Son makes sure dad is back with his unit
EPHRATA, Wash. — No one knows exactly what happened to Leighton Downing on June 5, 1945. It was the middle of the desperate fight for Okinawa, casualties were high — it was a bad, bitter, tough battle. Leighton Downing was one of the young guys who didn't make it.
The guys who didn't make it weren't forgotten. The U.S. Army sent Leighton's body back to Hawaii, to a temporary resting place. "My father, at his family's request, was moved home," said his son Vaughn. "Home" was southern Idaho.
And for more than 60 years that was that. But Vaughn Downing wasn't sure that was how the story should end.
There were family reasons that Leighton had been buried near his childhood home, but by 2014 the rest of his family had died or moved away, Vaughn Downing said. And he came to the conclusion his dad should be someplace else. "I wanted him back with his comrades," he said.
As the world slid into war in 1939-40 it shook up everything, including the lives of the Downing family, living far from any battlefield. The need for ships and planes and tanks meant good-paying manufacturing jobs, an opportunity for kids like Leighton Downing to do better for themselves.
Leighton took the opportunity, getting a job at the shipyard in Oakland, Cal. It was a good job, important one too, so important he was exempted from the draft. He had a wife and son to boot. But that exemption apparently bothered him, his son said.
"He felt obligated," Vaughn said. Some of his six brothers were in the armed forces, friends were fighting, and building ships didn't seem like enough, Downing said. But as long as Leighton was working that didn't matter. "He quit his job to enlist in the U.S. Army," Vaughn said.
Vaughn Downing was a very small child when his father died. "I have no memory of him," he said. His mom Frankie moved to Ephrata, where her parents had moved for her dad's job, remarried, raised her family. Vaughn Downing joined the U.S. Army, fought in Vietnam, made a career. He married his wife Jeneen, a fellow Ephrata graduate, and raised three kids of his own, he said.
And more and more, when he visited his dad's grave, it didn't seem like the right place for him, Vaughn said.
Soldiers, sailors and aircrew killed in action in the Pacific or Asia can be buried at the National Cemetery of the Pacific, in a valley known as the Punchbowl. Vaughn Downing said he thought that was the place where his dad should be.
Downing said he anticipated he would have to negotiate a bureaucratic jungle, but it wasn't that difficult. The Department of Defense personnel, the funeral home owners in Caldwell, Idaho, did everything they could to help. "They made it so easy for me," he said.
There was some trouble with the request for full military honors, but Vaughn Downing knows how the Army works. (In fact, helping with the burial of military veterans was part of his job as a sergeant major, he said.) He contacted the unit overseeing burials at the Punchbowl, and with their help he got what he needed, he said. The sergeant major attached to the Ninth Infantry "assured me I would have (the military honors)," he said, and was as good as his word.
Leighton Downing was reburied at the Punchbowl June 16. Vaughn and Jeneen Downing, their daughter and son-in-law attended the ceremony.
"A real good sendoff," Downing said. The chaplain had researched the history of Leighton's unit, and talked a little bit about their experiences. "He was in awe of what that unit had done," Downing said.
"He's my hero," Downing said of his dad. "I couldn't be more proud."
Vaughn Downing said the reburial was the right thing. "We're happy we did it. He's where he belongs."