Owen Downie, naval hero

Vineyard Havener rescued sailors from ‘shark-infested waters’ in WWII.


On Dec. 16, veterans gathered in the General George Goethals American Legion Post in Vineyard Haven for a Wreaths Across America ceremony, an event normally held outdoors. But bad weather brought the ceremony inside, where, at a podium in a corner of the hall, the Rev. Stephen Harding, chaplain of Tisbury’s Fire Department, gave an address in tribute to veterans and active service members.

Harding said in part, “There are many men and women serving today, in all branches of the military, here at home, and in places far away that most of us have never heard of …” On the wall near where the pastor spoke, amid all sorts of Legion memorabilia, hung the citation of a sailor who served his county in a place that perhaps many Americans have never heard of — the Santa Cruz Islands of the South Pacific. More than 80 years ago, Owen Stuart Downie, a Vineyard Haven–born seaman, saved crewmembers of the burning, sinking aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hornet near those islands by swimming lifelines out to them. Downie served aboard the Sims-class destroyer Mustin, an escort of the Hornet. After Japanese aircraft crippled the Hornet, the Mustin was among the naval vessels that came to the aid of the carrier’s sailors. Records indicate many Hornet sailors in the water were thrown life preservers on ropes and pulled to the Mustin. However, Downie went into the water to save some of these people, physically bringing lines to them. He did so in an active combat zone, with floating debris, and, as a presidential citation reads, in “shark-infested waters.” 

Downie was awarded the Silver Star for his actions, the third highest naval decoration for valor. Only the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross rank higher. According to a January 1948 edition of the New Bedford Standard, Downie was awarded the Silver Star by Fleet Admiral William Halsey. A book put together to commemorate the Hornet and Mustin crews following a 1980 reunion in Cookeville, Tenn., shows a photograph of Downie shaking Admiral Halsey’s hand at a 1942 decoration ceremony in New Caledonia. 

Downie’s presidential citation reads, “For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity while serving aboard the U.S.S. Mustin during action against enemy Japanese forces in the vicinity of Santa Cruz Islands on Oct. 26, 1942. Braving shark-infested waters to assist in the rescue of survivors from a damaged aircraft carrier, Downie, in response to urgent cries for help, unhesitatingly dived overboard and commenced the difficult and dangerous task of swimming long lines out to stranded men. Carrying on with tireless energy and utter disregard for his own personal safety, he persisted in his exhaustive efforts for a continuous period of one and one-half hours, thereby saving the lives of many members of the carrier crew who otherwise might have perished. His courageous spirit of self-sacrifice, maintained above and beyond the call of duty, was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”

On behalf of President Roosevelt, the citation was signed by Frank Knox, secretary of the Navy.


The Hornet and the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands

The U.S.S. Hornet was a storied vessel before it saw action near the Santa Cruz Islands, a small group of islands in the Solomon Islands. The Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands took place on Oct. 26, 1942, and was part of an ongoing fight for control of the largest of the Solomon Islands, Guadalcanal. It was a battle of aircraft that ultimately saw the Hornet and a Porter-class destroyer sunk, and the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Enterprise heavily damaged. Japanese vessels took a pounding too. In a letter to the organizer of the 1980 Dustin/Hornet reunion, Dick Cartwright of Spring Valley, Calif., who served aboard the Hornet in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, wrote that it had been 37 years since he’d heard from anybody else who’d been in that battle. 

For health reasons Cartwright couldn’t attend the reunion, and instead put his thoughts to paper and recounted the crippling of the Hornet.

“On Oct. 26, 1942, everything went haywire,” Cartwright wrote. The [Japanese] first hit us about 10 am. The first bomb knocked out our fire control, a kamikaze crashed on the port side of the funnel and wiped out the signal bridge, and another crash-dived into the port forecastle and ended up in the No. 1 elevator pit. I felt the heat of the explosions of two ‘fish’ (torpedoes) that took us on the starboard side. How many more bombs or torpedoes, I don’t know. All this time, the destroyers and cruisers had enough shells in the air that, if they had been frozen in motion, a man could not have crawled through that field of flak on his hands and knees without touching a shell. And the whole thing lasted only about 20 minutes! When the flare-up was over, the Hornet was ‘dead’ in the water, listing heavily to starboard and with her [boiler] fires pulled.” The carrier was attacked a second time while under tow from another warship, and the order was given to abandon ship. Cartwright managed to swim away from the Hornet, and couldn’t say how long he was in the water, because his watch stopped. He was eventually saved by Mustin crew — not from someone like Downie swimming out to him, but from a tossed life preserver attached to a line. 

