The Other Side of Infamy: My Journey through Pearl Harbor and the World of War

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 Downing—along with countless other soldiers and sailors at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941—ran 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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Soft light reflected by a nearly full moon bathes a peaceful Pacific island in a blanket of white. Azure ocean waves lap gently at still-warm sandy beaches. Koa trees in lush rain forests stretch for the sky while hibiscus flowers in verdant gardens wait for their next opportunity to bloom.

It is another enchanting Saturday night on the tropical paradise called Oahu, and most of the thousands of American servicemen and -women stationed here are ready to give in to its charms. Some who are advanced in rank enjoy a dance at an officers’ club. Many enlisted men partake of the pleasures offered in downtown Honolulu: taverns and shops with names such as Two Jacks, the Mint, and the New Emma Café; a variety show at the Princess titled “Tantalizing Tootsies”; and a host of shooting galleries, tattoo joints, and the like. Thousands of other military personnel remain on their ship or base and listen to music, watch a movie, or write a letter to a loved one. Nearly everyone, it seems, is ready to relax, have a good time, and forget about worries and responsibilities for a while.

The date is December 6, 1941.

I am also on Oahu this night. I am a gunner’s mate first class and ship’s postmaster serving on a navy battleship, the USS West Virginia. After returning to Pearl Harbor on Friday from a thirteen-day patrol, I finished up my duties and left the ship at noon on Saturday. The harbor was packed—all eight active-duty Pacific Fleet battleships were in port, along with small craft and Coast Guard vessels, 164 ships in total. The lines at the bus stop were so long that two buses came and went before I could finally catch one and head home.

I was eager to get home. I’d married my new bride, a beautiful girl with auburn hair named Morena Holmes, on July 11. Newlyweds do not like to spend weeks apart.

We are staying with a civilian couple, Harold and Belva DeGroff, in Honolulu’s Kalihi Valley. Their large home also serves as local headquarters for The Navigators, a fledgling Christian organization dedicated to spreading the message of the gospel. Harold is in charge. Morena and I are active in the movement.

Which explains why on this Saturday night, I am not at a dance, in downtown Honolulu, or otherwise occupied. The DeGroffs are taking the weekend off. I’ve been assigned to fill in for Harold and lead the evening meeting for more than a hundred men and women of faith, as well as a few others who’ve arrived to see what we are up to. The DeGroff home is built on stone piling about six feet off the ground. The huge crawl space underneath is our auditorium, complete with benches, chairs, and a sawdust floor. After a period of singing, quoting memorized Bible verses, and sharing personal stories, I deliver a brief message. Then someone gives a final prayer, and we send the crowd into the night.

It’s been a time of enjoyable fellowship, a wonderful evening. None of us realize that several in our group will not live to see another day.

* * *

On Sunday morning, the aroma of fresh-cooked eggs and sizzling bacon greets me as I take a chair at the large table in the kitchen. There are eight of us—seven navy men and Joe Bodie, an army corporal who snuck away from his base last night to attend our meeting. The guys stayed over at the house to enjoy a good night’s sleep and the hearty breakfast that Morena, wearing an apron, now begins to serve.

The rest of the men are in uniform, but since I’m home, I’m wearing a Hawaiian shirt. Soon I’ll get dressed for church. Harold will be back home this afternoon. He’ll set up the radio on the front porch, and a group of us will gather for evangelist Charles Fuller’s Old Fashioned Revival Hour. As we listen, we’ll enjoy our view of the sunshine, the heavy green foliage covering both sides of the mountains rising out of our valley, and the winding stream across the street.

I’m looking forward to it. After two weeks on patrol, nothing sounds better than a quiet day with friends and my new bride.

It is a few minutes before 8 a.m.

As I raise a fork to my mouth, the sound of a distant explosion reaches my ears. Soon there are more explosions. The army often tests gun emplacements on Sunday mornings, so the sound of heavy gunfire is not unusual. I’ve heard a rumor that a German battleship is in the area, as well as three British cruisers set on sinking her. I wonder if the German ship is under attack and heading for the safety of our harbor, since under international law it can remain protected in a neutral port for twenty-four hours before either surrendering or returning to battle.

As we sit at breakfast speculating, I can’t resist the opportunity to needle the lone army man in our midst. “It can’t be the army,” I say to Joe Bodie. “They’re shooting too fast.” This draws a few chuckles.

Suddenly we hear the shriek of an incoming shell. It speeds over the roof and strikes in our backyard, leaving a crater that I later learn is twenty-five feet across.

All of us at the table stare at each other. Something is very wrong.

One of the navy men leaps to his feet and turns on a radio in the corner. In the next moment, Harold DeGroff appears in the doorway, his face white—he’d been on his way home and was in the yard when the shell struck.

