‘Please don’t for­get,’ say fam­ily of de­ceased, Pearl Har­bor sur­vivor at Rolling Thun­der

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY SHAWN BOBURG

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, Md.

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.”

J. LAWLER DUG­GAN FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Cindy DiCarlo, of North Beach, Md., sews a new patch onto a biker vest Satur­day at Har­leyDavid­son of Wash­ing­ton, D.C., in Fort Wash­ing­ton, Md.

TOP: Har­ley-David­son of Wash­ing­ton, D.C., hosts a Memo­rial Day week­end bar­be­cue in Fort Wash­ing­ton, Md., on Satur­day.

PHO­TOS BY J. LAWLER DUG­GAN FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

ABOVE: Lt. Jim Down­ing, 103, the sec­ond-old­est liv­ing sur­vivor of the Pearl Har­bor at­tack, greets Memo­rial Day week­end bik­ers. The Rolling Thun­der event is cel­e­brat­ing its 30th year. 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.

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