I wrote this paper in college after interviewing the most amazing man I’ve ever spoken with. It doesn’t require much exposition. This man came from the greatest generation this country ever saw, and I was fortunate to have gotten the opportunity to sit down with him and hear his story.
On December 7, 1941, Charles “Don” Downing and his wife Irene were on their way to visit a friend and colleague by the name of Lyman Huff in Cape Porpoise, Maine. Don and Lyman were both apprentices at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, and prior to that day they had no idea as to how vital their work would become in the coming years. Don and Irene were shocked as suddenly, over the radio, a voice informed them that the Japanese had just unleashed a surprise attack on the United States Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. This event moved America into World War II, and with it came Don.
Don was born on April 2, 1918 in Berwick, Maine. He grew up in South Berwick in a time before television and the cellular phone. Don describes his home town as a “slow, quiet, easygoing farming town.” It was a simple, yet rich, time when both children and adults would busy themselves with various outdoor activities in their leisure time. Winter afternoons would be devoted to sliding and sledding – both down-hill and in the streets! There were no plows in those days, so the snow would be packed down on the roads, leaving it in perfect form for outdoor enthusiasts. When they weren’t sliding and sledding in the roads, the residents of South Berwick would be at the “Powderhouse” slope, where Don described it as being “black with people, with 50 mile per hour speeds not unheard of.” There was even one occasion when Don and his sister closed themselves up in a cardboard box and shimmied their way over the edge of the slope, zooming toward the base in complete darkness. Summers were equally as active, spent swimming at Knight’s Pond.
During his high school years, Don worked while attending school. Whether it was washing dishes in a York hotel or toiling away in the Rocky Gorge Wooling Mill, Don was already supporting himself. Berwick Academy was South Berwick’s high school when Don attended grades 9 through 12. It was not a private school at the time, but it still held firm to the standards that it upholds today: the student education comes first. Don had a rough few years at first, and had been out sick for a portion of his senior year. His dedication and unsettlement resulting from his situation caught the attention of his headmaster, who recognized that he was having a hard time and told him to go home and rest. He told Don that when he returned to school in perfect health he would “start over fresh.” Don listened to his headmaster, and after his return he graduated with high honors in the spring of 1937.
The year 1937 was an important one for Don. He would hitch-hike to York every night and dance until midnight… then hitch-hike home. It was during this time that he met his future wife, Irene, and spent what he describes as a “wonderful two years going together.” On July 15, 1939, the two were married, and they remain together to this day.
Don worked primarily as an electrician under a man named Mel Burnett during his period of engagement with Irene and a bit beyond their marriage. Work of this nature was mostly seasonal since a foundation was required to wire a home, and foundations could not be poured in the winter without running the risk of it cracking. Don was an employed electrician on September 1st, 1939, when Hitler invaded Poland, but three months later, his employer had run out of work, and he was laid off. To make matters worse, Irene had to have her appendix removed that same month! This was how Don and Irene spent their first Christmas together as a married couple. There was no sick leave, no worker’s compensation, and no unemployment insurance in those days. When you were laid off, you were on your own. Fortunately for Don and Irene, they had $500 in their savings account, which took care of their basic needs until Don was able to find another job.
In January of 1940 things appeared to be getting better as Don took a job as a traveling salesman of waterless cooking equipment. He would go into peoples’ homes, prepare dinner for them using the equipment he hoped to sell, and would then make his pitch. The smallest pan went for $9. The entire set was $150. Despite Don’s best efforts, this venture did not work out for him and Irene. They went broke.
Don Downing is, and was, a powerfully resourceful man. Even during those times of unemployment, he provided for himself and his wife. He held various odd jobs cutting ice and wood, with a 50% profit share. These jobs would fill his oil tank. Family and friends also helped by giving them food that they could not use. It wasn’t charity; they just had no need for it. Eventually the financial problems that the two of them faced together melted away, as they do for most young couples, and Don came into a job as an apprentice at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard – just in time to start building submarines for a certain World War that America was about to enter.
