Jim Downing was a man who embraced his status as a survivor of the December 7, 1941 Pearl Harbor attack. It was a rare occasion when he wouldn’t take the opportunity to discuss not only the events he lived through but the impact they had on the nation and his fellow servicemembers. Downing was much more than just the “Second Oldest Pearl Harbor Survivor.” He became the voice of Pearl Harbor.
On February 13, 2018, Downing passed away from complications that arose from a surgery he underwent in the weeks prior. At 104 years old, Downing was the second-oldest Pearl Harbor survivor, one year younger than Ray Chavez.
Pearl Harbor Loses a Prominent Voice
The loss of Jim Downing is one that will be felt by many, especially those who grew used to hearing his stories over the years. When strength allowed, the US Navy veteran attended conferences, Q&A sessions, and commemorations across the country, just for the opportunity to educate the public about the devastation and consequences of the 1941 attack. One of Downing’s final appearances was in November of 2017. The Colorado resident attended the Veteran’s Day event on Oklahoma to continue his personal mission to spread knowledge about Pearl Harbor and its heroes.
Lt. Downing’s story is one that’s been told time and time again, and is even immortalized in the Pearl Harbor Virtual Reality Experience. The digitized look at the attack on Pearl Harbor lets viewers live through the events of December 7, 1941 through the eyes and words of Jim Downing. Produced by Deluxe VR and LIFE VR, the interactive experience starts with the eerie calm before the storm as it depicts the moments leading up to the first signs of Japanese aircraft flying into the harbor.
Jim Downing and the Attack on Pearl Harbor
On the morning of December 7, 1941, Jim Downing was serving as a gunner’s mate 1st Class and also the mail clerk of the USS West Virginia (BB-48). Though he was at home when the first signs of attack erupted in the harbor, Downing didn’t hesitate to interrupt his breakfast and report for duty. Struck by seven torpedoes and two bombs during the attack, when Downing reached the West Virginia she was already burning and billowing with smoke. Still, the sailor did what he could to help by boarding the West Virginia via the nearby USS Tennessee (BB-43). There, he grabbed a fire hose and started to fight the fires that threatened to ignite ammunition caches.
West Virginia ultimately sank that morning and lost over 100 men, but she was eventually refloated and repaired. Downing, however, immediately continued his service in the War in the Pacific and made it his duty to reach out to the families of those who were lost, expressing his belief that they were heroes.
Jim Downing Tells His Story
His experiences at Pearl Harbor and throughout World War II were captured in his self-written book, The Other Side of Infamy: My Journey through Pearl Harbor and the World of War. Written when he was 102 years old, The Other Side of Infamy earned Jim Downing a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest male author. The book is an insightful look not only into the Navy veteran’s life, but also the conditions of war in the Pacific and what it was like fighting against an enemy that refused to surrender.
After fighting in World War II, Downing continued his service to the United States and eventually captained the USS Patapsco (AOG-1) during the Korean War. After 24 years of service, Jim Downing retired from the Navy with the rank of Lieutenant, but his service to the nation was still not over. For the rest of his life, he helped protect the memories of Pearl Harbor, preventing them from vanishing with the passage of time.
In addition to his service to the United States, Jim Downing was also a long-time member of the Navigators, an international Christian organization that works with members to help them share their faith with those around them. He joined the organization in 1935, not long after joining the Navy, and remained an active member until his official retirement in 1983.
Jim Downing is honored in Colorado Springs with the naming of the Interstate 25 Cimarron Bridge after him. His service to the nation, which was recognized by Presidents Obama and Trump, will not be forgotten. He’s survived by six children, nine grandchildren, and 10 great-grandchildren, all of whom will continue to share the stories he told over his exciting and fulfilling lifetime.