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"The war became pretty personal at that point…"(Video interview, 24:58)

   James Willis Downing
Image of James Willis Downing
James Downing [detail from video]
War: World War, 1939-1945; Korean War, 1950-1953
Branch: Navy; Navy
Unit: USS West Virginia; USS West Virginia
Service Location: Washington, DC; Hawaii
Rank: Lieutenant; Lieutenant
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As postmaster aboard the USS West Virginia, James Downing knew his shipmates well--and had access to their addresses. In Honolulu when the first wave of the attack began, he rushed to the harbor and boarded the West Virginia. Surveying his wounded comrades on the sinking ship, he did his best to memorize their names, so that he could write to their parents and describe what had happened. Later in the day, he headed to the hospital, where he walked up and down the rows of beds, collecting names and brief messages from burn victims to send to their families.

Interview (Video)
»Interview Highlights  (4 clips)
»Complete Interview  
Download: video (38 min.)
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 Video (Interview Excerpts) (4 items)
Hosting a breakfast for his church group on the morning of December 7th; began to hear explosions; anti-aircraft shell exploded in their backyard; drove down to harbor; USS West Virginia had been counter flooded but had lost electrical power; USS Oklahoma capsized; trying to memorize names of wounded comrades, so that he could write to their families (as postmaster, he had access to addresses); went to hospital; went through hospital and asked wounded soldiers what message they wanted to send to their families. (07:03) Not able to reunite with wife; radio stations broadcasting whatever information they had; blaze from the burning USS Arizona so great that it illuminated the harbor, even though the entire island was blacked out; enlisting in the Navy with the understanding that war would come; Japanese pilots flying overhead like a swarm of bees; being strafed by pilots that flew so close he could see the colors of their eyes; survival instinct kicking in. (04:22) Working close to a Navy tanker that was loaded with fuel; living minute to minute, expecting it to blow up; sensing God’s presence; learning a live-long lesson, that God shows up under dangerous conditions; he doesn’t worry if he doesn’t sense God’s presence. (02:52)
Having to wade through oil that stood a foot deep on top of the ocean water; after rescue efforts, being coated in oil from head to toe; his wife was glad to see him even though he was a mess. (01:04)  
  
 
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  The Library of Congress  >> American Folklife Center
  October 26, 2011
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