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Jim Downing USN Retired Author The Other Side of Infamy: My Journey Through Pearl Harbor and the World War

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Jim Downing, USN Retired, Author “The Other Side of Infamy: My Journey Through Pearl Harbor and the World War”

With greatest respect to Jim and his shipmates lost at Pearl Harbor, I included the entire transcript of the interview.

Host:  Today, we’re honored to have Jim Downing, author of “The Other Side of Infamy: My Journey Through Pearl Harbor and the World War.” Jim’s ship was the Navy battleship the USS West Virginia, where Jim was a Gunner’s Mate First Class and ship’s Postmaster.

Jim retired from the Navy with 24 years of service, at rank of Lieutenant, and has remained a utility player during his 27 years, full-time staff with the Navigators, serving in positions ranging from Deputy President to Chair of the Board of Directors. Jim was married for 68 years to Morena, who passed away in 2010, and is parents of 7 children. Jim is still known as Navigator #6. Jim, welcome to Business Leaders podcast. We’re honored.

Jim: No, sir. I’m honored to be here.

Host: This is awesome. We’re in Jim’s living room, and we’re chatting away at the kitchen table, where, I think, everything that’s important has ever happened in life, is at the kitchen table. And so I thought I’d go through and, you know, Jim, to kind of start out, take us back to your growing up, and a bit about yourself in Plevna, Missouri.

Jim: I was born at the beginning of World War I. My father worked in defense plants. Money was pretty scarce, so he had an uncle that lived right outside of Kansas City, so he got a job there so I could be delivered by my uncle. And then, my great-grandparents bought a large parcel of land in Missouri, directly out of Louisiana Purchase.

So we still have a section of that in the family today. So, there’s a small town by the name of Plevna. It was settled by Bulgarian immigrants. And apparently, they have a town by that name, so they named it after their hometown in Bulgaria.

Host: I bet you Plevna, Missouri looks just like Plevna, Bulgaria. What do you bet?

Jim: Well, something one of my friends checked it out on the Google, and the population is now 40. It was 100 when I lived there, so it’s cut in half now.

Host: You know, it’s interesting to grow up in rural America. And I think about the times that you grew up, and I read your book recently, and you were talking about some of the early influences, the Zane Grey and Horatio Alger books that you read. You know, as a young man, did you find that those books shaped part of your thinking?

Jim: Yes, it did. Books were scarce, and I liked the Zane Grey books and the Horatio Alger books. In fact, that’s all we had. So I read them over and over and over again. And as I mentioned in my book, the Horatio Alger books shaped, you know, that if you do the right thing, you’ll be a success. So, I felt they were pretty much all the same, just changed the name of the characters in them. But the theme was that somebody went into town, found a sponsor, did the right things, and ended up a success. So I kind of adopted that philosophy. I could be a success.

Host: You know, it’s an interesting thought process when you’re in a smaller community looking for a role model. And, for you, on access to the books, where did the books come from? Was there a local library?

Jim: We had a small library, but these were family books. So I apparently had ancestors who were interested in Zane Grey.

Host: Interestingly enough, my family had an interest in Zane Grey, so I made it through the entire series of Zane Grey books myself, more than once. So we share that in common, for sure. You know, in your book, rolling forward a little bit further down the road, you mention the influence of radio in your life and listening to the World Series on radio, and listening to, I think it was Dempsey’s fight on the radio.

I think, for many listeners, that’s not in their vocabulary. Can you paint a bit of a mental picture of what that was like when you were listening to your heroes in the World Series on the radio?

Jim: Yes. Radio, public radio, ownership at home developed in the early 1920s. And my father was quite an entrepreneur, saw a opportunity. So he got the franchise for radio, home radio for a whole district. I used to go help with and put up antenna, used a big antenna from the barn to the house, and took a pickup to carry the batteries, three circuits in them. So, I saw radio being installed.

The original radios did not have loud speakers, so they had places to plug in several headsets. And the headsets could be taken apart, so six people with three headsets, everybody had their own headset in that. Now, radio has changed a lot, but they had a program for the day, “Pay No Attention to Clock,” and we never knew the time from them. When one of them was finished, they had another.

Well, so I mentioned that one of the things that really helped, that farmers had no market news, you know, to know where to market their products. So, the market reports were important. And then, weather reports were important. And then, one of the favorites was Old Fiddler’s Contest. They had a contest with fiddle players on there. And, as I said, no time schedule on. Start in the morning, finish in the afternoon, or finish at night.

But it helped the farmers in their marketing. And then, the main entertainment was Amos and Andy, these two men that played six characters in there. So, everybody made sure their chores were done in time to listen to Amos and Andy. Then, of course, radio got more sophisticated. And there were no network news then. Later, network news came in. So, it ushered in an entire new era in our lives and training.

