Local Pearl Harbor Survivor Celebrating 100th Birthday Recalls Attack

Pearl Harbor survivor Jim Downing talks to 11 News Anchor Dianne Derby in his Colorado Springs home.
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"Most of the damage was done in the first 11 minutes," said Retired Lieutenant Jim Downing. "My ship took nine torpedoes."

Downing had just finished breakfast with his wife and friends when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. His battleship the USS West Virginia was on fire.

"Everything above the water line was on fire and there were bodies everywhere," he said.

Downing quickly headed towards the harbor not knowing if he would ever see his new bride, Morena, again.

"She shouted a verse of Scripture to me that was 'Underneath are the everlasting arms'," said Downing. "I suppose I could have avoided it but I got back as soon as I could. That was my job. That was my duty."

Once on board, Downing said bullets flew past his head as he watched the planes above come in low and slow.

"I don't remember the color of (the pilot’s) eyes but I was that close I could almost determine that," said Downing.

Downing worked to put out fires on his ship while memorizing the names of the dead. As the postmaster he knew almost every person on board and was determined to write letters to their parents letting them know he was with them in their last moments.

"I felt very strongly about their parents," he said. "They want to know, and not just a cold letter saying your son was killed in action."

That night he went to the hospital burn ward to continue his letter writing mission.

"One (sailor) dictated the letter," said Downing. "He said, 'Mom and Dad I'm okay, don't worry about me,' and they knew they wouldn't make it through the night."

Forty-five years later, Downing saw one of those patients at a reunion in Hawaii. The man was so touched by Downing's kindness he sent him a picture of himself with his daughter and a photocopy of the envelope of the letter Downing sent to his parents.

"I was surprised he was still alive," said Downing.

Alive and well just like Downing is now more than seven decades later.

Most of my friends try to blot it out," said Downing. "They don't want to think of it again. I live a day at a time. It's a day's work. I worked the day before, worked the day after. That was just another day's work.

To hear what it was like for Downing to reunite with his wife as she found him the morning after the attack, view the videos above.