Saturday, September 11, 2021

Telling Time

Took a licking and kept on ticking

‘Emotional moment’ to get watch for longtime WT supporters

by JON MARK BEILUE, West Texas A&M University

September 1, 2021

Photo: Bitsy Downing, longtime business manager and director of finance at WT, and son Stu hold the watch this summer of  late husband and father Scott Downing, who had it taken from him by the Japanese after he was captured in 1945.

The small package arrived on June 1, taking three months and 6,154 miles by way of ship and through customs from outside of Tokyo to the mailbox on Fulton Drive in Amarillo.

Stu Downing and his mother Bitsy knew what was inside. That only made carefully opening the package that much more poignant.

“It was an emotional moment for me,” Bitsy said, “because I kept thinking about Scott’s emotions at the time of his capture when he was tied to a tree near a village. I just imagined his emotions when he had to give up his possessions – his belt, his ring, and of course, his watch.”

His watch.

First Lt. Scott Downing of Canyon was a bombardier among a crew of 11 on a B-29 on what was his 20th – and as it turned out, final – combat mission on May 25, 1945. Only 2 ½ months remained of World War II, but they had no way of knowing that. They, like most, suspected a long protracted war with Japan.

They left the Tinian Islands on a six-hour flight to the heart of Tokyo. The objective was to bomb an industrial complex four miles southeast of the Imperial Palace. Dangerous? Was there a combat mission that wasn’t?

A Japanese Zero attacked the B-29 near Tokyo. The right engine caught fire. The crew bailed out 9,500 feet over Japan. Three could not get out of the plane and died. Downing was able to parachute down in a rice field 15 miles southeast of Tokyo.

His ordeal was just beginning. With 15 minutes, villagers ran toward him, carrying hoes, pitchforks, any crude implement they could get their hands on. Downing was tied to a tree until two Japanese soldiers arrived, one with a bayonet on the end of a rifle.

In his book A Ball of Rice and a Cup of Water, Downing said he was prepared to die, and die like a proud American. Instead, he was stripped of all personal possessions, blindfolded and marched to building with a dirt floor.

This was the beginning of three months as a prisoner of war. Nineteen soldiers were initially crammed into an 8-by-12-foot horse stall. There were beatings if Japanese soldiers saw POWs talking to each other and beatings anyway. Downing was beaten by a bamboo pole when an interrogation didn’t go the way the Japanese wanted. POWs were threatened with decapitation or a bullet in the temple.

Most POWs thought they would die at the hands of guards in retaliation of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and Aug. 9, 1945. On Aug. 15, Emperor Hirohito announced the unthinkable – the surrender of Japan to the Allied forces.

Two weeks later, on Aug 29 and four days before the Sept. 2, 1945, formal surrender aboard the USS Missouri, Downing was among those at the Omori prison camp who were released to the Americans. His roommate on a transport ship was James “Pappy” Boyington, decorated Marine pilot and Medal of Honor recipient. [Today, the Omori camp location, an artificial island built by American POWs, is Heiwajima, a motorboat racing revenue owned by the Sasakawa organization that supports Japanese government public diplomacy.]

Men returned home to restart their lives. For Downing, he found himself back in Canyon. He became a longtime building contractor. Scott and Bitsy were married on the West Texas A&M University campus at the Joseph A. Hill Chapel on Sept. 1, 1951.

WT became a key part of their lives. Bitsy was assistant business manager and director of finance at WT from 1957 to 1982. Scott helped build the presidential home of James Cornette. He and his brother Jack also helped build the original Pioneer Village at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum.

Scott was the youngest of 10 children, and Bitsy was the youngest of nine, but Stu was their only child. He graduated from WT in 1978. There was no a bigger fan of WT athletics than the former bombardier. He had season tickets to football and men’s and women’s basketball games for so long that no one could remember when he didn’t. A WT flag flew in the front yard of their Amarillo home where they moved in 2004.

That was passed down to Stu. Even today, if anyone wants to find Stu, just go to a WT athletic event and holler out his name. He’s usually there.

Finding the watch, or the watch finds them

His dad didn’t dwell on his combat missions and never, to anyone’s knowledge, suffered from PTSD. But it was always a part of him. Like novelist William Faulkner said, “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.”

Scott made four trips to Japan. The first was in 1947 to testify at a Japanese war crimes trial. He and Bitsy went on sightseeing tours there in 1986 and 1994. Then in 2015, just two years before his death at age 98, Scott and Stu were among an American POW contingent on a reconciliation tour sponsored by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the U.S. State Department [and the American Defenders of Bataan Memorial Society].

At one event was a PowerPoint presentation by a man named Nakazato. It was all in Japanese so neither Downing knew the man was saying his grandparents were among those who tied a parachuting American to a tree. He had a watch that was the man’s which had been handed down by his grandparents.

But Dr. Isao Arai, a researcher with the group who is fluent in English, relayed what Nakazato said. Wait a minute, a watch? Could it be Scott’s watch? What were the odds?

Then they did some digging. Only officers were issued military standard Bulova watches. There were four officers on that downed B-29. Two were captured nowhere near the site. A third didn’t land too far from Downing, but he avoided detection for six days and was captured along the coast.

Eventually the Downings were convinced the watch was Scott’s. They put that on the backburner as they returned home, but it would be nice to one day get that watch back if possible.

Nancy Samp, the historian of the 505th Bomb Group, agreed. She was instrumental in persuading Arai to take steps to return the watch. It didn’t take much persuasion. Arai was 12 when he witnessed the B-29 crash. He has spent much of his life researching B-29 crashes in Japan and bringing closure to families. The grandson also knew the watch belonged to someone else.

“Scott always told me and everyone he knew that the Japanese people were kind and considerate,” Bitsy said. “He only had fault with the military. They ruled the country at the time, and they were brutal. The citizens were not. The grandson needs to be commended for releasing it.”

The Downings were sent a photo last year of the watch. It was inscribed as a Type A-11 with a serial number of AF4380602. A Google search pronounced it from the 1940s.

Arai and Stu exchanged a series of emails to finalize the return. In one of his last emails, Arai wrote: “It is not just an old watch. I think of it as the spirit of a soldier returning home after 75 years.”

The watch was put on a boat in Japan on March 9, six years after its rediscovery and four years after Scott’s death. It finally returned home on June 1. But after 75 years-plus, what was another three months? Wife and son held the watch like a newborn. They were the first Downings to touch the band since May 25, 1945. The face read 12:07.

“The little second hand still runs,” Bitsy said. “We wound it up very carefully when we got it, and the second hand started running. It was like it was telling us, ‘I’m happy to be home. It’s good to be back in the United States.’”

The last Sunday in August was the 76th anniversary of Downing’s release. Sept. 2 marks the 76th anniversary of the formal end of World War II and the surrender of Japan.

The watch will not stay in the Downing home much longer. Sometime this fall, they will take it to the B-29 museum in Pratt, Kan., a restored World War II parachute building at Pratt Air Field. There it will remain among other artifacts from the war.

“We got it home and we got to touch it again,” Bitsy said. “That’s what’s important. I think Scott would want it up there.”

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