Before Harold can speak, the voice of a Honolulu broadcaster fills the room: “I have phoned army and navy intelligence and they have advised us that the island of Oahu is under enemy attack. The enemy has not been identified. Stay tuned. We’ll give more information when we get it.”

There isn’t time to think about who is attacking or why or what the ramifications are for America and the world. There is time only to act. I glance at Morena. “I’ve got to get back to the ship.” I run to our bedroom, throw on my uniform. The sound of explosions is continual now. When I emerge, the radio broadcaster speaks again: “Pearl Harbor is under enemy attack. The enemy has been identified as Japan. All servicemen return to your ship or station.”

A black sedan comes roaring into the driveway. Herb Goeldner, a ship-fitter first class on the USS Argonne, had also spent the night with us. But since he teaches a Sunday morning Bible study class on his ship, he left the house in his car a few minutes earlier. After seeing planes and bombs, he turned around and came back to pick us up.

I run out of the house, Morena close behind. Kalihi Valley is surrounded by mountains on both sides, so I can’t see Pearl Harbor. What I can see is ominous black smoke filling the sky.

Two of the navy men jump into Herb’s car. I stop next to the car and turn to face my wife. Will I ever see her again? I gaze into her frightened hazel eyes for the briefest moment. We kiss. Then I slide into the car.

“Deuteronomy 33:27!” Morena shouts at me. “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.”

As Herb’s car pulls away, I give Morena a little wave. She’s still wearing her apron. She has tears in her eyes.

* * *

The road from our house in the valley to the harbor is lined by thick vegetation topped by coconut palm trees. Normally the picturesque journey takes less than twenty minutes. On this frantic morning, however, nothing is normal. Herb flies down the street as fast as possible, but traffic is a mess of more cars like ours, loaded with men trying to get to their posts.

As we approach, I see Japanese planes diving at the harbor. “Where are our planes?” cries Ken Watters, a yeoman on the admiral’s staff on the Maryland. I hear the mixture of anger and anguish in his voice.

We finally reach the base gate where Marine Harold Blakeslee, another fellow Navigator, waves us through. I learn later than Blakeslee is lucky to still be standing; a strafer’s bullet has gone through the cuff of his pants.

We park, pile out of the car, and run to the boat landing at Merry Point, located just south of the office of Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet. When I look past Kuahua Peninsula to Ford Island and “Battleship Row,” where the West Virginia and the rest of our finest warships are moored, I am shocked.

Everywhere the Japanese have struck us, there is devastation and horror.

The Oklahoma is upside down. The Arizona is belching black smoke and red flames like a volcano. The West Virginia, which we crewmen affectionately call the “Wee Vee,” is sinking and on fire above the waterline. The first wave of the attack has ended, but enemy planes still zigzag across the sky, their crews seeking to inflict further damage. The air is heavy with the odor of gunpowder mixed with smoke.

I know in that moment that many of my shipmates and friends are already dead.

I have always appreciated history. I am aware that the Japanese have employed the tactic of surprise attack before, in 1904, against the Russian fleet. Rage wells up inside me. I can’t believe we’ve allowed them to do it to us.

The motor launches that would normally take us to Ford Island and to our ships aren’t running. They’re too busy trying to pick up men who’ve either jumped or been blown by bombs into the water. I can’t see it just yet, but the water surrounding our battleships is covered by a layer of oil spilling out from gaping holes in the ships. The oil is on fire. The men who’ve gone overboard are burning alive.

Ken Watters and I have both arrived carrying our Bibles and notebooks, ready to do spiritual battle as well as naval warfare. Then it occurs to Ken that books may not be practical at the moment. “Looks like we’re going to need both hands,” he says. I spot a fire extinguisher rack at the boat landing. We store our materials there.

A few more navy men join us at the dock. Our group of about ten decides to strike out on foot for the ferry landing across the water from the south end of Ford Island. We begin walking rapidly in that direction, our ears bombarded by the constant drone of Japanese planes flying overhead and by the punctuated bursts of our own antiaircraft guns.

Suddenly the sound of a single engine overpowers the rest.

A plane is bearing down on our group. It dives at us from an angle and banks, startlingly low, perhaps forty feet above the ground and eighty feet away. It’s olive drab in color, so for an instant I think it’s one of ours.

The image freezes in my mind—the cockpit cover off, the pilot, goggles on, focused, so close that even his eyes and teeth are visible, smoke emitting from the machine guns.

I drop to the ground at the same time that the sound of machine-gun fire reaches my ears.

The plane roars past. I turn my head. The plane levels out, revealing a rising sun under its wing. On the dirt road behind me, dust rises from a trench dug by bullets.

