MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – It had been 75 years since Retired Naval Lt. Jim Downing laid eyes on the mast of the U.S.S. West Virginia — the battleship he called home for 10 years during World War II.
The second-oldest Pearl Harbor survivor visited the ship’s mast during a ceremony at West Virginia University’s Oglebay Plaza on Friday, where he also had the opportunity to ring the ship’s bell.
Lt. Downing, now 104-years-old, was only 27-years-old when the U.S.S. West Virginia sank at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Standing before the mast Friday, Downing said it appeared much different than the last time he saw the structure.
“It had a super structure around it that we called a caged mast,” he said. “I’d never seen it stripped down so much. There were stairways going up. It was a long climb to the top.”
The last that Downing had seen the mast was as the U.S.S. West Virginia was on fire and sinking after the Pearl Harbor attacks.
“On the morning of Dec. 7, this mast didn’t do us a lot of good,” he said. “The purpose of the mast on a ship was an observation tower. We didn’t have radar. All we knew was what we could see with the eye.”
WVU President Dr. E. Gordon Gee said it was an honor to have Lt. Downing on campus, not only for Friday’s ceremony, but also for a book signing and a pre-game recognition at Saturday’s game against Iowa State.
“The sacrifices made at Pearl Harbor are never far from our thoughts because they have a visible symbol at the heart of our campus,” Gee said. “This is an extra special occasion, as our guest was aboard the U.S.S. West Virginia, which was sunk in the attack and whose mast we stand before today. However, just as West Virginians themselves battle back, the ship was refloated and emerged from the sea to fight other battles, and Americans emerged from the attack on Pearl Harbor determined to fight for freedom.”
Like numerous other veterans, Lt. Downing refrains from calling himself a hero, something that struck Gee as incredibly self-effacing.
“In interviews about his service on that fateful December day, about his attempts to fight flames aboard the ship and about the letters he later wrote to families of fallen soldiers, he often says, ‘It was just something you do,’” Gee said. “But the Mountaineer family knows just how heroic he was. Along with his shipmates and all of the Americans serving at Pearl Harbor, we know that they endured terror and risked their very lives to safeguard our freedoms.
“To them, and to all of our veterans, we owe our ability to live and learn, to protest and pray, to think and to thrive,” he said. “In their stories we find inspiration for our acts of courage and sacrifice.”
Downing summarized his experiences of that day in five words — surprise, scared, anger, resolve and pride.
“We were not on the alert because peace talks were scheduled for Monday, so the Japanese deceived us into not being alert. I never thought we’d be caught in that situation,” he said. “I boasted a lot about what my ship could do and to see that it got caught and hit by nine aerial torpedoes.
“We didn’t get a shell off because all electric was gone to the tankers. Most of the damage was done in the first 11 minutes of that three-hour period that morning as the torpedo planes and dive-bombers made a united attack.”
Despite those setbacks, Downing said the men and women aboard the U.S.S. West Virginia reacted perfectly, even without training or leadership.
“Everybody just instinctively looked to see what needed to be done and then did it. It was the right thing,” he said. “We only shot down 29 Japanese planes. Another 74 were damaged to the point that when they got back to their carriers, they had to just throw some of them off the side. They were not repairable.”
While most battleships in World War II were named for states, few had the close relationship that those in the Mountain State formed with the men aboard the ship.
The ship received a weekly newspaper, The Mountaineer, of which the masthead read “Montani Semper Liberi” (Mountaineers are Always Free).
“So we were reminded of the state for which we were named once a week as we looked at the newspaper, and on special occasions like birthdays and things of that sort, somebody in West Virginia remembered us,” Downing said. “We got special greetings just like we were there child, so thank you so much on behalf of the Navy. The people in West Virginia adopted us, took us under their wing and took such good care of us.”
Later in his military career, Downing met Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, who led the first wave of attacks on Pearl Harbor, during the 1950s. While Downing admits he dreaded the meeting, he felt he should shake Fuchida’s hand and speak to him.
“It was hard for me to separate what I saw before me 12 years after Pearl Harbor when he bombed the ship next to mine. I had a hard time accepting him,” he said. “He became a Christian missionary, and after reading what he wrote and hearing what he had to say, I’m convinced that he genuinely repented. If God can forgive him, I can too, so I welcomed him later as a brother in Christ.”
During Lt. Downing’s time in the U.S. Navy, he went on to serve as the captain of the U.S.S. Patapsco during the Korean War, and further as a military trainer in Brazil, among other assignments.
In 1956, Jim retired from the Navy after 24 years of service, leaving as a lieutenant.
A devout Christian, Downing and his wife moved to London in 1978 to head up the Europe, Middle East and African regions for The Navigators. For three years, Downing traveled the world, spreading the Lord’s message of faithfulness to thousands of people – a mission that he still continues today.
“Even when you took off that uniform, you continued to serve. To this day you continue to serve, and I think you’re an inspiration for every veteran here, that we can all continue to serve even after we take off that uniform,” WVU Alumni Association President Sean Frisbee said during the ceremony. “I thank you very much for your many, many years of service when you were on active duty, when you retired, and all of the time that you will continue to serve.”
Gee added: “More than 75 years after that day that will live in infamy, he reminds us that this mast stands for unity and that we all must play our part in the never-ending quest to preserve freedom and achieve peace.”