Host: You know, during that period, around the ’29 crash, did you guys get much on the radio from what was going on economically in the country?

Jim: Yes. We’d begin to get Wall Street reports. You know, the things were edited as it went on. So we had pretty good coverage on the stock market and what was going economically.

Host: Interesting. Did you guys happen to hear the Grand Ole Opry?

Jim: Yes. It came on. It was very well-received on radio. Probably the main musical program that was on.

Host: I’ve spent a little time around the Grand Ole Opry myself through the years. You know, for you, you were and still are a baseball fan. And I don’t think, for my generation, and for many generations following, they have quite the impression of what effect radio had and the color that they painted by sound.

Jim: Yes, well, I was in baseball and the Cardinals, being a Missourian. And I watched the famous Cardinals and they seemed, in the ’20s, the World Series seemed to be mostly between the Cardinals and the Yankees. So, we were always glad when the Cardinals won, which was not too many times during that time in there. But, I remember Stan Musial said he got more for one game than he got for a whole season when he started out.

So, baseball didn’t pay a lot to their players in those days. But, on the radio, of course, you couldn’t follow the game visually so it took an announcer that was very skilled and fast with his tongue to describe the plays, the home runs, and that. I remember, they said, “Going, going, going,” and then if it went over the fence, “it’s out.” But that was a pretty famous phrase in those days, “Going, going, going,” as the announcer followed the ball and it went out.

Host: You know, I think about, I’ve heard Amos and Andy on some of the…you can find them nowadays, I think, in podcasts and some of the other channels, the old replays. And the skill of those guys, talking about it, painting that mental picture, you don’t have the video to tell you the picture. You have your imagination. You know, and for you guys, growing up, did the Depression have much of an effect on your early life and your family?

Jim: It didn’t on our community, because there was no cash, no jobs. unemployment rate, I believe, is over 20% during that time. Now, my father owned a general store, which included groceries, and so people found enough money to buy flour and stuff like that, that they couldn’t raise on their farms. But there was never any extra money. And there was a lot of bartering went on.

I remember, we had a country doctor in our town, and people would come in, bring him canned fruit, vegetables, something to pay if you didn’t have enough cash to pay him with. But, it had a good effect on the community. We looked out for each other in that time. And we didn’t know times of prosperity, so we didn’t have anything to compare it to. So, it created a real community spirit.

Host: You know, it’s interesting, I think, in those days, the machinery didn’t really support really large farms. And so, my father grew up on a 40-acre farm in rural Tennessee, and they grew hogs, and they basically raised everything they ate. You know, so, I suspect that was similar to your neighborhood as well.

Jim: Yes, there were no tractors in those days. All the implements were horse-drawn in there. But, most everybody had a garden plot and could raise enough to can and keep through the winter.

Host: Yeah, my great-aunt still canned. So, before I go too far, for the folks who are listening, if you’re looking to reach out to Jim, you can find him on Facebook, James Downing. And you’ll know that you’re on the right place is when you see the cover of his book there, which is “The Other Side of Infamy,” to repeat, so people can take and figure that out. And, speaking of that, how’s your book tour going?

Jim: We’re very happy with it. I try to divide it up, that at least half is ministry and half is book selling. And we find that the most receptive market we have now is in churches, where I speak, and then have a book signing after. So, we have a good return on that. Now, the folks that help me here, know how to advertise on television and other media. So that’s a big help.

So the greatest outlet for the book is Amazon. I’m the next largest customers as I distribute it wherever I go. So we’re very happy. I don’t know how to compare it with others, but we have sold 15,000 to date, so I’m happy for that distribution.

Host: So you’re a best-selling author.

Jim: Well, I’ve been to one percent.

Host: That’s a best-selling author. Well, I read the book. It’s a great message and it’s a great story. I like how the book took you through part of your journey and, in particular, you know, coming back to your career in the Navy. You know, there’s that decision moment, and if you can, for the folks that are listening, take us to that conversation, in your mind, where you made the decision that said, “I’m gonna go join the Navy and leave home.” What was that like?

Jim: Yes, well, there was no future in our area for a high school graduate. And I wanted to be a teacher. And so that was the direction I was heading in my career, but I had a friend who went into the Navy two years before I did, and he was on a submarine, got extra pay. His take home pay was $90 a month. And every summer, he’d ride home on a new Harley. So, as I said, his pay was $90 a month. My father was a bank president. His salary was $90 a month.

So, I could see Curtis as a capitalist. So I thought there’s one place I can get out, away from home, be on my own, save some money to go to college. In those days, there was no GI loans or any program like that. So, if you had the money, you could go to college. If you didn’t, you couldn’t. So, I joined primarily to save money so I could go to college and then law school, and enter politics. That was the career path I had planned out.