I have had no hatred of the Japanese. I am a Christian. I know the Bible and the verses that say to love your enemy. I believe wholeheartedly in God and in the wisdom of following his instructions.

Still, the instinct to survive is a strong one, one of our strongest. This war just became personal. My enemy has just tried to kill me.

If he comes back, I will defend myself. If I have to, I will shoot him dead.

Chapter 1

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.

During nearly every thunderstorm, lightning struck the telephone lines somewhere. To protect the instruments inside homes from being burned out, every house had a quick release hook for disconnecting the line when a storm was brewing. Reconnecting the line was a hazardous act. I was probably seven years old the first time I was assigned this duty. I went just outside the front door in my bare feet, stood in the wet grass, and grasped the end of one wire in my left hand and the other wire in my right, making my body a handy electrical conductor.

Naturally, someone on our party line chose that moment to place a call. I’d been warned that I might feel a “tickle” when I put the wires together. The feeling was closer to a football tackle. The voltage generated by the powerful magneto produced a shock so strong that I could not let go of the wires until the caller finally stopped cranking. I was not electrocuted, but the sensation was remarkably and uncomfortably close.

My school years coincided with the Roaring Twenties. For city dwellers in America and around the world, this meant jazz music, women known as flappers, the age of the automobile, and unprecedented economic growth. Some of these exciting changes even reached our tiny community. Our grandfather purchased a 1911 Ford Model T, which I began driving at the age of eleven. I couldn’t see over the steering wheel, so I guided the car by looking out the side. Our cars were designed for open touring. The public was slow to accept the glassed-in sedan as they considered glass a death warrant if there was an accident.

The Twenties was also the era of Prohibition, a nationwide ban on the sale and production of alcoholic beverages. It was also the era of the gangsters, who defied and exploited the new law. One day I was driving to school on the highway when I spotted a big limousine in the distance ahead of me. The limo driver had taken a corner too fast on the slick road and slid into the ditch. As I approached, a man in a fashionable black suit and cap was trying to push the limo back onto the road. Another man sat at the wheel.

I pulled to a stop in front of them. “Need some help?” I called.

The men examined me for a moment, hard expressions on their faces. “No thanks,” the one in back said.

But I was already out of my Model T and walking toward the back of the limo. When I reached the rear doors, I noticed that white sheets inside the car blocked the windows. Curious, I stopped and peeked behind a small opening between the sheets. Mounted inside the rear of the car was a pair of Thompson submachine guns.

I felt a hand on my back, pushing me firmly away from the window and toward the back of the vehicle. It was the man in the black suit and cap. He didn’t say anything, but his expression was even harder than before.

I helped push the car back onto the road. Without a word, the man in the suit got into the limo’s passenger seat and the two men drove off. It wasn’t until I was back in my car and again on my way to school that I realized these men were gangsters, probably on their way from Chicago to Kansas City to fulfill a contract.

There were other technological advances in addition to automobiles. In 1916, radio pioneer David Sarnoff predicted that homes all over America would one day be equipped with radio music boxes that would tune in news, information, and entertainment sent out by wireless from central broadcasting points. His prophecy was realized in the early 1920s.

My father saw the potential of home radio and secured the exclusive distributorship for our region. We immediately had more customers than we could handle. I often went with my dad to set up a home radio, a two-hour task. Each radio was so heavy it took both of us to carry it.

As radios improved, a large, phonograph-like speaker was added. We used it in our store to hear the broadcast of the controversial “long count” heavyweight championship fight won by Gene Tunney over Jack Dempsey in 1927. We also listened to baseball’s World Series. In 1926 and 1928, we rooted for our St. Louis Cardinals, led by Rogers Hornsby and Dizzy Dean, to defeat the powerhouse New York Yankees, led by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig (the Cardinals did win in ’26). Our favorite radio program, though, featured the entertaining escapades of Amos and Andy.

We did have skeptics in the neighborhood. One farmer insisted that nothing could come out of that box that had not been put in it. He went to his grave believing radio was a hoax and that there was a hidden record somewhere inside.

Through radio, we had far greater access to news of the world. I paid little attention, though, to reports of the creation of the Communist party in China in 1921, the establishment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1922, and increasing domestic problems in Japan. Like my elders and most Americans, I trusted our government to monitor these matters.

I had a good life. Most anything our family wanted was in stock at the store, and we simply took it off the shelf as needed. In those days before sales and income taxes, my father never kept books. If I needed a nickel, a dime, or even a quarter, I took one out of the money drawer.

