War is uncomfortable for Christians, and worldwide war is unfamiliar for today’s generations. Jim Downing reflects on his illustrious military career, including his experience during the bombing of Pearl Harbor, to show how we can be people of faith during troubled times.
The natural human impulse is to run from attack. Jim Downingalong with countless other soldiers and sailors at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941ran toward it, fighting to rescue his fellow navy men, to protect loved ones and civilians on the island, and to find the redemptive path forward from a devastating war. We are protected from war these days, but there was a time when war was very present in our lives, and in The Other Side of Infamy we learn from a veteran of Pearl Harbor and World War II what it means to follow Jesus into and through every danger, toil, and snare.
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The Other Side of Infamy
My Journey through Pearl Harbor and the World of War
By Jim Downing, James Lund
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2016 James Downing
All rights reserved.
DREAMS AND SHADOWS
A WISP OF SMOKE and the sizzles and snaps of a crackling fire emanated from a huge wood stove in the center of the room. Seven men were gathered on "loafer's benches" around the inviting warmth, most with a pipe protruding from one corner of their mouths and a wad of chewing tobacco in the other. The men were in their fifties and sixties, wore overalls, and had beards and unruly hair in dire need of a barber's scissors. Every few moments, one or two in the group let loose a stream of tobacco juice in the direction of a two-foot-wide spittoon near the stove. They missed as often as they hit their target.
The men were not alone. I was there too, a four-year-old boy wearing a homemade blue denim shirt and overalls. I sat on the lap of one man for several minutes until I was gently passed on, one lap to the next, welcomed by each of the men into their circle. I listened and tried to understand as the "loafers" discussed issues of the day. It was October 1917.
My father, Claude Casey (C. C.) Downing, owned the country store in my hometown of Plevna, Missouri, population 110. Since my father and my mother, Estelle Downing, both worked at the store, I spent most of my preschool days there as well. Our store was more than a business: The thirty-by-eighty-foot building with tall windows across the front and a hitching post for horses on the side served as one of our town's social centers — especially for the regulars who gathered each day around the stove. I was a silent member of the Spit and Argue Club, as the men were known. I loved it.
The primary topic of conversation on this day was the state of the war in Europe. It seems that from my earliest days, the military ambitions of the world's nations and the men who led them were a presence looming over my life.
The Great War officially began in 1914. I'd been born eleven months before at my family's home in Oak Grove, Missouri, a small town on the eastern outskirts of Kansas City. My great uncle, Dr. Jim Downing, did the honors, ushering me into the world on August 22, 1913. Apparently my parents were so grateful that they named me after him. My middle name, Willis, came from my mother's father and grandfather, Willis Anderson Jr. and Willis Anderson Sr.
With my birth, our family expanded to five. Besides my parents, I joined my sister, Dorothy (four years older) and my brother Donald (two years older). My younger brother, A. J., was born two years after me. At the time of my arrival, I doubt my parents and siblings had war on their minds, but others in the world must have seen it coming. An arms race and complex alliances among European nations, combined with conflict in the Balkans, made an outbreak of hostilities increasingly likely. The assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, ignited the deadly conflict.
My companions at the store, along with the vast majority of Americans, had favored staying out of the matter. Isolationism, they said, had served the country well since the days of George Washington and would continue to do so. Our greatest allies in the world, it was thought, were the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
But Germany's aggressive U-boat campaign, which took US lives with the sinking of the passenger liner RMS Lusitania, combined with news of an intercepted German message inviting Mexico to join in a war against America, proved too provoking for the nation to stay neutral. On April 6, 1917, Congress declared war on Germany and began sending materials and men to assist the Allies.
Six months later, the Spit and Argue Club now gathered around the stove debating the progress of the war with an intensity that did not match their otherwise laid-back appearance and kindly nature. Though I didn't understand it then, their depth of feeling was not surprising. Plevna had been founded only a generation earlier by immigrants from Bulgaria. The scope of the war included the homeland of my older friends. It was being fought by their relatives.
Though I did not follow all that was said, the conversations that passed just over my head between discharges of tobacco juice had a great influence on me. My companions were unanimously and unequivocally against "the Germans," blaming them for starting the war. I'd recently begun hearing the terms Germans and germs; I took them both to mean the same thing — something very bad.
In addition to gaining my first appreciation for the toil and toll of war, I suspect that I also acquired my contrary nature and passion for debate from these men. My mother may have suspected it too, for she made it clear she did not consider the loafers to be favorable role models. Theirs looked like a pretty good life to me, however, and I made plans to join their ranks as soon as possible.
* * *
My family's move from Oak Grove to Plevna was the result of a gift. After my parents married, my mother's parents gave them sixty acres of land near their Plevna-area home. They hoped the land would keep us close by. My father bought a custom kit for $2,500 and built a three-bedroom home there that overlooked acres of virgin timber to the east. To the north were the Little Fabius River and a valley that included rich, black soil, ideal for farming.
