Witness to Infamy: Pearl Harbor survivor, 100, shares his story

By: Michael S. Humphreys Special to The Gazette
March 9, 2014 Updated: March 9, 2014 at 9:06 am
photo - Meili Finkle, 7th-grader at Thomas MacLaren School asks Jim Downing what Christmas was like for him on board ship during WWII, after he survived the Pearl Harbor attack. (Michael S. Humphreys / Special to The Gazette)
Meili Finkle, 7th-grader at Thomas MacLaren School asks Jim Downing what Christmas was like for him on board ship during WWII, after he survived the Pearl Harbor attack. (Michael S. Humphreys / Special to The Gazette) 

More than 200 students, faculty and staff and visitors gathered at Thomas MacLaren School in Colorado Springs on Feb. 26 to hear rare firsthand accounts of that "Date of Infamy" from the oldest survivor of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor.

"Have you all studied about Pearl Harbor in history?" Jim Downing asked the crowd of students from grades 7 to 12. "Well, I'm going to show you some pictures and some details of what happened."

Downing was a gunner's mate first class assigned to the USS West Virginia on the day of the attacks. He said he was fortunately off the ship at the time of the attack, or he wouldn't be alive at 100 years old.

Downing served on multiple war ships with the U.S. Navy for 24 years, including during World War II and the Korean War.

He said his mission today is to share his story and educate generations of Americans who have grown up long after guns went silent in Europe and the Pacific.

"I find that the general concept about World War II today is that Japan attacked us and we defeated them. They don't know that they had a plan to conquer the world," Downing said.

Downing's presentation of photos, maps and captured war plans lasted only about 30 minutes before he turned to the students for their questions.

"I have a personal theory about the learning process," he said. "I believe in getting answers to questions of deep personal interest."

Brent Wilkerson, a 10th-grader at Thomas MacLaren School, asked Downing about the reaction time of first responders on the day of the Pearl Harbor attack. He said Downing's answer surprised him.

"Mr. Downing talked about how at first there was speculation that explosions were maybe the Germans and the British fighting at sea. You don't really read about that in the history books," Wilkerson said.

Meili Finkle, a 7th-grader and violinist at Thomas MacLaren, waited for the opportunity to ask a more spiritual question of Downing, a founding member of The Navigators, a Colorado Springs-based Christian organization.

"I was curious what Christmas was like for him, on the ship after Pearl Harbor, because that is such a big effect on his life," Finkle said.

Downing said it was difficult to get into the Christmas spirit, away from home, and with mail delayed, but his wife helped him through it. He shared more spiritual advice with students during the presentation, saying he owed his 100 years to his philosophy.

"I don't worry. Ninety-two percent of the things you worry about never happen," Downing said. "I believe God doesn't respond to false alarms. If God doesn't intervene, it was a false alarm."

Whether a false alarm or divine intervention, Downing not only survived the Pearl Harbor attacks to share his story, but he is a recognized American centurion today despite exposure to more radiation in one day than most Americans receive in one year.

As the skipper of the USS Patapsco, Downing was an observer of the ill-fated Castle Bravo nuclear tests off the Bikini Atoll, Mar. 1, 1954, which produced more than 2 1/2 times its expected yield, dropping radioactive fallout on nearby ships and inhabited islands.

Downing said when his ship finally arrived at port several days later, his friends wouldn't even shake hands with him. He said he told his operations officer that the Atomic Energy Commission suspected his entire ship might be contaminated to which the operations officer asked why they would think that.

"I said, 'well commander, if you saw the sun come up in the west, what would you think,' " Downing said.

When asked if we have learned well from history, Downing does not hesitate to answer.

"Not enough," he said.

After surviving Pearl Harbor, Downing said he made a promise to himself. "If I'm ever placed in a position of authority, I will make sure we are never caught napping again," Downing said.

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