Pearl Harbor survivor navigates through 100 years

By ERIN PRATER | The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) (MCT) | Published: August 23, 2013

Not everyone gets a statement recognizing his birthday read into the Congressional Record.

Then again, not everyone gets to celebrate a century of birthdays.

A Colorado Springs, Colo., Pearl Harbor survivor - believed to be the oldest one - celebrated his 100th birthday on Thursday surrounded by a crowd that included U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, members of City Council, co-workers, family members and friends.

The party took place at The Navigators, a Colorado Springs-based ministry that retired Navy Lt. Jim Downing helped launch.

"We've got a birthday boy in the house, and we're going to do a lot of celebrating," said Brett Clark, community relations director for The Navigators.

The crowd of 200 hooted, hollered and cheered.

Colleagues past and present spent more than an hour sharing fond memories of the former sailor.

Before the kind words came gentle jabs at his age.

Clark informed the crowd that the year Downing was born, 1913, was the same year that stainless steel was invented and that Charlie Chaplin launched his movie career.

The Federal Reserve Act was signed into law the same year, added Susan Fletcher, Navigators archivist.

"Apparently, turning 100 this year is fashionable - all the cool kids are doing it these days," she said with a smile.

In 1932, at the age of 19, Downing joined the Navy. He was stationed on the USS West Virginia at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, during the Dec. 7, 1941, attack by the Japanese.

Downing put out fires on the ship's deck before it sank and rescued several comrades.

Downing also served in the Korean War. After retiring from the Navy in 1956, Downing joined The Navigators.

The organization refers to him as "Navigator No. 6" because he was one of the first to become acquainted with it and began leading Bible studies on his ship in the 1930s.

Throughout his time with The Navigators, Downing served as the organization's overseas servicemen's director, vice president, deputy to the president and chairman of the board. He still serves in a volunteer capacity.

Joann Blanch, who worked under Downing at The Navigators' accounting department in the 1950s, considers him a man of prayer.

"Funds would come in the morning mail, and I was so impressed by the way Jim would pray over each of those gifts," she recalled.

"Later in the day, we'd put our heads together to decide which of the bills would be paid," she added.

Skip Gray, who also worked with Downing, began his tribute by joking the two "have known each other since the Dead Sea was still alive."

Gray credited Downing with using his "loving, firm and gentle voice" to redirect the ministry's staffers back to the heart of its mission during times of chaos.

Doing so "has been the heritage of your life, and we're honored to be your friends," Gray said after reading Psalm 96 to the crowd.

Co-worker Tom Yeakley recalled the time The Navigators assigned Downing to its collegiate ministry - when Downing was 86.

"We brought the old warhorse out of the barn and decided we'd saddle him up again and turn him loose," Yeakley recalled.

Lamborn read a statement about Downing that he'd read into the Congressional Record in July.

"Throughout his century of life, he loyally served the United States Navy, was a devoted husband and father, and faithful to his creator," Lamborn read.

Then Downing was presented with a birthday letter from President Barack Obama.

"At my age, I've tried to figure out what life is all about," said Downing, who plans to make several trips representing the ministry in coming weeks. "I've concluded it's about a meaningful relationship with God, with family, with friends.

"There's nothing greater than to be with friends like I am here. The props are good, but it's the friends. Right now, I don't feel any different than I have for the last 25 years."


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