But Dad, well-educated and ambitious, wasn't destined to be a farmer. He soon sold much of the land, rented a house for fifteen dollars a month, and purchased the hardware store on the dirt road that was Plevna's main street.
We offered just about everything at our store that a Plevna citizen might need: guns and ammunition, dry goods and groceries, clothing, drugs, and home remedies. Farmers brought in chickens, eggs, rabbits, cream, and other items that they sold to my father to raise cash for their purchases.
The store also housed the Plevna post office. As the store owner, my father followed tradition by serving as postmaster. The US Post Office Department furnished stamps and authorized my father to keep the income from their sales as his salary. Technically it was against the law for anyone but my father to enter the postal enclosure in the corner of the store, but everyone in our family took a turn there, selling stamps and other items. When evenings at the store wore on and I got sleepy, I opened the door to the postal section, made a bed of the stack of empty mail sacks, and slept until my mother awakened me and took me home.
Life in Plevna was primitive by today's standards, though we never saw it that way. The average home, including ours, had no indoor plumbing. It was traditional to take a Saturday-night bath. The facility for this was a tin washtub, thirty inches in diameter. By each Friday, the combination of wearing underclothing, long johns, and the same socks for a week produced a noticeable supply of "toe jam." Other sanitary duties required a trip to the outhouse.
In addition to operating the store and post office, my father served as president of the local bank he had founded, earning a salary of ninety dollars a month. My brothers and I supplemented this income by trapping muskrats, which sold for $1.15 per pelt. Once, I found I'd caught a mink instead of a muskrat. The $18.50 I received for the mink pelt was just enough to cover the cost of a new coat.
Most of the rest of the population of Plevna worked hard to make a living as farmers. The main crops in our area were corn, oats, and timothy hay, as well as wheat and specialized crops such as "kafir corn," a popcorn-like grain. The men plowed and harrowed the soil, then planted their seeds in the spring (or fall, in the case of wheat). The first stage of harvesting began about four months later.
Oats, timothy, and wheat had to be threshed to separate the grain from the pods in which it grew. The farmers mowed the standing grain with a horse-drawn machine called a binder, which tied the stalks into bundles ten inches in diameter. Laborers followed the binder and neatly stacked the bundles in round piles with the grain at the top. These architecturally perfect piles were called shocks. The grain dried out in four to six weeks, by the middle of August.
Threshing day was the farm event of the year. Every community owned a threshing machine made up of two distinct units. The first was a steam engine that looked like a small locomotive. It turned a flywheel, three feet in diameter. The second unit was a separator, a large tin box on wheels that was twenty feet long, eight feet high, and five feet wide. Inside the box was a sophisticated series of belts and rotating iron axles with lugs and spikes to pound the grain from its pod. The separator was powered by a belt from the steam-engine flywheel.
On threshing day, a man wielding a pitchfork tore down the shocks and spread the bundles to dry out the morning dew. A little later, more men arrived to load the bundles onto wagons and transport them to the thresher. As the bundles were fed into the threshing machine, a line of wagons stood ready to receive the grain and haul it to the barn or granary.
My brothers and I sometimes volunteered to help tear down the shocks, but we had an ulterior motive. We liked to capture nonvenomous snakes living in the shocks, which we would then tie to the bundle with twine we carried for just that purpose. When a farmer arrived to toss the bundles onto his wagon with a pitchfork, he inevitably came to one we'd specially prepared. The result was great entertainment for the Downing brothers. As the bundle and wiggling snake flew through the air, the farmer would try to knock the snake down, not knowing it was tied to the bundle. The poor snake would jump in every direction, trying to escape.
I am not aware that anyone ever discovered our plot. If they had, I might not be here today.
Threshing day was a community enterprise. The separator and steam engine moved from farm to farm until everyone's grain was threshed. It didn't matter if the farm was large or small. The objective was to get everyone's threshing done before the fall rains came. No money changed hands between farmers. They and the other men in the community exchanged labor freely, joyfully, and competitively to see who could do the most for someone else.
Women exhibited the same cooperative and enthusiastic spirit. While the men were in the field, their wives gathered at the home of the host to prepare a meal unrivaled for quality, quantity, and variety. These women brought their finest canned goods and used their favorite recipes to create a banquet of fried chicken, smoked ham, sweet corn, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, cooked and fresh tomatoes, and fresh peas and beans. The feast was supplemented with lettuce, radishes, cantaloupe, watermelon, preserved pears, and dried apples and peaches. For drink, the wives served iced tea and lemonade, and for dessert they offered blackberry, gooseberry, cherry, lemon, custard, rhubarb, apple, peach, mincemeat, pumpkin, and chocolate pies topped with real whipped cream, as well as every kind of cake, covered with thick icing and coconut.
