Jim Downing threw a ceremonial pitch at a St. Louis Cardinals home game Sunday. He was a guest at the Veterans of Foreign Wars headquarters in Kansas City on Tuesday. He’ll be in Washington, D.C., on Memorial Day.
At 103 years old, the Oak Grove native gets around.
He is thought to be the second-oldest survivor of the Japanese attack on the Pearl Harbor naval base on Dec. 7, 1941, which propelled the United States into World War II. Downing has written a book about his experiences and tours the country telling his story.
The man who is thought to be the oldest veteran of the attack is 105. He and Downing know each other. For years, Downing said, no one asked them about Pearl Harbor.
“Now, we have a generation that wants to be thankful,” he said Tuesday. “They were not part of the world war. So they’re thankful for their freedom. And veterans, we’re getting royal treatment every place we go. So we’re glad for a generation that appreciates what we accomplished.”
Downing was a sailor assigned to the U.S.S. West Virginia when it was bombed in the harbor. He helped fight the flames and has spoken of seeing fellow servicemen in the water, covered with oil and on fire. He tried to remember as many names of dead sailors on the deck as he could so he could later write to their families.
Although it was 75 years ago, the day remains vivid in Downing’s mind.
“I’ve been back (to Pearl Harbor) a number of times, and when I look over what it is today, it’s through the lens of what it looked like Dec. 7 with 22 ships on fire or sunk,” he said. “So, I can’t erase those from my memory.”
Downing remained in the Navy and was commanding officer on the gasoline tanker U.S.S. Patapsco during the Korean War. Later, his ship and crew were exposed to radiation from the hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll in 1954.
Downing spoke to an invited audience Tuesday at the VFW. For some reason, he never got around to joining the organization, but Quartermaster General Debra Anderson presented him with a lifetime membership.
Downing now lives in Colorado Springs, Colo. He has caretakers who accompany him on his travels.
“If it’s less than 1,000 miles, we drive,” Downing said. “We’re going to Washington for Memorial Day, and we’ll fly. Since I can’t walk, it’s not easy.”
Downing gets around in a motorized chair. But his mind is sharp, and he obviously has plenty of energy. He is quite used to people asking him the secret to longevity.
“The short answer is choose good grandparents,” quipped Downing, who has two cousins ages 103 and 105. “I think longevity is a matter of inherited genes.”