Moreover, everything seemed possible in the Twenties. The nation was at peace and most people seemed to be making money. I enjoyed reading about the adventures of Lou Wetzel and Betty Zane in Zane Grey westerns and imagined myself as a cowboy. I also read Horatio Alger books. The Alger plots, as I recall, were always similar: a country boy goes to the city; he meets a benefactor to whom he demonstrates the virtues of honesty, reliability, and hard work; he is rewarded with a good job and goes on to become a prominent citizen in the community. These stories built up in me a belief in myself and the idea that displaying such virtues would surely lead to success.

I don’t know if it was the times, the Alger books, or something I inherited from my motivated father, but ambition began to bubble up within me. I was nine or ten and studying a civics book at school when I read that any American citizen could become president of the United States.

I thought, Well, I’m a citizen. Why don’t I run for it?

In that moment, I set the presidency as my life goal. I would keep my eyes fixed on that prize for the next twelve years.

My growing ambition and self-confidence, perhaps combined with memories of my membership in the Spit and Argue Club, must have made me precocious. When I was twelve, I took an old wagon chassis and built a bed for it. During threshing season, when the farmers gathered the shocks in their huge wagons, I brought out my wagon and joined them. None of the other kids did that. The farmers seemed to appreciate my help and treated me almost as an equal.

Unlike my contemporaries, I often started conversations with my elders and attempted to relate to them as equals. Later, after I entered high school, I found myself conversing with Mr. Fred Spees, the principal, about history, philosophy, politics, and the war. I had a strong curiosity about life, the world, and how we all fit into it. Mr. Spees liked me and seemed to enjoy our discussions.

I regularly went to church, but my faith held little meaning for me. I only gave the appearance that high morals were important to me. I didn’t want to do anything that would get me into trouble or put me in jail—not because I felt doing such things was wrong, but because I knew it would be bad for my reputation and hold me back from my goals. So, when friends began gambling money on our games of marbles, I quit. When some of my acquaintances smoked cigarettes and drank liquor, I stayed away from them.

By the time I achieved the age of sixteen, I thought the future for one James Willis Downing was very bright indeed. I even bragged about the fact that I expected one day to serve in the White House.

Then came September 1929. The US stock market began to wobble, exposing the nation’s economic vulnerability. On October 24, the market lost 11 percent of its value at the opening bell. A rally briefly calmed some panicked investors, but then the market fell 13 percent on October 28 and another 12 percent on October 29—“Black Tuesday.” These events were a spreading dark cloud that would have ominous implications for the nation and the world, eventually casting their shadow over famine, despair, opportunism, and finally, a return to war. They would also dramatically change the direction of my life, putting me on a course I had never imagined.

It was the beginning of the Great Depression.

Chapter 2

The Real World

A city was not the place to be during the first years of the Depression. As stock values continued to drop during the early 1930s, businesses failed. The unemployment rate rose from 3.2 percent in 1929 to 23.6 percent in 1932—nearly one in four workers was out of a job. Banks failed and life savings disappeared, leaving many Americans destitute. With no job and no savings, thousands of Americans lost their homes. The poor congregated in “Hoovervilles” made up of tents and crate-and-cardboard shacks in cities across the nation. Thousands suffered from hunger and malnutrition.

Those of us in Plevna were in better shape. Farmers were a self-sufficient bunch. Nearly everyone had a large garden and chickens, hogs, and sheep that could be butchered for weeks of choice meat. Wives canned and stockpiled fruit and other goods. Bartering increased. People joined beef clubs—eight families would put their money together to buy a steer and divide the meat into eighths, rotating the parts the next time. No one owned a refrigerator, but our winters were cold enough that we simply hung the meat on the back porch. When it was time to cook dinner, my mother used a meat saw to cut off what she needed.

Our family was better off than most. My father had sold the store by this time and taken a position as president of the local bank, so he had a steady income. But cash was in short supply for everyone. When clothes wore out or a buggy or horse needed replacing, people had to do without. Yet everyone still needed items like sugar and flour, so they found a way to pay for them. Sometimes they resorted to desperate measures. The cooperative spirit remained alive in Plevna, and families continued to look out for one another. But some who needed help were too proud to ask. The result was an increase in thievery.

Chickens were the easiest product to turn into cash, making late-night chicken raids a common occurrence. One morning I was checking on my grandparents’ farm and noticed that quite a few chickens were missing. The corncrib had been broken into. I played amateur detective and discovered tire prints at the front gate—three Goodyear tires with a diamond tread, and one Fisk tire with a dotted tread. A few days later I spotted a car with the same distribution of tires. My father spoke to the owner of the business where the car was parked. The businessman checked under the car’s backseat and observed several grains of corn.

We were sure we’d found the culprits, but we didn’t pursue the matter further. They were relatives. We knew they’d fallen on hard times and needed cash.

