Lt. Jim Downing was on shore on Oahu when it happened.
“The Japanese planes were painted olive drab, the same as our Army planes,” he recalled. “It was not unusual to see Army planes flying around. So it was a great surprise when the first planes we saw were dropping torpedoes and bombs and strafing with machine guns.”
At age 101, Downing is the oldest known survivor of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. A retired Navy lieutenant, Downing thought the end was near that day as a machine gunner’s strafing shots flew over his head, digging a trench behind him. A gasoline tanker was nearby.
“I think what it was that I said [was,] ‘Lord, I’ll be with you in a minute!’ And then another minute went by and I said, ‘I’m still here. I’ll be with you in a minute,’” Downing said.
Those few minutes turned into 45, and Downing was still in one piece. He made it back to his ship, the USS West Virginia, rescuing men and fighting fires.
“There’s a lesson to be learned from that. We were unprepared. So my message is, weakness invites aggression. Remember Pearl Harbor. Keep America strong. And I want to get out that message,” Downing said.
The media spotlight shined on Downing after he attended President Barack Obama’s most recent State of the Union address. But he has another message, too, one that was not so widely reported.
That part of the story goes back to when his mother gave him a Bible while he was home on leave back in the 1930s. But he didn’t read the Bible. Instead, he hid money in it because he figured that would be the last place anybody would look. Then, one night, some Christian sailors on ship invited him to a meeting. They asked if he’d like to give his testimony.
“And I said, I don’t believe in that stuff,” Downing said. He managed to give a hollow testimony anyway, and later that night he started thinking: “I knew that these guys that gave testimonies were on the right track. So that has to be April 8, 1935, when I told the Lord, whatever I need to be a Christian, I want to be that. So that’s what I date my new birth from.”
A ministry called The Navigators, launched 86 years ago, nurtured Downing’s new faith. The group began in San Diego for servicemen. It was started by a man named Dawson Trotman, who was studying celestial navigation techniques. Trotman came to realize everyone is a spiritual navigator.
“They taught me to read, study and memorize the Bible,” Downing said. “They taught me how to pray. They taught me how to live. And they taught me how to reach out to others.”
Downing retired from the Navy in 1956 after 24 years of service and went to work for The Navigators, where he’s known as the “No. 6 Navigator,” one of the originals.
He says he has kept his faith vibrant for so long by following “God’s Formula for Fulfillment,” or what he calls the four “Ds”: Discover your gift, dedicate your gift to a higher power, develop your gift to the maximum, and deploy your gift.
Downing said he’s so busy deploying his gifts, he doesn’t have time to grow stale. He embraces change as God-given.
“I got my first computer when I was about 80 years old and I’ve learned to use it,” he said. “Sometimes, I tell the newer generations that you can do everything quicker and better, but don’t brag on yourself. It’s because we have provided you the tools to do that.”
Downing tells of a book he read as a child growing up around Kansas City, Mo. It contained a warning about being a “sign-post Christian,” someone who points the road out to everybody else but has never been down the road himself.
He has been pointing others to the same road he’s been down for decades.
“And so every year I live is rich in experience in meeting people,” he said. “Next year is going to be rich for the same reason. That’s what I look forward to.”
— by Mary Reichard