The Japanese plane was bearing down on retired Navy Lt. Jim Downing and his colleagues at Pearl Harbor, the sound of machine gun fire ringing in his ears just as he hit the dirt, penetrating the ground behind him.
The surprise and shock he initially felt morphed into fear — he knew the next plane would be more accurate.
What followed amazed the 104-year-old Downing, the second-oldest known living Pearl Harbor survivor.
“Men without leadership, training, did the right thing at the right time without concern for their safety,” Downing said.
Downing, who lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, is in Las Vegas on the 76th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. He was in Oahu to commemorate the Pearl Harbor anniversary and flew in Monday.
Downing, named the oldest male author by The Guinness Book of World Records, is on a book tour for his memoir “The Other Side of Infamy.” He is attending the National Finals Rodeo, and the Las Vegas City Council recognized Downing at its meeting Wednesday.
After narrowly escaping the low-flying Japanese plane’s gunfire on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Downing set off for his ship. He slid down the gun barrel of the neighboring Tennessee, to reach the West Virginia’s deck. Most of the surviving crew had evacuated, and flames were threatening the live ammunition, he said in an interview Tuesday with the Review-Journal.
Downing grabbed a fire hose and took aim, alternating its spray among the most vulnerable areas.
More than 2,400 Americans were killed in the attack that vaulted the United States into World War II.
Downing began to notice all of the victims lying around him on the ship. They wore tags and were easy to identify, so Downing went from man to man, memorizing their names, so he could write home to their parents.
Between the dead and a group of wounded men who dictated to Downing messages to send their parents, Downing estimates he sent 40 to 50 letters to families.
As another wave of Japanese planes roared over Pearl Harbor, Downing said he felt an overwhelming sense of peace and his “conversation with God was, ‘I’ll see you in a minute.’”
Downing is left with three distinct images of Pearl Harbor: a tropical paradise during peacetime, a naval base under attack and today: a forever-changed Hawaiian harbor. The permanent image for Downing is of the attack, he said.
Secret to long life?
In 1952, during the Korean War, Downing was assigned to captain the USS Patapsco, a fuel tanker. Two years later, he and his crew were making their way through the Pacific for a fuel delivery in the Marshall Islands, about 190 miles west of the Bikini Atoll, where the United States was testing nuclear weapons. A senior officer told Downing to turn around immediately.
Downing’s ship passed the atoll the next morning, combating rough seas that hampered its speed. The next day, when the United States detonated a bomb there, the radioactive material blew west toward Downing’s ship.
When the centenarian thinks about the longevity of his life, he reflects on a later visit to the VA, after his ship was exposed to radioactive material.
“They said, ‘As healthy as you are, we ought to do this to everybody,’” Downing said.
But his secret to long life may be more basic.
Downing has cousins who lived to 103 and 105, and a grandfather who lived into his mid-90s at a time when most people lived into their 70s.
“We’ve got some good genes,” Downing said.