When Jim Downing was 28, he had already been in the Navy for nine years. He joked that the USS West Virginia was his multi-million-dollar home, paid for by Uncle Sam, but he happened to be off the ship on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He raced to the water, but by the time he got there the West Virginia had already taken multiple hits, and was in flames. He managed to get aboard via the neighboring USS Tennessee, so that he could try to keep the fire from reaching the lockers where live ammunition was kept.
“When the Japanese bombing was over, I looked at the clock. It was about five minutes to 12:00. I didn’t think that much time had passed,” Downing, who now lives in Colorado, told TIME in a recent interview. “If you had asked me how long it had been since the first attack came, I would have said 30 minutes. It was actually three hours. It was happening so fast.”
It will be no surprise that those experiences stayed with Downing in the 75 years that followed. He is, at , the second-oldest known American veteran to have survived that day, and has spent much of his life reflecting on what he learned as a witness to one of history’s most infamous moments.
For Downing, who also recently worked on a book about his experiences, the events of Pearl Harbor were not just a matter of the attack and military response. He made it a personal mission to reach out to the families of many of the men who were killed or injured that day, either providing information about those who had died or passing along the sentiments of survivors who were not well enough to write their own letters.
We honor you, Jim Downing.