Host: You know, I think about that career path, and some of the folks that are paying for the college costs for their children. What was, in your memory, the cost of college in those days?

Jim: Well, I remember, even when my oldest daughter went to college, the tuition was $15 per quarter.

Host: It’s gone up a little since then. That’s impressive. Now, what would have been the closest college to you?

Jim: We were in northwestern Missouri, and the state had five universities for training teachers. One of them was at Kirksville. It’s now known as Truman University at Kirksville, Missouri, just 40 miles from where I lived.

Host: Close enough, but that’s a long hike in those days, too.

Jim: Yeah.

Host: Yeah. So, you know, as you’d look through, and shifting gears from that decision where you decided to go in the Navy, what were some of the most vivid memories of your shipmates and experiences onboard ship prior to Pearl Harbor?

Jim: Yes, well, when I went aboard ship, the battleship West Virginia, full crew is 1,500. And that amount is about six square feet per person. So the first thing I had to get used to is having my elbow touch somebody else no matter where I went or what I did. So, the lack of privacy was quite an issue with me in that. And, a battleship is kinda complicated.

I know that, as a recruit, we had an inspection one day, and the captain asked me, “How do you find the food on the ship?” Well, I mistakenly said, “Well, you go down this deck, and then down that one,” and I described the letters and compartments you went through.

Host: Good for him to know where to eat, just in case.

Jim: Yeah.

Host: You know, and in those days, there was a, as I understand it, there was a fairly customary segregation between the officers and the enlisted. Is that true?

Jim: Yes, it was pretty well enforced. We had, on the ship, what they called officer’s country. And enlisted weren’t supposed to go back there. But, pretty early in my career, I became the assistant Postmaster, later the Postmaster, and the officers had special things for me to do, come and see them, so there was no barrier between me and the officer’s country.

Host: As the Postmaster, in reading your book, you also had a safe in there. Were you also payroll? Did you do payroll?

Jim: Pardon me.

Host: Did you pay the sailors as well as Postmaster?

Jim: No, but they always sent money home. It was by money order in those days. So, 40% of the crew or more sent part of their pay to their wife or somebody else, every payday, twice a month. So, I’d write those money orders one by one. That was a big part of my job was not the mail, but the money orders.

Host: Yeah, and you know, my father was 20 years Navy and I’d ask him, I says, “When you’re at sea, how did you get mail? How did you take and deposit any money?” So you’ve answered the part about the deposit. How did mail come on board ship when you were at sea?

Jim: We had three scouting planes on the ship, and if we were in range of land, why, we would make a trip in. We went out on maneuvers but then picked up the mail. So, for about three or four years, I rode that scouting plane. Now, it was what they called a SOC-3 a biplane, and was shot off the catapult. So, on the catapult, you gained speed from 0 to 60 miles an hour in 60 feet.

So, the first time we went off that catapult, I was really, you know, scared of what happened. All the liquid goes to the root of your body. You feel like a pancake. And you try to reach out, but the G force is still there and you can’t move, you know, for a little bit. But after a few of them, a minute or two, everything is normal. I did that for, I’d say, about three years. Now, if we were in Hawai’i, we flew into the air station.

They had a tractor, farm tractor, with a rope on it, so they’d pull a float down under the plane, put it on the plane, and that tractor would pull it up, right on the runway in the air station. So every place we went, we did that. So, we got the mail as often as we could if we were in range of land.

Host: You know, I think about the mechanics of everyday life. So we talk about the excitement of taking off. Well, I think about as you come back under normal sea conditions to land to get picked up, that had to be fairly exciting as well.

Jim: Yes, because you had no choice.

Host: You’re committed.

Jim: You’re out of fuel and the only help we had was the ship would make a 90-degree turn. And the wake behind would smooth the ocean for a little bit, so we’d come and land in the wake of the ship turning. Now, I rode with the junior pilot and the first two planes landed, then the sea was pretty rough again when we came in. But once you’ve committed yourself to landing, you go ahead. And when the plane came down hard, it was like a sack full of tin cans.

And I remember one time, I was in the passenger seat, and my job was to raise the flaps, you know, after it landed like a sprocket on a bicycle. So, the minute he hit the water, he said, “Raise the flaps,” so we could tight seal it up to the ship. So one day, I was a little slow, because he hit so hard it knocked the breath out of me. And he kind of said, “Come on, get the flaps up.” I said, “Well, I will as soon as I get my breath back on this.” So, the taxi up alongside the ship, and at last, lift it up on a crane.

Host: Exciting times. To get the mail, you were a very committed Postmaster, for sure.

Jim: Yes, well, there’s a number one, somebody said that mail is more important than food for morale on a ship. So getting the mail had a high priority.

