'Please don't forget,' say family of deceased, Pearl Harbor survivor at Rolling Thunder
By SHAWN BOBURG | The Washington Post | Published: May 27, 2017
FORT WASHINGTON, Md. — Lt. James Downing steered his motorized scooter through a crowd of leather-clad bikers who stared in awe as he approached a soundstage. The rumble of mufflers groaned in the distance as the 103-year-old Downing parked his three-wheeler in front of a man holding out a microphone, inviting him to speak.
Downing is the second-oldest known survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack. That's why, even at an event that prides itself on the earthshaking roar produced by countless Harleys, Downing's ride was one of the biggest head-turners on Saturday. It was carrying a living witness to World War II history.
"We have to keep America so strong that no aggressor would even think about attacking us," Downing, seated in his scooter, said to rousing applause in the parking lot of a motorcycle dealership in Fort Washington, Maryland.
Downing's speech to hundreds of bikers was part of a five-day event that makes up the annual Memorial Day gathering called Rolling Thunder. It will culminate on Sunday with thousands of motorcycles making their now-familiar pilgrimage from the Pentagon across the Memorial Bridge to Franklin D. Roosevelt Park to commemorate soldiers who were prisoners of war or missing in action.
Like Downing, the Rolling Thunder event has aged well. It is celebrating its 30th year.
"It's gotten bigger and bigger," said Sgt. Artie Muller, one of a handful of founders who organized a ride with 2,500 participants in Washington in 1998. That number has swelled to an estimated 900,000 participants, according to the organization.
Last year the event featured then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.
For Downing, of Colorado Springs, this was the first trip to Rolling Thunder. And he found a receptive audience as he told his story.
On Dec. 7, 1941, he was on shore enjoying a relaxing breakfast with his wife of five months when the Japanese attack began. He rushed to the dock, where his ship, the USS West Virginia, was under siege.
"Everything above water was on fire," he said.
A low-flying Japanese plane passing overhead rained machine gun bullets in the direction of his group but missed him. As the West Virginia sank, Downing rushed to memorize the names inscribed on dog tags worn by the deceased. He was the postmaster for the West Virginia, and he knew he would need to write letters to the families of the deceased.
As Downing spoke, Kathryn Kent, a 46-year-old veteran from St. Louis, stood in the audience nodding her head. When Downing was finished, she walked up to the stage and knelt down in front of the scooter. She took his hand and thanked him.
"That's living history," she said. "The kind of thing our youngest generation needs to know about."
Downing is doing his best to spread the word. He wrote a book about his experience at Pearl Harbor that was published in November. He's done nine book speaking tours since then, said his full-time caretaker Carol Lucke Dodge. That included 36 speaking events in one two-week span.
"How he gets this energy I can no longer explain," Dodge said, as a procession lined up to thank Downing.
The event also paid tribute to those not as fortunate as Downing.
Jim and Dianna Beardsley have been attending Rolling Thunder since they lost their son, William "B.J." Beardsley, in Iraq on Feb. 26, 2007. Beardsley was killed when his vehicle hit an improvised explosive device.
They buried him in Arlington National Cemetery on his 25th birthday.
"The biggest thing you'll hear out here is 'Please don't forget,' " Dianna Beardsley said. "So when we see these people out here, it's huge to us as a community."
A little while later, Downing was thinking about the friends he lost more than 75 years ago. "There were 105 from the West Virginia who died," he said.
He had maneuvered his scooter across the parking lot to a semi-truck painted to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the attack. Painted on one side of the cab was a reproduction of a photograph of Pearl Harbor taken from a U.S. plane only hours before the Japanese attacked.
Darrell Plonk, materials manager for Freightliner Truck Manufacturing, the North Carolina company that built the commemorative truck, said the photograph had been recovered from a U.S. plane that was later shot down in the attack.
The photo captured six of the more than 160 ships in the harbor that day.
Plonk pointed out the USS Arizona. Downing looked up and marveled with recognition.
"That's my ship right there," he said pointing to the one next to it. "That's the USS West Virginia right there."