Pearl Harbor Survivor Shares His Message of Strength, Service and Faith

By Amy Rice

| Photographs By Robin Schmitz

The trajectory of retired U.S. Navy Lt. Jim Downing’s 103 years on earth has been shaped by one thing: powerful words.

Words he grew up hearing about Christian beliefs, the teachings that would fill his life with missions and 27 years in ministry following his retirement from the Navy.

Words he pledged in a military oath, dedicating 24 years of service and sacrifice to his country.

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Words he spoke with a loving wife over 68 years of marriage, surrounded by seven growing children.

Here, Downing shares more words — his thoughts about how the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor 75 years ago on Dec. 7, 1941, changed his life and the lessons he learned that all Americans can still draw from today.

The Day of the Attack

Surprise

“There was no radar or satellites in those days. You only knew what you saw. So that’s when we knew the Japanese were attacking — when we saw them.

“The first Japanese plane I got close to came in low and slow, banked, opened its machine guns, and the bullets went right over my head. If he had banked a little further, he would have just cut me in two. It dug a trench in the dirt behind me. So the war became very personal.”

Fear

“My next emotion was fear that the next pilot would be more accurate.”

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Anger

“As great as the U.S. is, how could our military and political leadership allow this to happen? I was so angry at the fact that it happened.”

Resolve

“I thought, if I ever got in a position of authority, we’d never be caught by surprise again. And during the Cold War, as the captain of the USS Patapsco, I had the chance to exercise that.”

Pride

“Everybody was a hero during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Everybody knew instinctively what to do and did it at the risk of their lives. I’m real proud of the way our guys reacted that morning.

“A few have been decorated, but I feel that if the Department of Defense decorated everybody that deserved it, they’d have to buy an ore mine in Utah and a cotton plantation in Texas to mold the medals and weave the ribbons.”

Service

“On the morning of the attack, my friends and I rushed back to the ship. Some people have said, ‘Why didn’t you go hide?’ But I went into the military to fight. That’s what we were paid to do. That’s what we were trained to do. It never dawned on me to try to escape the hazards of combat. So that’s what service means to me — and I think to all of the other military people that I know.”

Faith

“I’m a Christian, and I believe that there’s a higher power that’s in control and directing things. Maybe not what we would like, not what we ask, but what’s right.”

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Military Life

Family

“My children enjoyed traveling and one of the things we discovered, as they went to different schools and different places, is that sometimes they put military families in special classes because they’re so much more advanced socially than people who haven’t traveled.

“When we were in Puerto Rico, they learned Spanish before Morena and I did, so when they found out we couldn’t understand them, they would talk to each other in Spanish. We’d try to get them to tell us what they said and they wouldn’t do it.”

Career

“I learned pretty soon after getting in the military that if I showed up five minutes before I was supposed to and stayed five minutes after I was supposed to leave, I would soon be in charge. So my career went pretty fast, just by that extra dedication to the work. So that’s my advice — be the best wherever you’re working, and you’ll soon be in charge.”

Patriotism

“My advice is more to civilians than it is to the military. In speaking to schools, I tell them that they’re the leaders, they’re the taxpayers, they’re the voters of tomorrow.

“An expression I picked up from President Reagan is, ‘Peace through strength. Weakness invites aggression.’ So my motto is, “Weakness invites aggression. Remember Pearl Harbor. Keep America strong in cyberspace, in the skies, on the ground, in the sea and under the sea.

Click through the slideshow below to see a timeline of Downing’s life: 

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