Last month, Ray Chavez, the oldest U.S. military survivor of the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, passed away at age 106. His death reminded me of Jim Downing, who at 104 was the second oldest Pearl Harbor survivor.
I interviewed the retired Navy Lt. when he came to Morgantown in November, 2017 to participate in a ceremony at West Virginia University’s Oglebay Plaza, where the mast and bell from the USS West Virginia reside. Those artifacts had special meaning for Downing since he served on the West Virginia.
I thought Chavez’s death would then make Downing the oldest Pearl Harbor survivor. However, I was saddened to learn that Downing had passed away earlier in the year. He died in February from complications after surgery.
Downing was among the sailors who acted heroically 77 years ago today during and after the Japanese attack on the unsuspecting Navy fleet docked at the Hawaiian port. Downing happened to be on land that morning when two bombs and seven aerial torpedoes struck the West Virginia, killing 106 men.
Unable to get back on the burning ship, Downing slid down a gun barrel onto the USS Tennessee. He grabbed a fire hose and sprayed water on ammunition stored on deck to try to keep it from exploding.
“I saw these bodies lying around,” he told me in our interview. “It occurred to me that their parents would never know how they spent their last hours.” Downing was the mail clerk on the West Virginia so he knew many of the names of the dead sailors.
Downing tried to memorize as many names as he could and later wrote the families personal letters. He did the same for wounded sailors in the hospital. “I took a notebook and said, ‘if you give me your parents address and dictate a paragraph, I’ll see that they get it,’” he told them.
Eight years after the war, Downing came face to face with the man who was the air commander of the deadly attack, when Mitsuo Fuchida returned to Pearl Harbor. Fuchida had converted to Christianity, and that opened the door for Fuchida and Downing to reconcile, since Downing was a devout Christian.
But despite Downing’s faith, forgiveness did not come easily. He wrote in his book, The Other Side of Infamy, that he could not shake Fuchida’s hand. “My right arm stayed at my side. I looked Fuchida in the eye and said, ‘I was on the West Virginia during the attack.’”
Several years later, Downing softened on Fuchida, believing the man who was once his mortal enemy was truly sorry for the attack. “Jesus forgave his killers, and he calls upon Christians to forgive those who wrong us,” he wrote in his book. “For my part, I can now say that in my heart I have forgiven Mitsuo Fuchida for his role in the Pearl Harbor attack.”
For the generation that lived through World War II, the rallying cry was “Remember Pearl Harbor.” On this anniversary, we remember not only the heinous attack, but also the personal stories of men like Jim Downing.
*(Editor’s note: Downing entered the Navy in 1932 and, after training, was assigned to the USS West Virginia. The bell from the original ship, an armored cruiser, is at Oglebay Plaza. The bell from the battleship that was sunk at Pearl Harbor is at the West Virginia State Museum.)
(Editor’s note 2: Portions of this commentary appeared in a similar commentary in November 2017.)