Two of the oldest living survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor met this past Friday in San Diego.
Colorado James Downing, 101, and Ray Chavez, 103, met for the first time last Friday at Chavez’ home. The two shook hands, exchanged stories of war, and compared their memories of the attack. Both men still vividly remember that fateful day when the United States was thrown into World War II.
The meet up was arranged after Mr. Downing read an article in the paper on Downing back in March that described his experiences at Pearl Harbor. Both arrived in red electric-powered cars and wore ball caps
The two sat outside Chavez’s home, which he shares with his daughter Kathleen, for reminiscing.
Downing shared the story of the battleship that he served on, the West Virginia, and Chavez spoke of the 70th anniversary of the attack.
Japan attacked the U.S. Navy base in Hawaii on Dec 7, 1941 and the surprise air raid left 2,400+ Americans dead. In 1958, 13 Years after Japan surrendered at the end of WWII, The Pearl Harbor Association was created. The association was founded with 28,000 total members. Up until 2011 when illness struck, San Diego had the largest chapter of the organization.
Born and raised in San Bernadino, Chavez was opening as a quartermaster on a minesweeper ship, the Condor, when the attack commenced. At approximately 3:45am, the Condor narrowly missed colliding with a submarine that was at the waters surface in a channel just outside the harbor. The Condor messaged a destroyer ship, the Ward, which sunk the sub using depth charges.
Chavez’s ship then returned to port, and Chavez returned home and went to sleep. He woke up to his wife yelling.
“We’re being attacked!” she shouted.
Chavez, half asleep still and in disbelief, asked “Who’s would attack us”?
“Then I walked outside, to see the harbor engulfed in fire”
He then ran back to the Condor and it returned to patrol. His ship took fire from a Japanese fighter, but made it through the day unscathed and without any crew lost.
Chavez was part of several amphibious assaults throughout the remainder of the war, including the Marinaras Islands and finally at Okinawa.
Downing, ashore during that Dec 6-7 night, woke up and realized that his ship, the West Virginia, was under attack. He quickly ran on board and attempted to put out fires on the ship which had just been struck by a torpedo. The West Virginia inevitably sunk, and had to be abandoned. He recalls a nightmarish scene of men ablaze in the water from oil that had ignited from the destroyed ship.
Surviving veterans of Pearl Harbor are sparse today, with the estimated total number of survivors ranging from one to two thousand.
Today, Chavez and Downing are often asked to be guest speakers and guests at luncheons. Downing lives in Colorado Springs where he attends several events per week. Chavez does the same. Both men are scheduled to give speeches at Scripps Ranch this week before the Fun Run. Occasionally they are asked to make special appearances at Pearl Harbor tours
To keep up with this high demand, both men exercise regularly, abstain from alcohol and tobacco, and have healthy diets.
Downing, who has recently been mistakenly called the oldest living survivor of Pearl Harbor, is happy to have found a friend that disproves that statement.
“I’ll be 104 in March” Chavez told Downing”
“I’m not going to check your birth certificate”, Downing said as he laughed. “I’ll take your word for it”