl Harbor],” Downing said. “I held him responsible for that.”
The handshake between the two men, now both in the United States, was cold. But, Downing said, the bitterness wasn’t indefinite. Despite his initial reactions, he and Commander Fuchida warmed to one another.
“I’m convinced that his repentance was genuine. My thought was, if God’s forgiven him, who am I not to forgive him? So I have forgiven him for what he did.”
Now the oldest living male author and the second oldest Pearl Harbor survival, Downing said he isn’t sure what to expect when he’s reunited with the bell and mast of the U.S.S. West Virginia Friday morning. Though, he said, there is one thing he’d like.
“The bell on a ship is used for everything, including giving the time every hour and half hour — from revel in the morning to taps at night,” he said. “I don’t know how many thousand times I’ve heard that bell ring.”
“Maybe they’ll let me ring it once.”
The ceremony begins at 10 a.m. Friday at Oglebay Plaza. The book signing is scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Mountainlair Barnes & Noble.