The big meal was served at noon. When the dinner bell rang, the field laborers came to the house to water their horses and gorge themselves. After the meal, they lay down in the shade for half an hour, then continued threshing until darkness fell.
I spent a week every summer at my grandparents' farm. I always hoped my visit would coincide with threshing season. When it did, I rode in the grain wagon and buried my bare feet in the sweet-smelling mass of wheat kernels. At noon I ate until I couldn't sit up straight. My favorites were the fried chicken and custard pies. I was thankful to not be a city boy.
It seems that in America today we take great pride in our independence. But in those days we had to depend on each other. The attitude was, "I'll help you, you help me." If you needed to borrow a piece of machinery or a horse, you asked a neighbor. As far as I know, no one was ever turned down. If one family knew of another in need, someone — usually the wife — would take an item off the shelf at home and give it to them, as quietly as possible so as not to embarrass the family. That was just the way things worked.
We also bartered. Not every small community enjoyed such services, but Plevna was blessed by the presence of Dr. John Hayden, a country doctor. Dr. Hayden never had an office. He went where the people were and was available twenty-four hours a day. His patients often did not have money to reimburse him, however. Instead of cash, people would give him a jar of jam, vegetables from the garden, or some other item as payment. This is why Dr. Hayden's home looked like a grocery store.
Dr. Hayden didn't mind. After all, he wasn't trying to get rich, and he always had something to eat.
This spirit of interdependence and cooperation extended to our churches. There were three in Plevna: Methodist, Disciples of Christ, and the one we attended, Southern Baptist. They were far apart in doctrine, yet they operated as one for community projects. The churches rotated the annual Christmas party, each one hosting all of the town's children. They also rotated summer revival meetings. Our churches set the moral tone for Plevna both spiritually and socially, exploiting what they had in common rather than their differences.
Our community was not flawless. We had our share of small-time criminals, and it was common knowledge as to who was having an affair with whom. But people had their way of dealing with these issues. They shunned the criminals and accepted without stigma the children who were thought to be illegitimate. The system may have been imperfect, but it seemed to work.
* * *
The Great War ended when Germany signed an armistice with the Allies on November 11, 1918. I was five years old. At the outset of the war, President Woodrow Wilson had declared that "the world must be made safe for democracy." People across the country were now declaring that mission accomplished. My memory of the local people's reaction is that they were just glad the handful of boys from our community could come home.
My friends in the Spit and Argue Club moved on to other topics. A year later, I moved on as well, when I started first grade.
My teacher was a short woman with brown hair — straight on the sides, bangs in front — that made her head look square. She was a wonderful person. I've often said that the highest compliment a student can pay his teacher is to still remember her name a few years after completing the class. After nearly a century, I still recall the name of Beulah Foster — as well as the names of the rest of my Plevna teachers.
We children were expected to sit in our desks, face the blackboard, and pay attention. The Plevna school was a one-room operation with a partition dividing high school students from the rest of the grades. Two teachers handled the duties on each side. In grades one through eight, we never had more than five or six students per class on our side of the building, while the high school enrolled twenty at the most.
Our instructional materials were limited to a huge dictionary, a globe of the world, some maps on the wall, and a set of encyclopedias. We studied the basics: reading, writing, and 'rithmetic. Current events in the nation and world were rarely discussed because we had little knowledge of them. You could say that we were isolated.
In late fall and early winter, the dirt roads around Plevna got so muddy that no one could leave town until the mud froze. We did have two weekly newspapers, the Edina Sentinel and Knox County Democrat. These mostly reported local stories about everyone's health and who was visiting whom. Thanks to my father, we also had mail service at two cents for a letter and a penny for a postcard. Otherwise, our communication with the outside world depended on the telephone and word of mouth.
Mrs. Hannah Luckett was the Plevna switchboard operator, which she ran from her home. When a call came from the outside world, Mrs. Luckett patched a line on her switchboard between the caller and the intended recipient. Almost every home had a phone, a creation mounted on the wall with two bells at the top and a microphone that protruded from the middle, resembling Pinocchio's nose. The overall effect was of a robot with giant eyes. To make a call, the originator picked up the receiver and turned a hand crank, which sent a signal to a central switchboard.
It was too expensive for families to own an individual line, so six to eight homes shared a line. Since outside news was limited, it was generally assumed that no matter whose phone was called, others on the party line were listening in and might even participate in the conversation.
Excerpted from The Other Side of Infamy by Jim Downing, James Lund. Copyright © 2016 James Downing. Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 Dreams and Shadows 1
2 The Real World 17
3 Sweet Music 35
4 Inside Man 49
5 Then There Was Morena 63
6 Fury on Oahu 75
7 A Different World 93
8 No Sacrifice Too Great 107
9 The Buck Stops Here 121
10 From Hot to Cold 135
11 Captain Downing 149
12 Castle Bravo 161
13 Endings and Beginnings 177
Appendix: Honoring Jim Downing-Congressional Record 191
About the Authors 199