Two of Pearl Harbor's oldest known survivors, veterans Ray Chavez, 103, and Jim Downing, 102, share an unbreakable bond.
The two met for the first time Friday, sharing the same eyewitness moments and deep memories of the horrific, surprise attack on Pearl Harbor 74 years ago. Still, for Downing, “most of what happened is just as clear as if it were last week.”
Downing, who lives in Colorado Springs, believed he was the oldest survivor of the attack until he read a news article about Chavez, who lives in Poway and is 103 years old.
“Well, I’m not going to check your birth certificate, so I’ll take your word for it”, Downing joked after meeting with Chavez.
Downing was asked to speak during a Fourth of July celebration in San Diego and decided to take the opportunity to meet with Chavez. Each of the men have an incredible story of service and bravery.
In the early morning hours of Dec. 7, 1941, when the waters and skies surrounding Pearl Harbor were still quiet, Quartermaster First Class Chavez and his crew were out on the water.
“We were sweeping restricted water. Nobody was supposed to be there except us” Chavez remembers.
Somewhere near the harbor they spotted a Japanese submarine and immediately notified others. A short time later, another ship bombed and sank the sub and Chavez went back to his Navy housing nearby to sleep.
But it was just a couple of hours later that Chavez’s wife shook him out of a deep sleep. She told him the Japanese were invading and that the “whole harbor was on fire."
“The first thing was surprise. Then I was scared. I thought the next plane would get the right angle, then I was angry,” Downing says of the experience.
Downing was 28 years old at the time and served on the USS West Virginia, though the morning of the attack he wasn’t on board the ship. If he had been he says he wouldn’t be here today.
“The saddest thing I saw that morning was sailors being blown off the ship, come up out of the water, feel the oil on their bodies...and they just became human torches.”
He and the other survivors did their best to defend the harbor but he says the power quickly went out and “they couldn’t even get off one shot.”
“Once the Japanese had sunk our ship they didn't care so all we had to do was fight the fires and take care of the wounded,” Downing says.
But it's what Downing did after the initial attack that’s had more of a lasting impact.
He began memorizing the name tags of the dead and wrote letters to as many of their families as he could to let them know what had happened to their son.
He says it was so “gratifying” that he decided to go to where many of the wounded were being treated and offered to write their families letters also.
Downing and Chavez shared many memories from decades ago. But all of the stories make celebrating the birth of their country so much more meaningful.
The lesson Downing learned from Pearl Harbor is: “Weakness invites aggression...keep America strong.”