“We have been advised by Army and Navy intelligence that the island of Oahu is under enemy attack,” the first radio broadcast began. “The enemy has not been identified, stay tuned.” Minutes later, another transmission came through: “The enemy has been identified as Japan.”
That’s when Jim Downing knew the country was under attack. Now 104, he is the second oldest known Pearl Harbor survivor.
Upon hearing the radio, Downing immediately headed to battleship row to the USS West Virginia, the ship he was assigned to. “We got the car and rushed down to the harbor as quickly as possible,” says Downing.
Most of the carnage was done in the first 11 minutes. That’s because the Japanese dropped 40 aerial torpedoes, while another 40 enemy aircraft flew low and dropped their bombs.
“My ship took nine of the torpedoes, the USS Oklahoma, which was just ahead of us, took another nine. So, out of 40, 18 hit our two ships,” Downing continues.
Pearl Harbor is a shallow harbor, meaning just six feet of water were underneath the ships. The West Virginia began to sank and settle in the bloody, muddy waters. “The oil from the ships caught fire, so everything above the water was on fire,” says Downing. The Oklahoma quickly capsized and her propellers stretched above the water.
“The USS Arizona, just behind us, was on fire like a volcano. The explosions were huge and the fire was hot.”
1,100 sailors aboard the Arizona perished.
Contrary to the chaos, Downing describes a scene where every sailor instinctively knew what to do and did it. “There were a lot of heroes there that morning,” he says.
The West Virginia quickly lost all electrical power in the early minutes of the attack, so the crew was unable to return fire. Instead, the heroic crew went about rescuing sailors from the water.
Each battleship carried about one million gallons of crude oil, and the Arizona, Oklahoma, and West Virginia were hemorrhaging their fuel into the shallow waters. “The heat from the Arizona was so great that it caught fire,” says Downing.
“The saddest thing that morning was to see a man go overboard and when he emerged the thin coat of oil he had on it caught fire, they were just human torches out there. That was the worst thing I observed that morning.”
Seeing the flames roaring from the forward part of the ship, Downing remembered the doors to where ammunition was stored. “I knew if the fire reached that gun, there would be another explosion,” says Downing. “So, I used a fire hose to close the ammunition lockers to avoid that secondary explosion.”
Downing says the mission quickly turned to caring for the dead and wounded. Within minutes, hordes of sailors were lifted to the hospital.
“I saw these bodies lying around, most of them were my shipmates, I knew some of them,” he says. With a fire hose in one hand, he went around wiping oil off the fire resistant identification tags and memorized as many of the names he could. He would later write to the families of the fallen detailing how their fallen sailors were heroes.
Hours after the attack, Downing went to the galley of the neighboring USS Tennessee. “We go up to the galley and look at the clock and it was 11:45am. If you would have asked me what time it was, I would have said about 8:30,” he says.
“I couldn’t believe that much time passed on the clock, it seemed to go by so fast.”
Downing then went to the hospital, because he heard a friend of his was badly burned. “I saw men hanging in suspension, their hair burned off, some were blind,” he says. Again, he took notes from the wounded, many of which did not survive through the night. Due to the quick efforts of Downing, final wishes and messages were mailed to their loved ones.
Now 76 years after the attack, Downing sees the harbor through three lenses: one before the attack, one during, and one after.
When it comes to how he wants current and future generations to remember Pearl Harbor, Downing remembers a speech by President Ronald Reagan titled “Peace through strength.”
“He coined a three-word phrase that I try to get every American to memorize,” says Downing, adding that “weakness invites aggression.” “My charge to the upcoming generation is that it’s your obligation as voters, as tax payers, and as leaders, to see that we keep America strong,” he continues.
Born the same year stainless steel was invented, Downing, now 104, is showing no signs of slowing down. In fact, Guinness World Records named him the oldest male author last year.
His book, The Other Side of Infamy, details his actions during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and his career in the Navy.