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Survivor recalls fear, anger on day of Pearl Harbor attack

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS

    In this Dec. 7, 1941 file photo, part of the hull of the capsized USS Oklahoma is seen at right as the battleship USS West Virginia, center, begins to sink after suffering heavy damage, while the USS Maryland, left, is still afloat in Pearl Harbor.

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS

    In this Dec. 7, 1941 photo made available by the U.S. Navy, a small boat rescues a seaman from the USS West Virginia burning in the foreground in Pearl Harbor, after Japanese aircraft attacked the military installation.

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Jim Downing, 103, posed in a Navy uniform in Honolulu on Dec. 5, with a photo of himself taken when he was about 20 years old. Downing is among a few dozen survivors of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor who plan to gather at the Hawaii naval base today, to remember those killed 75 years ago.

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.

Downing plans to return to Pearl Harbor today 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.

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.

“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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  • Insightful. Yes, theer was much anger against Japan. In Hawaii, as historians have pointed out, many ethnic groups were suspicious of Japanese-Americans as well had reason to hate Japan. Phillipinos, Koreans, Chinese and many Hawaiians suspected the Japanese of treachery. Read the famous study of the 1930’s “Hawaii Pono.” Hundreds of Japanese in Hawaii left to fight for the emperor in China in the 1930’s. Today, people try to paint whites as the only evil people. Fact is there were no innocent people. Now or then. There were rational reasons to suspect local Japanese of treachery. Please read “Hawaii Under the Rising Sun” by the prominent UH historian John Stephan. You might be surprised.

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