The Greatest Generation – Jim Downing and Virgil Thill

The voice of Americas Veterans

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When Jim Downing was 28, he had already been in the Navy for nine years. He joked that the USS West Virginia was his multi-million-dollar home, paid for by Uncle Sam, but he happened to be off the ship on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He raced to the water, but by the time he got there the West Virginia had already taken multiple hits, and was in flames. He managed to get aboard via the neighboring USS Tennessee, so that he could try to keep the fire from reaching the lockers where live ammunition was kept.
It will be no surprise that those experiences stayed with Downing in the 75 years that followed. He is, at 103, the second-oldest known American veteran to have survived that day, and has spent much of his life reflecting on what he learned as a witness to one of history’s most infamous moments.

And joining us in our studio is Virgil Thill, one of the last surviving crewmen, who served aboard LCS 52 during the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Also joining us will be Gary Burns, author of Shipmates, The Men of LCS 52 in World War II.    

In late 1944, 78 U.S. Navy sailors and officers climbed aboard a ship just 150 feet long and 23 feet wide, and headed toward the sound of gunfire. One of a class of gunboats known as “mighty midgets,” LCS 52 carried an arsenal equal to ships twice its size. Yet its shallow draft enabled it to maneuver to within a few hundred feet of any beach. Packed inside the tiny craft, the diverse crew were farmers, students, cooks and teachers. They ranged from age 17 to middle-aged–a few had seen combat in the Atlantic and the Pacific.
This book tells the story of the ship’s extensive service in World War II’s Pacific Theater.