Survivor Recalls Fear, Anger on Day of Pearl Harbor Attack

December 7, 2016 Updated: December 7, 2016

PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii—Surprise, fear, anger and pride overcame Jim Downing as Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor.

Then a newlywed sailor, he recalled a Japanese plane flying low and slow in his direction as he rushed to his battleship from his home after hearing explosions and learning of the attack on the radio.

“When he got the right angle, he banked over, turned his machine guns lose,” Downing, now 103, said in an interview at a Waikiki hotel, “But fortunately he didn’t bank far enough so it went right over my head.”

The next aviator might have better aim, Downing remembers thinking. And with nowhere to hide, “I was afraid,” he said.

A small boat rescues a seaman from the USS West Virginia burning in the foreground in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on Dec. 7. (U.S. Navy via AP)
A small boat rescues a seaman from the USS West Virginia burning in the foreground in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on Dec. 7. (U.S. Navy via AP)

Downing plans to return to Pearl Harbor Wednesday with a few dozen other survivors to mark the 75th anniversary of the attack that plunged the United States into World War II and left more than 2,300 service people dead.

Those who gather at the ceremony on a pier overlooking the harbor are expected to observe a moment of silence at 7:55 a.m.—the same moment Japanese planes began their assault.

Thousands of other servicemen and women and members of the public are expected to attend and watch via a livestream feed.

Downing said he comes back to Hawaii for the anniversary commemorations to be with his shipmates.

“We get together and have a great time and compare our stories,” said Downing, a resident of Colorado Springs, Colorado.

About 30 Pearl Harbor Survivors with the "Greatest Generation" vets meet and greet with visitors at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center in Honolulu on Dec. 5, 2016. (Dennis Oda/The Star-Advertiser via AP)
About 30 Pearl Harbor Survivors with the “Greatest Generation” vets meet and greet with visitors at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center in Honolulu on Dec. 5, 2016. (Dennis Oda/The Star-Advertiser via AP)

His ship, the USS West Virginia, was hit by nine torpedoes.

“We were sinking and everything above the water line was on fire,” he said.

Downing said he felt proud while watching sailors balance the capsizing ship by allowing water to seep in. The tactic let the giant battleship slide into mud below.

“They just instinctively did the right thing at the right time without any thought about their own lives or safety,” he said.

The West Virginia lost 106 men. Downing spent two hours fighting fires and checking the name tags of the dead so he could write their families personal notes about how they died.

“I thought that would give them more closure that just a cold note, ‘your son was killed in action,'” said Downing, who also served as the ship’s postmaster.

Ray Chavez was out on a minesweeper, the USS Condor, in the early hours before the attack. He remembers noticing with his shipmates that a mysterious submarine was lurking off the harbor.

Ray Chavez, a Pearl Harbor survivor from Poway, Calif., pauses while eating breakfast in Honolulu on Dec. 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Audrey McAvoy)
Ray Chavez, a Pearl Harbor survivor from Poway, Calif., pauses while eating breakfast in Honolulu on Dec. 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Audrey McAvoy)

“At 3:45 a.m. on Dec. 7, I look out and spotted a submarine that wasn’t supposed to be in that area,” the 104-year-old Chavez said.

The sailors reported the sighting and Chavez went home to sleep. He told his wife not to wake him because he hadn’t gotten any rest during the busy night.

“It seemed like I only slept about 10 minutes when she called me and said ‘we’re being attacked.’ And I said ‘who is going to attack us?’ She said ‘the Japanese are here and they’re attacking everything,'” Chavez said.

These days, many people treat Chavez and other Pearl Harbor survivors like celebrities, asking them for autographs and photos. But Chavez said it’s about the people who were lost.

“I’m honoring them, not myself,” he said.

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