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WWII veteran from Norwalk met Eisenhower, Patton

Cary Ashby • Jun 6, 2019 at 9:00 AM

Cpl. Harold Downing recognized Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower as soon as he saw him.

Downing, a Norwalk native, was cleaning his rifle when Eisenhower spoke to him.

“The first thing he said to me was … ‘Good morning, soldier.’ He says, ‘Are you ready for what you’ve been training for?’”

Downing was asked what his response was.

“Nothing,” he said. “I was too surprised to answer. … Oh yeah, I knew him right away.

“There are a few things I don’t forget,” Downing added.

Now 96, Downing was a U.S. Army corporal in World War II and a member of the infantry. He earned two Bronze Stars in 1945. One of the medals is associated with the “European African Middle Eastern Campaign.”

“I figure I got 47 months and I’ll be 100,” Downing said. “I was born in Norwalk.”

One of his patches is from the 3X Division. He referred to it as “Old Hickory” and showed the blue letters “O” and “H” that surround the X’s.

“A French man made that for me,” Downing said while admiring it.

After second grade, he attended an orphan’s school in Xenia.

“The school I went to was more military and I had seven years experience before I was 18, so I knew all about it,” Downing said, referring to drills.

His basic training was in Fort Benning in Georgia.

“I went to different camps — several of them,” said Downing, who was in the Army for 3 1/2 years.

“I drove Jeep for three months,” he said, referring to his last job before he returned to Norwalk.

Downing was unemployed for a while after he came home. He said he would have done anything that would have paid the bills.

“I tried to find a job, but couldn’t,” Downing said. 

 

Military family

Downing’s older brothers, Warren and Royal, also Norwalk natives, served in WWII in the South Pacific. Both men are deceased.

Downing was asked if he talked about his war experience with his brothers.

“Not really,” said the Norwalk man, who was in D-Day but could not recall any details.

Two of Downing’s sons served in the military. Skip, 61, was in the Army in 1977 and ‘78. The younger Downing, who said he “made a few friends,” received an honorable discharge for a medical issue.

Another son, Terry, served almost 12 years in the U.S. Air Force in California.

“I volunteered. A buddy of mine, you know, talked me about it. I figured, ‘Go ahead and serve.’ I missed Vietnam by two years,” said Skip Downing, who graduated from Western Reserve High School.

He was trained to be a mechanic — “from the Jeeps all the way up to the biggest tanks we had at the time” — and while stationed in Germany, “I find myself behind a desk dispatching the vehicles.”

“Which to be honest with you, I was OK by me; I’m not a mechanical person,” added Downing, who found basic training the most interesting part of the Army.

“I did a lot of things in there I never thought I was able to do. I wouldn’t want to do it again, but …,” he said, with a quick chuckle as his voice faded off.

“Unfortunately I didn’t spend as much in there (the Army) as I would have liked to have. I had an incident that happened to me one morning out on a run where it felt like literally someone was shoving an ice pick in the side of my head and I collapsed,” he said, recalling a migraine-like experience.

“They ran tests on me and the whole nine yards,” Downing said. “To this day it bothers me that they didn’t find out what it was until almost 30 years later.”

 

Meeting Patton

The younger Downing said his father’s experience didn’t sway him to join the Army.

“No, not really ‘cuz like I said, he never talked about it. It’s just until recently that he let me know a few things that had happened to him while he was over there,” the son said.

“He was telling me, like when he was on the front lines, there were times when the enemy was so close he could literally reach out and touch … the boots of a German soldier. And the bombings he has talked to me about.”

His father corrected him, saying “the ones I saw the boots on were Gen. (George S.) Patton.” The WWII veteran said he “was on retreat from some place” when he saw the famous general “in the field all by himself.”

“I could get so close I could see his boots. I was right beside him for almost an hour,” Harold Downing said. 

“I was about that far from him,” he added, putting his hands about six inches apart from each other. “He didn’t talk much.”

Patton didn’t seem to be “a very happy man,” Downing said, but “Gen. Eisenhower was different.”

“I met him too,” he added. “The first time I saw him, he was so tired. … He looked so tired.”

 

War trauma

Downing said there are things about WWII that still haunt him, but he didn’t elaborate.

“Oh yes,” added the Norwalk native, who believes there currently is “a little bit” more respect for veterans now than after World War II.

He was in England and France for about 18 months each. Downing traveled from one place to another mostly by trains and ships.

While he made friends during the war, he said he didn’t keep up with any of them afterward. Some of his friends died. Downing said the worst experience was when he was a guard on a ship.

“They had two submarines around us. When we got off at England, the first thing they told me was my mother died,” recalled the veteran, who wasn’t able to communicate with anybody from home at the time.

“Then I got on a train. (After) a few miles we had to stop because they were bombing some place ahead of us. … It was right above me,” he said. “That wasn’t a good start.”

Downing doesn’t often share stories from his time in the war with this family.

“Because it gets to me,” he said. “It might have been 75 years ago or so, but to me, it was just like yesterday.”

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