I’m sorry to say there were times I decided I needed a little extra cash myself, even if it was at the expense of others. Because of my seemingly high moral standards and popularity among the adults, I was named treasurer of my Sunday school class. Each week I took the offering in class. After church, I took the money home and put it in a glass jar in my bedroom. At the end of each month, I deposited the collection of dimes, nickels, and pennies in the bank.

Our church leaders overestimated my character at the time, however. My parents had allocated me lunch money of a dime a day. Occasionally, when I felt a dime wasn’t sufficient, I supplemented it with a coin from the offering jar. The church’s total contributions to my midday meals probably added up to a couple of dollars, a nice sum back then. When I eventually confessed to my actions, my mother replaced the funds and gave me a stern lecture.

By the time I reached high school age, I had also developed a bad habit of “forgetting” some debts. Each weekday I drove our Model T to school and back. Naturally the generator, spark plugs, and other parts eventually wore out. If one’s reputation was good enough, one could go into a business and say he didn’t have enough cash at the moment but would pay up eventually, and walk out with whatever item he needed. I did it myself when I needed a part for the Model T. In a few cases at the town’s general store across the street from our old store, I pretended to not remember that I still owed the store money. Later, after I became a Christian, I went back to repay my debt. The business owners had long ago forgotten what I owed, but I had not. It was a humiliating but important step in my faith.

* * *

My family moved to my grandparents’ farm before my junior year of high school. We bought a Farmall tractor and became full-fledged farmers. During crop-planting time, my brothers and I got up at daylight and worked in the field until it was time to drive to school. After school we resumed our farm work, sometimes keeping at it until late at night with the help of the tractor’s lights.

In 1931, the education authorities in Plevna decided they weren’t qualified to instruct senior high school students, so I enrolled at Novelty High for my final year. It was ten miles away. Our senior class was thirty-four students.

Three of my classmates also commuted to Novelty. One of them was a girl named LaVaughn Dingle. Her father owned a gas station and provided gas for the car as payment for me to transport her to school. She was sweet on another boy who commuted and wanted her parents to arrange for her to ride with him, but she was stuck with me. She was short and pretty, with long, light brown hair, but there was no chance of a romance. LaVaughn disliked me immensely.

At the noon hour, I drove my school friends to the drugstore a quarter mile away. We paid fifteen cents for a tenderloin sandwich and a cold drink. I must have been a bit of a showoff, because on the trips back I learned how to approach the dirt parking spot in front of the school at moderate speed, slam on the brakes, and turn the wheel sharply, causing the back end of the car to slide. As the dust flew, I guided the Model T into the parking space backward with the precision of a race car driver.

Academics came easy to me, so I didn’t study much. I enjoyed competing on the debate team and usually defended the most contrary opinion, perhaps another influence of the Spit and Argue Club. I showed my innovative side by rounding up a few friends and creating a makeshift tennis court on one friend’s spare land. The six or eight of us who played called ourselves the Rinky Dink Club, after a popular comic strip.

I also competed in school athletics, lettering in both basketball and track and field. My events in the latter were the high jump, one-hundred-yard dash, discus, and shot put. Our coach was apparently unsatisfied with the performance of some of my teammates, so he recruited me to also try the javelin. He showed me how to hold and release the spear. Neither of us realized what starting the Model T with a hand crank every day had done for the muscles in my right arm and shoulder. My first throw went ten yards over the heads of those who had been measuring the other athletes’ throws. I eventually won an award in the javelin at the county track and field meet.

Graduation day was approaching. My grades were not the highest in the class, but Mr. Spees selected me to be valedictorian anyway. He gave me a typed, two-page valedictory address to memorize. I still remember the opening lines: “Foremost among the ideals which have characterized our national existence is the spirit of self-reliance.” I suspect these words had been used often for inspirational addresses. The graduation ceremony took place on the Novelty basketball court, which doubled as the auditorium. My speech received an enthusiastic round of applause. Only Mr. Spees and I knew I didn’t write it.

My senior year of high school had ended in a blaze of glory. Now I was in the real world. I knew where I wanted to end up—the White House—but how was I going to get there?

* * *

Job openings in the summer of 1932 were rare indeed, and my experience was limited. I had worked for money three times as a farm laborer during hay harvest season, twice earning a dollar and once earning $1.25 for twelve-hour days. When elementary school teachers got sick, the school authorities recruited high school students to fill in, so I’d also earned a few dollars as a substitute teacher.

My brother and sister were both college graduates, yet the only way they could make any money was by selling apples and pencils on the street corner. Teaching seemed the only profession where I might be able to earn a living.

I heard about a teaching opening in a local country school and applied for the job. The school board president gave me a perfunctory interview, but he had already decided to hire a girl in their community.

