James Willis Downing (August 22, 1913 – February 14, 2018) was a Lieutenant in the United States Navy. He retired in 1956 from 24 years of service, which included being commanding officer of the USS Patapsco. He was also the second oldest survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor, about which he authored a book.
Downing was born in Oak Grove, Missouri. At the time of his high school graduation, America was in the Great Depression. Jobs were scarce, so Downing enlisted in the Navy in September 1932. He began serving at Long Beach Naval Shipyard, California, the port for most of the Pacific naval fleet. He became a gunner's mate and postmaster aboard the USS West Virginia.[1
On the morning of December 7, 1941, Downing and his new wife Morena were staying with his shipmates in Honolulu. The radio announced an attack on the Naval Station Pearl Harbor, and the sailors rushed to the port.
By the time Downing arrived at the West Virginia, Japanese bombers had targeted her with nine torpedoes. Moored at a shallow water depth of only 40 feet (12 m), the ship had not completely sunk, and her deck was on fire. Downing assisted the injured crew and used a water hose from the USS Tennessee to keep the ammunition onboard from exploding.
He tried to memorize the names off the dog tags of those killed and later visited the wounded survivors at the naval hospital. In a notebook, he wrote those names and any messages from the wounded. Being the postmaster, he had access to all home addresses, and he would later send notes to each family, explaining what happened to their relatives and their current condition.
Later naval career
Dowling went on to be an advisor to the Brazilian fleet in Rio de Janeiro, serving aboard the USS Nespelen, and was an assistant professor of Naval Science at Kings Point.
He also was made commanding officer of the USS Patapsco, which served as a supply ship during the Korean War. Downing also assumed the role of ship chaplain. In 1954, he and his crew were exposed to very high levels of radiation from Operation Crossroads, the first series in nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll.
In 1956, Downing retired from the Navy.
After the Navy
Prior to Pearl Harbor, Downing befriended West Virginia shipmate Dawson Trotman, a Christian minister who eventually founded The Navigators, an interdenominational ministry. Trotman died the same year that Downing retired from the Navy, and the Downings moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado, taking over Glen Eyrie, home of the branch there. He served as deputy president, chairman of the board of directors and director of the ministries in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. He retired as a full-time minister in 1983.
While serving together, Dawson Trotman also encouraged Downing to court Morena Mae Holmes, an Arkansas native who had just graduated from Biola University in Los Angeles. They were married in July 1941 in Honolulu. On Christmas Day 1941, Morena returned to the mainland and would not see her husband again until they moved to Washington, D.C. in 1943. They each had responsibilities with The Navigators and remained in Colorado Springs after his retirement. They had seven children. She died on February 9, 2010, at age 93; he died on February 14, 2018, at age 104.
In 2016, Downing wrote an autobiography, titled The Other Side of Infamy: My Journey through Pearl Harbor and the World of War. The book details his military career, Pearl Harbor, and how people of faith endure troubled times. Writing at age 102, Downing was honored by the Guinness World Records as the "oldest author living". With his death two years later, his title transitioned to "oldest author ever".