When I asked retired Navy Lt. Jim Downing about the ship’s bell, his eyes lit up. “The bell on a ship is used for everything, including giving the time every hour and half hour—from reveille in the morning to taps at night. I don’t know how many thousands of times I’ve heard that bell ring.”*
Downing will hear the ship’s bell ring today and again stand near the mast from the U.S.S. West Virginia during a ceremony at West Virginia University’s Oglebay Plaza this morning. He hasn’t seen the ship’s artifacts since World War II, when he served on the battleship.
As luck would have it, Downing was on land at Pearl Harbor the morning of December 7, 1941, when the U.S.S. West Virginia was struck by two bombs and seven torpedoes during the Japanese attack.
Downing is 104 years old, the second oldest survivor of the attack, but he still recalls clearly what happened that day. Unable to board his ship, he slid down a gun barrel onto the U.S.S. Tennessee. “I saw these bodies lying around,” he said. “It occurred to me that their parents would never know how they spent their last hours.”
Amid the chaos Downing memorized the names of some of the dead sailors and later wrote their families personal letters. When the attack ended he went to the hospital to help the wounded. “The ones who could talk, I took a notebook and said, ‘If you give me your parents address and dictate a paragraph, I’ll see that they get it.”
Eight years after the war, Downing came face to face with the man who had commanded the deadly attack, when Mitsuo Fuchida returned to Pearl Harbour. Fuchida had converted to Christianity. That opened an opportunity for Fuchida and Downing to reconcile, since Downing had become a Christian before the war.
But despite his faith, forgiveness did not come easily. “I couldn’t bring myself to do it,” Downing writes in his book The Other Side of Infamy. “My right arm stayed at my side. I looked Fuchida in the eye and said, ‘I was on the West Virginia during the attack.’”
It was several years before Downing became convinced that Fuchida’s conversion was real and that he was truly sorry for the attack. “Jesus forgave his killers, and he calls upon Christians to forgive those who wrong us,” he writes. “For my part, I can now say that in my heart I have forgiven Mitsuo Fuchida for his role in the Pearl Harbour attack.”
Today Jim Downing continues to tell his remarkable story and spread the word of his faith. He attributes his longevity to his simple approach to life, which brings him great joy. “The truth is that these last few years have been the best of my life,” he writes. “I have so much fun that I don’t look back at yesterday or forward to tomorrow. I live one day at a time.”
(Editor’s note: Downing entered the Navy in 1932 and after training was assigned to the U.S.S. West Virginia. The bell from the original ship, an armored cruiser, is at Oglebay Plaza. The bell, wheel and triptych from battleship are at the West Virginia State Museum in Charleston.)