I was nearly nineteen years old and facing an uncertain future. I had big aspirations and a philosophy I’d derived from a poem I’d read. I believed I would find fulfillment by being able to say at the end of the day, “I’ve lived today. If tomorrow is as good as today I will have no complaints.” The trouble was that I wasn’t too sure my tomorrows were going to be as good. The nation’s prospects, as well as my own, seemed bleak.

In the midst of this fog, a beacon of hope appeared. Curtis, a Plevna classmate who’d graduated two years ahead of me, came home that summer riding a big Harley-Davidson motorcycle he’d purchased. Curtis had joined the navy; he was now a third class electrician on a submarine.

In my view, Curtis was a successful capitalist. His base pay, in addition to room and board and medical and dental care, was ninety dollars a month. That was the same salary my dad made as president of the bank, which supported a family of six.

The navy began to look like my best option. Military service was part of my family history, after all. Two of my great-grandfathers had fought in the Civil War—one for the North and one for the South. I envisioned serving in the navy for four years and saving enough money to attend college and then law school. After that I would go into politics and begin my climb to the presidency.

A friend, Donald Humphrey, and I drove southeast to Hannibal, which had the closest navy recruitment station. The recruiter gave us a thorough physical examination, followed by a rigorous written exam. Because of the Depression, the navy was besieged with applications. Typically, accepted recruits had to wait six to eight months before induction. I figured if I was fortunate enough to get on a waiting list, I’d have a few months to seek additional opportunities and then choose what seemed best for me.

The verdict after our exams was that Donald was underweight and would not be considered. He could put on a few pounds and come back later. At nearly six feet and 162 pounds, however, I was in “perfect physical condition.” I needed only one tooth filling. My exam score was 98, the second highest the excited recruiter had ever seen. He said he was putting me (and the man who’d scored 100 percent) at the top of his list.

The good news came in September. I was to be inducted into the navy later in the month.

On September 21, 1932—I was nineteen years and thirty days old—I left for Hannibal with my dad. Saying good-bye at home was hard on my mother. Both my parents had faced economic reality and approved of my decision, but my mother shed many tears nonetheless.

At Hannibal, the navy recruiter met us and put me up in a cheap hotel. I said good-bye to my dad. He was not a man given to speeches or displays of affection, yet he hugged me and wished me well. He had hoped to join the navy himself out of college but had decided to marry my mother instead. I now saw in his eyes that he was proud of me for having the courage to strike out on my own.

When my dad left, I was alone. For the first time in my life I was removed from the security of my family.

My hotel room was spare. There was no bath, no air conditioning, no phone or other amenity. That evening I turned off the lights and lay in bed, my eyes wide open. The recruiter was to pick me up early in the morning and put me on a train for the six-hour ride to St. Louis, where I was to be sworn in. Since I had no watch, I worried that I would sleep in and miss the train.

I needn’t have worried. I couldn’t sleep.

The navy’s recruiting slogan at the time was, “Join the navy and see the world.” After living my entire life in rural Missouri, that idea excited me. I had an adventurous spirit and was ready to expand my horizons. Of course there was the possibility that I would have to defend my country. If I made a career of the navy, I was bound to see at least one war. But America had been at peace for fourteen years. Such dangers seemed remote that night in Hannibal.

It was a turning point in my life and I knew it. The world was waiting for me. A new adventure was about to begin.

* * *

I did make the train in the morning. In St. Louis, I was taken to the navy recruiting center, where about thirty of us lined up to be sworn in. “If you don’t want to join the navy,” the recruiter warned, “decide so now. After you take this oath you are in the navy. You can be put in jail for desertion if you change your mind.”

It was sobering to hear those words, but I had no doubts. I’d resolved that this was the path to my future. Nothing would stop me now.

We rode an overnight train to Great Lakes, Illinois, about forty miles north of Chicago. A bus took us to Camp Berry, a recruit training facility. The first thing I remember of the place was a trip to the barbershop. We were hustled in and out as if we were on an assembly line. After about six passes with a barber’s electric clippers, the shape of each of our heads was revealed to the world. A small, Indian brave–like tuft was all that remained of our former head covering.

A few of the recruits had beautiful, long hair. When they took their seats, the barber sometimes ran his fingers through their shaggy manes. “Do you want to keep this?” he asked. If the answer was yes, the barber said, “Hold out your hands.” The barber enjoyed his joke more than we recruits did.

Next came a visit to the clothing outfitters. From experience, the navy knew that with a regular diet and sleep the average recruit would gain eight to ten pounds. After a quick measure of chest, waist, and leg length, I staggered away with about seventy pounds of clothing, none of which fit me at that moment. We were given two options for our civilian clothes—donate them to charity or ship them home. I sent mine home but never wore them again. The navy was right—I gained close to eight pounds in eight weeks.