“They pulled me in,” he wrote. “But the mixture of saltwater and fuel oil I’d swallowed made me too weak to climb the netting hung over the side.”

Sailors eventually pulled Cartwright up onto the Mustin. 

Cartwright’s weakened condition, and those of other sailors, including those who were injured, may help explain why it was necessary for Downie to swim out to sailors to effect rescues.

In all, the Mustin rescued 337 Hornet crewmembers. 


Sharks and scuttling

Sharks anecdotes aren’t apparent in readily accessible U.S. Navy accounts of the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. However, sharks were a very real threat and fear during WWII.

“The monumental wartime mobilization of millions of people placed more Americans into contact with sharks than at any prior time in history, spreading seeds of intrigue and fear toward the marine predators,” Professor Janet M. Davis wrote in the article “Before Shark Week and ‘Jaws,’ World War II spawned America’s shark obsession.” 

Shark fear came to a head in 1945 with the sinking of the heavy cruiser U.S.S. Indianapolis. 

“One of the worst wartime disasters at sea occurred on July 30, 1945, when pelagic sharks swarmed the site of the shipwrecked USS Indianapolis,” Davis wrote. “The heavy cruiser, which had just successfully delivered the components of the Hiroshima atomic bomb to Tinian Island in a top-secret mission, was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. Out of a crew of 1,196 men, 300 died immediately in the blast, and the rest landed in the water. As they struggled to stay afloat, men watched in terror as sharks feasted on their dead and wounded shipmates.”

There’s a roundabout Vineyard connection to this. In the blockbuster film adaptation of Peter Benchley’s “Jaws,” Amity Island shark hunter Captain Quint is portrayed as a survivor of the Indianapolis tragedy. The film was shot on the Vineyard. Both Benchley and director Steven Spielberg regretted their depiction of the shark in the movie, and the stigma it may have given sharks. However, the film did give a window into the fear of sharks in WWII, a fear Downie may have had to overcome, swimming in waters that harbored struggling, bleeding sailors, waters Downie’s citation described as “shark-infested.”

As Davis put it, “Benchley’s novel paid little attention to World War II, but the war anchored one of the movie’s most memorable moments. In the haunting, penultimate scene, one of the shark hunters, Quint, quietly reveals that he is a survivor of the USS Indianapolis disaster. 

‘Sometimes the sharks look right into your eyes,’ he says. ‘You know the thing about a shark, he’s got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes. He comes at you, he doesn’t seem to be living until he bites you.’”

The Mustin, a storied vessel itself, with 13 battle stars to the Hornet’s four, was eventually ordered to destroy the crippled carrier. “[A] blaze from stem to stern,” the 1980 reunion book recounts, the Hornet resisted being sunk. “She still floated after receiving nine torpedoes and more than 400 rounds of five-inch shellfire from destroyers Mustin and Anderson,” the book states.

The American destroyers eventually had to pull back as Japanese vessels advanced. “Japanese destroyers hastened the inevitable by firing four 24-inch torpedoes at her blazing hull,” the reunion book states. “At 0135, 27 October 1942, she finally sank off the Santa Cruz Islands. Her proud name was struck from the Navy List 13 January 1943.”

The Mustin went on to serve throughout the war, and later was used as a target ship in Operation Crossroads — nuclear weapons testing at the Bikini Atoll. The vessel withstood those tests.

“She decommissioned 29 August 1946 after use as a target; remained at Bikini; and was destroyed by gunfire 18 April 1948 in the Marshalls,” a Naval History and Heritage Command website states.

“After the war — January 1948, in Wyandotte, Mich., to be precise — Owen married a young woman named Ruby Margaret Dickson, born in March 1919 in Chatham, New Brunswick, Canada,” Martha’s Vineyard Museum research librarian Bow Van Riper emailed. 

Ruby’s mother was from Vineyard Haven, he noted. “Owen and Ruby spent the rest of the 1940s and 1950s in Wyandotte, where he worked as a machinist and then at a chemical plant.”

At some point he appears to have either returned to the Vineyard or made visits back to it. Owen Downie died on Jan. 13, 1990, according to Tisbury town clerk Hilary Conklin. Ruby Downie died in 2007, according to Van Riper. 

His obituary in the Martha’s Vineyard Times states Downie was 70 when he passed, and had “distinguished himself” in the Navy. He was described as the son of Freeman Owen Downie and Almeda Norton Downie, and was recalled to naval duty until 1951. He attained the rank of quartermaster, and also served on the Fletcher-class destroyer Conway. Downie was described as a member of the Legion, the VFW, and the Barnacle Club, as well as a member of the Vineyard Haven Baptist Church.

Like his wife Ruby, he is buried in Vineyard Haven’s Oak Grove Cemetery.