Don does not look back upon the hard times that he faced with any kind of bitterness or contempt. It is amazing how two people like Don and Irene could remain strong through a period such as that. Despite their money problems, they were, as Don describes, “happy, healthy, and in love.” They would find ways to get outside of their struggle, often going camping in Bar Harbor in their old Nash vehicle. On one occasion, they returned home with nothing but their vehicle, thirty-five cents, and a jar of peanut butter. They were happy, and that was all that mattered. But the war was coming.
On December 7, 1941, Don and Irene sat, parked on the shoulder of the road, listening to a radio announcer relate the events that lead to the destruction of a large portion of our Pacific Fleet. First came shock, then came anger – feelings shared by everyone in the United States. Then everything started to change. People started lining up in droves to enlist. As Don related, “the nation got angry, and the nation replied.” Butter, gas, and shoes would become luxury commodities since most of it would be going to troops deployed overseas.
Working as an apprentice at the shipyard, Don did not have to worry about being drafted – the navy needed the submarines he was building, but once they had enough, they turned the workers loose to do as they pleased. Some enlisted willingly. Don was drafted, and like a good, loyal American, full of pride for his country, he complied.
Don’s basic training occurred at Fort McClellan in Alabama. He was going to be a radio operator, and was capable of translating Morse Code at a rate of 8 to 10 words per minute. When things started to worsen overseas, though, he and the rest of his group went into heavy weapons training. It was during this time that Charles Donald Downing, civilian, started down a road that would ultimately lead him to Major Charles Donald Downing, dog tag #01335634. Long marches through the clay mountains of Alabama to the rifle ranges in the early hours of the morning were typical. Some days Don swore the temperature would exceed 100 degrees, though the troops were never allowed to see a thermometer.
Don’s dedication and hard work did not go un-noticed during his time in basic. Immediately after his initial training, he was sent off to Cadre school to become an instructor. There, they also saw something in Don, and shipped him off to officer candidate school at Fort Benning. This was a very rough 18 week program with strict discipline imposed upon all officer candidates. One example of this harsh regulation came in the form of a TAC officer, whose sole purpose was to pick candidates apart. They often became frustrated with Don’s meticulous attention to detail, and found very little to berate him about.
Irene was always nearby during Don’s training. She stayed outside of the base. She looks back on her time there very fondly, with her only issue being that she was not near the ocean. Don was permitted to stay with her at night, provided there weren’t any duties that he needed to perform on base. His 1st Sergeant, who Don describes as “pretty savvy” allowed anyone with a wife in town to do this, but after a soldier’s first screw up “his wife could go home because he wasn’t going to see her anymore.”
In November of 1945, a very disgruntled Don Downing was cut orders and shipped overseas. Since the war was over, he felt that the Germans should take care of themselves. Regardless of his feelings, however, he did as he was ordered. He shipped out on a passenger liner full of “replacement people” to take over the duties of the soldiers that were coming home. The voyage across the Atlantic took fourteen days. Every morning they would be told how far they had traveled, and how far they had to go to reach their destination: La Havre, France. Upon arrival, he spent one day in the port before shipping out, bound for Munich H.Q. and ultimately his station in Augsburg.
Being a 2nd Lieutenant, Don inherited 50 men during the train voyage to Munich. They were the 4th Platoon, and traveled in the very back of the train. It was a four day journey with occasional stops for hot food, and regular pit-stops every hour for bathroom breaks.
On the first night of the train voyage, Don and his platoon stopped in a Belgian train yard, and on the track next to them was a severely damaged caboose – a remnant of the last few months of World War II. Don, being the resourceful man that he is, leaned over to one of his men and said, “You know, if I was an enlisted man I’d take the stove out of that caboose.” From that point on, they had a stove. At the next stop they were able to secure piping for ventilation, and at every subsequent stop they would gather wood to burn. They were the only platoon on the train with heat. When they arrived at their destination, and watched the train depart, their stove went with it. From there it was a short truck ride to Munich. There Don was assigned 2nd Lieutenant of the 35-52nd Quartermaster Truck Company in Augsburg. Basically, he was responsible for all of the vehicles. He described himself as the “leader that they could all come to if they needed me.”
