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Pearl Harbor Survivor and Navigators Ministry Leader Dies at 104 - What a Legacy

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The second-oldest survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack and a key leader of The Navigators ministry has died, leaving behind a legacy of courage and faith that inspired multiple generations.

Jim Downing died on February 13 in Colorado Springs at the remarkable age of 104.

Within the ministry that he had devoted his life to serving, Downing was known as Navigator #6, one of the first servicemen ever discipled by the ministry's founder, Dawson Trotman.

"He never quit giving his life away, and God's life flowed freely through him to others," said Mutua Mahiaini, international president of the Navigators.

Jim's ordinary life turned extraordinary at 7:55 a.m. on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941. The location was Pearl Harbor, near Honolulu, Hawaii.

A few years ago, the retired US Navy lieutenant shared his memories of that day with CBN as if it were yesterday.

"I'd just been married for five months and we were having breakfast when the first bomb was dropped. We turned on the radio after hearing a noise," he recalled.

A radio announcement rang out: "Severe bombing of Pearl Harbor by enemy planes!"

Two-hundred miles off Hawaii, six Japanese aircraft carriers under Admiral Yamamoto had launched 353 aircraft led by Commander Mitsuo Fuchida in a surprise attack against the US Pacific fleet. Jim scrambled from his house toward his ship, the USS West Virginia, berthed on "battleship row."

Jim recalled the moments that followed, "The first airplane that came my direction was olive drab. I thought it was an Army plane. Then he came in flying low and slow. He had machine guns, so when the machine guns opened up, the bullets when right over my head! That's when war became very personal."

Simultaneous air attacks were underway at six US airfields. The first wave of attack along "battleship row" crippled or sunk the might of the US Pacific fleet.  

Jim explained, "We were tied up with the Oklahoma in front of us and the Arizona behind. The Oklahoma capsized and turned over, so here we were with the Oklahoma upside down in front of us and the Arizona burning like a volcano behind."

Jim first boarded the flaming deck of the USS Tennessee and slid down its five-inch gun barrel onto the West Virginia. Massive torpedo strikes had already sunk the West Virginia into the shallow waters.

"I could see the fire spreading toward the ammunition. I took a fire hose from the Tennessee and tried to cool the ammunition so it wouldn't explode because the fire was spreading to everything above the water line," he recalled

Millions of gallons of crude oil from the USS Arizona, Oklahoma, California and four other damaged or sinking battleships ignited the water in flames.  

"Oil is lighter than water so it stayed at the top and to see sailors being blown over the side into that oily water, sink underneath, come up and the oil was on fire, and to see their bodies just burn like a human torch, that was the worst experience I could imagine is seeing those human torches burning."

"I ran the whole gamut of emotions. The first was surprise. And then there was fear. And it turned to anger that our leadership had let us down. And then there was pride to see our men without leadership, instinctively doing the right thing."

As the second wave of attack swooped in on the USS Nevada, Jim says he felt peace while fighting the inferno. "I felt like, 'Lord, I'll be with you in a minute.' And I fully expected to be. So I had the deepest peace I've ever felt in my life, and I think that was it. 'I'm going to be with you in a minute.'"    

Jim's faith in God didn't begin in the heat of battle. Years earlier aboard the West Virginia, at the age of 19, Jim lived and worked alongside a group of Christian shipmates.

"I was very unhappy. But Virgil was one of this group. (He) sang a tune, face shining and looked like he's the happiest person in the world. I knew it was Christ in him. I was attracted to Christ because of the quality of life the guys I saw who were Christians. It was aboard the battleship West Virginia that I gave my life to Christ because I wanted what these other people had."

Jim's shipmates introduced him to Dawson Trotman, who was just beginning to work among a small group of sailors in southern California, a ministry that would become known as The Navigators. Jim quickly became an avid student of the Bible, memorizing scripture.

Then, in that crucial hour, when lives were at stake and later when his shipmates needed comfort in death, God's peace led Jim.

"I knew many of them that I saw killed. We lost 108 that morning. They went down fighting. They went down trying to protect the ship and each other. I felt like that everybody was a hero that morning."

After all the fires were out, Jim rushed to the hospital. Over three-and-a-half thousand Americans were dead or wounded.

"My friends were burned and, so I took a notebook and went down the line of these guys in suspension and said, 'If you'll give me your parents' address and dictate a note, I'll see that they get it' and the main surprise was how optimistic they were. And they told their parents, 'don't worry about it, I'll be all right.' And they knew that the majority of them would die that night. But I liked their optimism."

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt described it best when he labeled "December 7, 1941, a date that will in infamy." The next day the United States declared war on Japan.

"I also realized that this was going to be a long war," added Jim.

Battles in the Pacific theater alone resulted in 35 million casualties – three percent of the world's population. The 100,000 casualties at Okinawa alone heavily influenced America's decision to use two atomic bombs against Japan to end WWII.

Jim was stationed in Washington, DC at the war's end, grateful the 400 gunnery trainees under his command would enjoy civilian life once again. "We were relieved that it was over. We were too close to disaster. It must never happen again."

When Jim retired from the US Navy, to his surprise, he met and befriended Japan's Pearl Harbor attack commander, Mitsuo Fuchida.

"I met him and talked with him on several occasions. A missionary gave Fuchida a Bible and he became a Christian and became an evangelist." They (Jim and Fuchida) fought against each other in war, but through Christ discovered a brotherhood of peace.

After the war, Downing became an integral leader at the Navigators ministry that had so heavily influenced his life during his career in the Navy.

Downing told CBN his favorite verse is from : "God Himself said, 'The nations will know Me when they see Me in you.'"

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About The Author

Cheryl Wilcox Headshot

Cheryl Wilcox, Coordinating Producer, The 700 Club. I hail from a Jesus loving SoCal surf family 🏄🏻‍♀️. I’m the mother of two brilliant, business owning daughters. My heroes are the Great Emancipators and Corrie Ten Boom 🇳🇱. I scull 🚣🏻‍♀️ for life balance, (it’s a little easier than surfing) and I’m passionate about organic food 🥗 and gardening. Since 1989, I’ve produced feature stories 🎬 for CBN. In my free time I enjoy reading about the lives of Saints – like Julian of Norwich🇬🇧. I’m baptized Anglican. Christ is King! 💫