I joined about 230 recruits in Great Lakes for training. Two companies of one hundred men each were formed. The latest arrivals—me included—were left over. We were placed in a “drag company,” which meant we would have to wait for the next month’s arrivals before beginning formal training. After three weeks of quarantine to weed out any infectious diseases, the thirty of us were merged with a new group into Company 6. We spent hours each day on the Camp Berry field in infantry drill. The purpose was to engender teamwork and instill discipline, then defined as “prompt, cheerful, and complete obedience to all orders received.”

Drill starts without a rifle but progresses to formations with rifles and bayonets. When the order is given, “To the rear, march,” the man who fails to reverse direction finds himself being trampled by riflemen with bayonets fixed. I learned quickly to listen carefully and obey.

My introduction to firing a .30-30 Springfield rifle was equally painful. On a bitterly cold day at the rifle range, I aimed my weapon toward Lake Michigan and pulled the trigger. Since I had fired only light weapons, I held the rifle rather loosely. The recoil from my first shot spun me around and left me with a bruised shoulder. I discovered that the rifle butt must be pressed tight against flesh and bone to prevent severe bruising. It seemed I was learning most of my navy lessons the hard way.

Yet my training did eventually take hold. After Christmas, my company mates and I graduated from Camp Berry. I was promoted to seaman second class, with a base pay of thirty-six dollars a month.

That soon changed, however. After his March inauguration, one of the first acts of our new president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was to cut the pay of government employees by 15 percent. My salary was reduced to $30.60 per month.

On assignment day, about two hundred of us lined up ten feet away from a bulletin board. The board had a sign-up sheet for each ship that needed men, along with only enough lines for the number of men who would be allotted per ship. When a whistle blew, we were to rush forward and sign our names to the sheet and ship we wanted.

The thirty of us in drag company had formed a friendship and decided we wanted to go to the same ship—our newest battleship, the USS West Virginia. We formed a flying wedge and pushed off the other sailors while one of our group signed all thirty of our names on the sheet.

A few days later, a fifty-foot motor launch carried me and all my possessions—packed into one “sea bag”—through the waves to the battleship that would become my new home. The West Virginia was stationed in Long Beach, California. It was midmorning on Friday, March 10, 1933.

I was topside at just before 6 p.m. that day. The ship suddenly began to vibrate so violently that for fifteen seconds it was difficult to stand. The eighty-pound-per-link anchor chain bounced up and down as if it were made of rope. The word spread that our gun magazines had blown up. When we looked ashore, though, we could see fires breaking out all over the city. Even from a mile away we could hear the sirens of ambulances, fire trucks, and police vehicles.

The cause was a 6.3-magnitude earthquake centered fifteen miles south of Long Beach. The disaster killed 115 people, the most deadly California quake since more than three thousand perished in and around San Francisco in 1906. Instead of enjoying California, I was kept on the ship for six weeks while clean-up from the earthquake took place.

Perhaps naval service was going to be a bit more dangerous than I’d thought.

* * *

The West Virginia was an impressive ship, longer than two football fields and capable of twenty-one knots (twenty-four miles per hour). It was armed with eight .45-caliber guns, each sixteen inches in diameter; eight five-inch, .51-caliber guns; and eight five-inch, .25-caliber antiaircraft guns. What most impressed this boy from small-town Plevna, however, was how crowded the ship was. Fifteen hundred sailors and officers, all sharing the same living space. There were people everywhere.

Living in close quarters with so many men made showers and a daily change into clean clothes a priority. Shower instructions were posted in the community washrooms:

Wet Down Your Body With Fresh Water.

Turn Off Fresh Water Shower.

Lather Up Your Body With Soap.

Rinse Off With Salt Water.

The procedure for washing clothes was equally regimented. Outside the washroom, a few dozen of us undressed, put our white clothes in a galvanized bucket, and inserted our ration of two gallons of fresh water. Next we slid the bucket over a steam pipe and turned up the steam until the water boiled. Then we used the same water to wash dark clothes. After a rinse with cold saltwater, we hung up the clothes to dry anyplace we could find. The ship’s interior was always warm and often hot, so it did the job.

Staying clean was not our mission, however. A battleship exists to shoot its guns at another ship or a land target. Its crew exists to train, shoot, and maintain the ship for battle. I was assigned to the second division, turret two, which housed two sixteen-inch guns on the forward part of the ship. Each gun barrel weighed 105 tons and required five hundred pounds of powder per gun to send a two-thousand-pound projectile up to twenty-one miles to its target.