Upon his arrival at his post, Don was shocked at the poor state of things. Their furnace wasn’t working, soldiers were eating in the cold (on ice-covered picnic tables), and the crane for lifting engines out of vehicles under repair wasn’t functioning at all. This was unacceptable. It didn’t take him long to remedy everything, starting with the repairing of the furnace and improving upon the working conditions of those working beneath him. Needless to say, those working in the 35-52nd Quartermaster Truck Company were very loyal to their 2nd Lieutenant.
While in Germany, Don had the opportunity to visit multiple places of historical significance. He went skiing at the site of the 1936 Olympic games (the event marked the first time he had ever been skiing!), which, at the time, was an army recreation area. He also visited the grim and grisly places like the concentration camps at Dachau. His recollections of that particular visit reunite him with feelings of great sorrow. He describes it as being “unbelievable going into a place like that after coming from America.” Places like that, and the events that occurred therein, should never be forgotten.
The details surrounding Don’s return home are both perplexing and heartbreaking. After only five months spent abroad, he received word from the Red Cross that he was to return home ASAP. His first thought was of Irene, who was pregnant at the time he had left. Had there been a complication? Was everyone okay? He was to return to Fort Devons immediately with boat priority, and that was all the information he was given. He left Germany in March of 1946.
Don came across France as a “casual officer,” meaning that he was traveling without a group of soldiers beneath him. Once at his destination, Camp Phillip Morris, he would check the sailing lists every morning for five days, waiting to see if his name was on them, and that he would be heading home. On the fifth day, it was.
The voyage home was miserable. The ship barely made 4 knots per hour for three days as it fought its way through a horrible winter storm. Once Don arrived back at Fort Devons, he took a train up to Portsmouth to meet up with Irene. Upon arrival, he discovered that his mother had died a month prior from complications of the heart, and that he would have been notified of this much sooner had the workers of Western Union not been on strike.
Don remained at home in York, Maine for a while after his return. He boiled diapers and did what this writer imagines him to do best: bonded with his family. When he did return to Alabama to report for orders, he was given an honorable discharge. Don remained in the army reserves, working two weeks out of every year, for an additional 18 years before retiring as a Major in the 76th Division, 3rd Battalion in Portland. During this time he also worked at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard where his hard work and dedication brought him from a Machinist to a Group Superintendant before his retirement. The details surrounding his decision to retire are rooted partly in the last nine months when he was on the job negotiating a labor contract with the American Trade Union. He describes this as a wholly tiresome endeavor, yielding very few results. “There isn’t anything you can do in your life that prepares you to negotiate a trade contract,” he says. His frustration was further illustrated by Irene’s sometimes nightly advisory to their children: “Don’t talk to Dad until he’s had his supper.”
The rest of Don’s life, leading right up to the present day, has been selflessly devoted to Irene and his children. I have never met a man such as he. When I asked him what decade he thought to be his best, his response was: “If you take out the war years – I have had 70 years that have been my best. I don’t have a regret. We have four children, and they’re all Christian… there is no such thing as a decade for me… my decade is 90 years long.”
There is no way I could doubt Don’s sincerity in what he has shared with me in the way of his devotion to his family. He began to tear up a bit when speaking of his love for his family. When asked what he would like the current generation to take away from his generation, he spoke more like a father than a teacher: “If they remember us as being good, interested, thoughtful parents… then I’ll be satisfied.”
I am very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to sit down with Don and listen to his story. Never before have I met a man so righteous, who has gone out of his way on numerous occasions throughout his life to make sure that those who depend on him are taken care of. What’s more, he knows how to take care of himself, and as evidenced by his story, he always has. His successes as both a professional and as a father are amazing examples of why he is a self-defined man who knows “how to get along.”