Retired Navy Lt. Jim Downing
Senior Pearl Harbor Survivor
Colorado Springs, Colo.
Iwas born in Oak Grove, Mo., in August 1913. Do the math — I will turn 100 next August. In 1932, my dad
took me to the Navy recruiter in Hannibal, Mo. It was on
to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center from there. After
graduation, and a welcome Christmas home leave, I reported to my first duty station, USS West Virginia (BB 48).
The morning of Dec. 7, 1941, eight of us servicemen
were finishing breakfast provided by my new bride of
six months, Morena. We had all spent the night ashore
at a friend’s house. We felt some unexplained explo-
sions and turned on the radio to hear these words:
“The island of Oahu is under enemy attack.”
We loaded into our car.We looked in disbelief at the
devastation the Japanese aviators were inflicting on the
ships in the harbor. I arrived at the ship about 20 min-
utes after the attack began to find that my battle station
had taken a direct hit. If I had been on the ship
overnight, I would be dead.
My ship was on the bottom in 40 feet of water, having
been hit by nine aerial torpedoes and two 1,800-pound
bombs, and was on fire above the waterline. Without electric power, all I could do was fight fires with a hose from
the ship we were moored to, tend the wounded and help
remove the bodies of some of the 105 who lost their lives.
During my time on West Virginia, I experienced a spiritual awakening to Christianity and became an original
member of The Navigators Ministry. It was an honor to
lead divine services aboard the USS Patapsco (AOG 1)
while I was the commanding officer. Many interesting
turns of events happened while skipper of that ship.
While we were making a routine delivery of liquid
cargo to the Army at Eniwetok, I had expected to go
there, spend a few hours unloading the cargo, and then
head back to Pearl Harbor. I routinely called on the
Senior Naval Officer Present, and was advised:
“Captain, I am sworn to secrecy, but if I were in your
place I would get your ship underway and head East at
top speed.” It turns out I had been ordered away from
a 1954 H-bomb [hydrogen bomb] test site, but did not
escape serious contamination with radioactivity.
I was blessed with other varied duty stations during my
career, including: Adviser to the Brazilian Fleet Gunnery
Officer, Rio De Janeiro; involvement with disaster relief for
the 1946 Haiti/Dominican earthquake; and assistant professor of Naval Science, U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. I
retired in 1956, with 24 years of service.
SEAPOWER / FEBRUARY 2013 56
Pearl Harbor survivor and retired Navy Lt. Jim Downing, left,
cuts the cake at the Oldest/Youngest Sailor Ceremony during
the Colorado Springs, Colo., Navy Ball Oct. 5, along with Rear
Adm. Brett Heimbigner, director of intelligence at U.S.
Northern Command, Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Anique
Abitia and Dick Cooper, Colorado Springs Council president.
I have authored two books, “Meditation, The Bible
Tells You How,” which has been translated into more
than a dozen languages, and “Living Legacy,” the story
of my 40-year relationship with Navigator presidents
Dawson Trotman and Lorne Sanny.
The Navy in which I served made revolutionary
advances after the age of computers, radar and satellites.
In the early ’30s, when we went to sea we lost contact
with the world around us. All we knew was what we saw
with our own eyes or from the three observation aircraft
we carried and which could only be launched and recovered when the weather permitted.
Before radar, in surface warfare we never knew the
exact distance of a threatening target but only knew if
our shots were over or short from the splashes — and
visually corrected our range.
As for satellites, they can “tell” us much of what we
need to know about the world around us. For the Navy,
it is like causing the blind to see.
If a man serving aboard a ship in the 1930s could be
transplanted aboard a ship today, he would find that
technology has changed the U.S. Navy more than
when the captain of a Navy sailing ship determined the
proximity of a hurricane by periodically wetting his
finger and holding it aloft to determine the changing
direction from which the wind was blowing. ■