My first battle station was in the lower powder-handling room. Powder bags and the projectile from the shell deck were delivered to the breech of the gun by a series of hoists and hydraulic lifts. About ninety men were required to fire the guns.

I soon had a different responsibility: firing pointer. This meant I coached two other sailors to line up the vertical and horizontal crosshairs on their telescopes. When I was satisfied we were on target, I was the person who actually pulled the trigger.

My first experience was traumatic. The guns had to be pointed broadside to absorb the recoil and keep from damaging the ship. Even so, every shot caused our huge battleship to skid twenty feet sideways. When I pulled the trigger, the noise and vibration were so severe I thought I’d blown up the ship. All I could see through my telescope was smoke. I assumed I’d somehow made a horrible error and that we were sinking. But as the smoke cleared, I observed that our target a mile away had two holes in its center.

The position of firing pointer was a lot of responsibility for a nineteen-year-old kid. I think the reason the officers gave it to me is what they observed in the other sailors. They had a habit of returning to the ship after weekend leave in less than peak condition, whereas I always showed up sober on Monday mornings. I thought it would be good for my career. Apparently I was right.

We were preparing for war, but I still had little reason to believe we’d put our training into practice. Yes, the signs were there for those who were paying attention and astute enough to understand their meaning. An ambitious former artist, Adolf Hitler, ascended to the position of chancellor of Germany in 1933. The following year, Hitler added the title of Führer and used his secret police to eliminate scores of his rivals and enemies. Meanwhile, Japan had consolidated its position in Manchuria after its 1931 invasion and attacked China’s Great Wall in Mongolia in 1932. Both Germany and Japan resigned from the League of Nations in 1933.

My crewmates and I on the West Virginia, without newspapers or radio, heard only the barest details of these events. Our information was based mostly on gossip rather than facts. We did not anticipate war—and neither did our leaders. After the West Virginia, America would not commission another battleship until 1938. We were ill-prepared for the coming storm.

* * *

I put away as much of my salary as I could each month, in keeping with my long-term goals. In the meantime, though, I also tried to have as much fun as I could. During my initial training, this meant visiting museums and seeing the sights in places I’d never been before: St. Louis and Chicago. One of the places I visited in Chicago was a speakeasy, an establishment that sold liquor illegally. I believe I got a five-cent Coke for fifty cents. While we were sitting at the bar, a policeman walked in. I was sure I was about to go to jail. But the policeman also sat at the bar and was handed a drink on the house. Selling booze may have been against the law, but apparently the local police made no attempt to enforce it.

After I joined the crew of the West Virginia, my travels extended to San Francisco, Seattle, the Hawaiian Islands, the Panama Canal, Haiti, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. In the summer of 1934, I also got my first glimpse of the Big Apple. Since the Navy didn’t get to New York often, the city gave us ticker-tape treatment. We marched in a parade up Broadway from the Battery to Central Park, nearly a hundred blocks. I visited museums and took an elevator to the top of what was then the world’s tallest structure, the Empire State Building. I also ate hot dogs, sampled the rides, and talked to the girls at Coney Island.

We were given free tickets to the theater and Broadway shows, and admission to any major league baseball park by paying only the twenty-cent tax. I got to watch Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig suit up for the Cardinals’ old nemesis, the Yankees, at Yankee Stadium. Ruth played only a few innings, but watching his performance in warm-up practice—they didn’t call it batting practice yet—was better than watching the game. He knocked twenty-five or thirty balls out of the park.

In size and scope, New York City was a long way from Plevna, Missouri. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I had a different kind of fun one time when I was home on leave. My brother Donald arranged a boxing match, complete with gloves and a ring, between me and the town bully. My opponent didn’t last long. When someone asked how I learned to box like that, I said, “Oh, didn’t I mention it? We have a boxing league on the West Virginia, and I won my weight class.”

Back on the ship, I worked to advance the other half of my goals by learning how to beat the system. For example, every Saturday an officer conducted an inspection. The sailor with the neatest uniform got the weekend off. This was no small privilege, since we were granted leave only every other weekend. I decided to buy a new uniform, shoes and all, which I kept in my locker and wore only for inspections. I began winning the inspection competition every Saturday, which meant I got every weekend off. It reached the point where the officer, to save time, walked right over to me when he began his inspection.

I also learned to show up for watches and other work details five minutes earlier than everyone else and to stay five minutes later than everyone else. The officers noticed what I was doing and began giving me the best assignments, which eventually led to faster-than-average promotions.

My naval career was off to a fine start during those first two years. I was “seeing the world,” just as I’d hoped. My intention of eventually going to college and law school and into politics remained intact. Everything was going according to plan.

So why was I so miserable?