Second-oldest Pearl Harbor survivor visits campus, recalls day of bombing

Kelly Bergh February 2, 2017 0

At the age of 103—75 years after surviving the bombing at Pearl Harbor—Lieutenant Jim Downing paid a visit to Elizabethtown College in hopes of instilling an appreciation of significance of that era in younger generations.

Lt. Downing’s Jan. 19 talk at the College saw the Susquehanna Room packed with students, faculty members and locals alike.

After a brief introduction by history professor Dr. David L. Kenley, Professor Director of the Center for Global Understanding and Peacemaking, Lt. Downing began to reflect on events of Dec. 7, 1941.

The second-oldest Pearl Harbor survivor started his lecture by requesting two students come up next to him and hold his hands.

As a means of lightening the grim mood before speaking of war, the lieutenant wore a rubber arm for one of the students to accidentally pull off. The girl laughed off her surprise and ended up staying to hold the microphone for the wheelchair-bound speaker throughout the lecture.

Tricks and technical difficulties aside, Lt. Downing delivered a brief history of World War II, citing “greed for power and territory” as the reason for the second World War. On the morning of the attacks, Lt. Downing was stationed on the U.S.S. West Virginia, a ship with a length over two football fields long that took hits from nine of the 40 torpedoes the Japanese ships sent into the Hawaiian harbor.

The delivery of these facts was substantiated by a slideshow of pictures, but the lieutenant felt it more important to tap into the raw emotions of his audience to appeal to their visualizations of the detriments of war.

“I find that people are more interested in how I feel than the historical facts,” he said of recounting his experiences at Pearl Harbor to audiences seeking to understand its human impact.

He spent the majority of the lecture outlining the four primary emotions that he felt in reaction to working that long day in efforts to protect the men tasked with protecting the country as it entered World War II.

Lt. Downing’s first reaction to the day was surprise. He learned of the attacks while at a breakfast with his new wife and their friends in Honolulu.

At first he believed the noises he heard signaled British activity. Eventually, he learned over the radio that the Army and Navy Intelligence were advised they were under attack. The enemy—the Japanese—was identified a few minutes later.

Lt. Downing recalls running to his car and driving to the harbor.

In order to get to his own ship, which was blocked by another, he had to slide down a gun barrel.

As he crossed over to the U.S.S. West Virginia, he saw the bodies of his fallen shipmates. It was at this point in the talk when Lt. Downing’s recollection revealed his humanity in a time of inhumane war.

His first thought at seeing his dead comrades was that he should write to their parents and “tell them how heroically [these soldiers] spent their last moments.”

Fortunate for their fireproof nametags and lanyards, he went around memorizing their names to use later.

The lieutenant did experience fear and anger simultaneously in that moment, citing the two as the next raw emotions he felt. He was very literally vulnerable in Pearl Harbor, since Japanese planes with machine guns were flying overhead, and he had nowhere to hide.

All Lt. Downing could do was pray that none of the shots were accurate. His bullet dodging heightened his anger at the political and military leaders who had ignored the clues that the Japanese were powerful enough to attack the Americans.

Eventually, this fury turned into resolve for Lt. Downing—an emotion he explained more as he welcomed questions about the day he survived at Pearl Harbor.

“I think that’s the way we learn,” he said of the question-and-answer period of his lecture.

In responses to inquiries regarding his forgiveness of the Japanese and American leaders during the war, Lt. Downing recounted how he swore that any leadership opportunities he had in the future would be respectful of the humans over whom he had watch.

“If I were in a position of authority, I wouldn’t be like [those leaders],” he said.

During the Cold War and before his retirement, from the Armed Services, he served as the captain of Navy ship and did have that opportunity.

However, he gave the men he worked with at Pearl Harbor credit for working well despite faulty leaders.

“Without leadership, without training… everyone did the right thing instinctively without regard for their life or safety,” he said.

Lt. Downing believes that war has been glorified for younger generations and stressed that.

Because he and his men did not know the intentions of the Japanese but expected their landing in the harbor, he didn’t go home for the rest of December, despite being married only five months.

In fact, it took his new wife until the morning of Dec. 8 to find out he was okay on the base.

“I wasn’t very handsome [that morning], but she said I looked pretty good to her,” he said.

Lt. Downing thinks that Americans have been brainwashed into supporting war efforts that will inevitably never accomplish anything.

“It’s a terrible way to settle disputes,” he said.

He encouraged the students in the room, as the leaders, voters and taxpayers of tomorrow, to “keep America strong in cyberspace, the skies and sea… so strong no foreign government will even think about attacking us.”

Lt. Downing is the father of Dr. David C. Downing, R.W. Schlosser Professor of English at the College and Editorial Constultant of the Etownian. Dr. Downing helped his father deliver the lecture, later stating that giving talks like this one at the College helps his father relay the message that violence, in the words of Lt. Downing, is “the only language tyrants understand.”

The war was a rare conversation topic in the Downing household during Dr. Downing’s youth. The majority of his friends’ fathers served in the war, and there was very little follow up as the men came back to contribute to the continent’s postwar posterity–only brief flashbacks revealing the magnitude of decisions his father had made during the war.

Veterans were and are many. “If you want to honor a veteran, you don’t have to look very far to find one,” Dr. Downing said.

The English professor is grateful to finally hear his father’s war stories. “It’s therapeutic for him, and it’s educational for us,” he said.

At the 75th anniversary celebration at Pearl Harbor in December, Lt. Downing had the honor of meeting President Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

His meeting represented an international recognition of the cultural and political significance of that fateful day.

Lt. Downing wanted students and campus visitors to walk away from his talk understanding the human cost of war.

His harrowing stories exemplified the efforts of his Etown CGUP host, encouraging students to have a realistic view of the unrighteous video games and media depictions of the alleged glories of war.

Lt. Downing admitted that while he might have had difficulty forgiving the Japanese and German leaders for their actions during World War II, he loves their people and appreciates the relief he felt when the war ended at Hiroshima, knowing that many future lives would experience positive effects.

“It is my observation that it is natural of the people of the world—of different ethnicities—to love each other,” he said.


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