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Art Downard, of Webster City

Downard overcame blindness to serve in WW II

November 6, 2013
By BILL SHEA ( , Messenger News

WEBSTER CITY - During World War II, Art Downard taught Army Air Corps officers the ins and outs of administrative duties, then moved on to the Phillippines to join an aerial photography unit.

He did all that despite being blind in one eye. In fact, he said that throughout his military career officers wondered what to do with him once they found out he couldn't see out of his right eye.

Downard, 97, was the manager of a movie theater in Webster City when the war began. He recalled that the afternoon showing of the film ''One Foot in Heaven'' was about to begin on Dec. 7, 1941, when word arrived that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor.

Article Photos

Art Downard, of Webster City, studies a map showing the Philppines and other islands in the Pacific Ocean. Downard served in an Army Air Corps photographic unit in the Philippines during part of his World War II service.

''There was a lot of commotion,'' he said. ''It was a shocking moment.''

He said his theater employees soon ''left en masse'' to enter the armed forces. He added that he ''got the spirit'' and also tried to enlist. He was rejected at every turn because of his blindness.

Then in the spring of 1942, he got a notice to report to the draft board in Des Moines. By 5 p.m. that day, he was on a troop train heading to Army basic training.

''I surely wasn't prepared for that,'' he said.

His blind eye went undetected during the cursory physical exam he was given in Des Moines.

''The people in Des Moines, they looked in one ear and if they didn't see daylight, well, you were in,'' he said.

About eight weeks of Army basic training at a camp near Fresno, Calif., followed Downard's induction. He turned out to be a good marksman.

''I was a heck of a sharpshooter,'' he said. ''When you aim a rifle, you close one eye. Well, I already had one eye closed. I just knocked the heck out of every gun they gave me.''

At the end of basic training he was summoned to the camp commander's office. There he was told that his blind eye had been discovered. The officers, he said, didn't know what to do with him. Finally, they decided to send him to Army Air Corps administration school at Fort Logan, Colo. After 12 weeks of training there, he was assigned to be an instructor. Another 12 weeks of training followed.

He then began teaching administration skills, such as report writing, to officers. Downard was a sergeant; his students were captains and majors, many of whom had been in the Army before the war began.

''They had to understand Air Corps administration,'' he said. ''They didn't have to do it, but they had to know it.''

Downard was an instructor for about two years. During that time, he had a regular routine. He got up at 4 a.m. and taught class from 5:55 a.m. to 12:10 p.m. Then from 2 to 4 p.m. he went on hikes and fired guns at the rifle ranges.

In the fall of 1944, Downard was informed that the administration school would be phased out. He was then dispatched to Washington, D.C., to become part of a 36-member special unit called the 4th Photo Procurement Detachment.

The group consisted of lab technicians and photo interperters. Downard was to handle administrative chores for it.

The photo experts attended a series of briefings in the Pentagon, which was then a new building. Downard wasn't needed at those briefings.

''I'm sitting there having a ball,'' he said.

The unit left the nation's capital on May 3, 1945, and headed for the West Coast on a train. They made a 27-day voyage across the Pacific Ocean to the Philippines. The unit was moved to Manila, the capital of the Philippines.

''The whole place was destroyed,'' Downard said. ''The Japanese had just been run out of there.''

He said members of his unit processed large aerial photographs that would be used to make maps of the Philippines and other areas in the Pacific Ocean.

Downard was in the Philippines until early 1946. At that time, he returned to the United States and was discharged from the military in Denver, Colo.

Upon returning to civilian life in Iowa, Downard returned to the movie theater business. He started by managing a 750-seat theater in Cherokee. Later, he owned the Webster Theater and the Corral Drive-In, both in Webster City. He retired in 1980.



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