Host: I still have the letters my father mailed to my mother when he was at sea. So, yes. They were important. They were saved. That’s pretty impressive. So, we talked about those experiences a little bit, and specifically about the mail, but going back to Pearl Harbor, on December 7th, you were on shore leave after a 13-day patrol.

Jim: Right.

Host: And newly married to Morena. And you were staying with friends in the Kalihi Valley in Honolulu. And I looked on Google Earth this morning. That seemed to be about five miles up the hill from Ford Island. And you were having breakfast, and it says, “with the fresh smell of bacon,” and I presume eggs. Didn’t read that part. And for the folks, you know, you had an announcement over the radio of the attack.

And from what I read, you could see the black smoke. But if you can, take the folks that are listening, to that point where you got the first glimpse of what was going on in the harbor and what went through your mind at that moment.

Jim: The minute we heard the explosions, we turned on the radio. And the announcer said, “We’ve been advised by Army and Navy intelligence that the island of Oahu is under attack.” And he said, “The enemy has not been identified. Stay tuned.” So, two or three minutes later, he came on and said, “The enemy has been identified as Japan.” And, of course, said, “Everybody return to your stations,” and all.

We’d already gotten on our uniforms, and with guests at the house, and we’re on our way, you know, in a couple minutes, on down to the harbor that morning. Kalihi Valley, where we lived, has high mountains on each side, so we couldn’t see what was going on. As soon as we got out of the valley, we could see the harbor with ships on fire and smoke. Now, in those days, there was no bridge from the main part of Hawaii to Ford Island, where the ships were tied up.

So, I took a ferry across. The ships were tied up in tandem, with the West Virginia being outboard of the battleship Tennessee. So I got aboard my ship by going on the Tennessee. I trained out a gun barrel, and slid down the barrel to get on my ship. All we could do at that point, all of our guns were immobile, was to take care of the fire was the main thing. And then, the dead and wounded that needed attention.

Host: Was the ship, was it sunk by then?

Jim: Yes. Pearl Harbor is a shallow harbor, about 40 feet where we were tied up. So there was only five feet of water under the ship. We took nine aerial torpedoes. The ship sunk immediately, but it was in the mud, so it was upright in there. And everything above the water line was on fire.

Host: You know, I think about the sailors that were jumping off ship to try to escape the problem on ship. And the problem didn’t leave them when they jumped, because the problem was in the water as well, was it not?

Jim: Yes. Each battleship carries about a million gallons of crude oil to fire the boilers. So the Arizona, after it was hit early in the attack, oil spilled out. The fire was so intense that the oil burned on top of the water. So, some of the sailors are jumping off. As they went down, they got this oil on their bodies. Then, when they came up, there was a thin film and they turned into human torches, so that was the worst thing I saw that morning, was these sailors that would surface and immediately burn to death with the fire on there.

Host: You know, I’m trying to paint the picture on my mind. Were the aircraft that were doing the gun runs on the ships tied, were they really apparent to you, visually apparent to you?

Jim: Yes. The Japanese used 350 aircraft in the 2 waves that came in that morning. And the first Japanese plane I saw was flying low and slow toward me. When the guy was at the right angle, the machine gunner cut loose, but the pilot didn’t back far enough, and so the bullets when right over my head. So, of course, I saw the plane as it came in and so low that you could almost tell the color of the pilot’s eyes.

Host: That’s pretty low. You know, I think about I’ve only been shot at one time and I remember it very well. And I suspect that those sounds don’t go away.

Jim: Well, I was afraid the next pilot would be more accurate, so the war became very personal at that point. And, no place to hide.

Host: Yeah, Ford Island is pretty bare. I was out there a couple years ago on Ford Island, looking around, and still not a lot out there on Ford Island. So, you’ve come from your house, and you’re trying to take and save your ship and your shipmates. And how long did that last? How long were you fighting the fire on board ship?

Jim: I’m glad you asked that. After the last reconnaissance plane came over, I was kinda hungry. I had a friend on the Tennessee, that was undamaged. I said, “Do you think you could get the galley to give me a sandwich?” So he took me up. I looked at the clock on the wall. It was 5 minutes to [12:00]. If you had asked me what time it was, I’d have said [8:30]. Because the events were so swift and passed together, that time just kind of sits still on that.

Host: You know, when you were fighting the fire, you were fighting the fire, as I understand it, with hoses from the Tennessee. Is that correct?

Jim: Yes, got a fire hose from the Tennessee.

Host: You know, I think about the magnitude of the fire, and I’m thinking about the amount of water you would have to have to do anything to make a difference. Did you feel like you were making much headway?

Jim: Well, that’s a great question, too. And as I reflect on it, a battleship is fireproof, the nature of what it’s for. But to keep it looking nice, we’d paint it every year. So, there was probably places where the paint was from a half-inch to three-fourths. And then, you couldn’t put it out. I’d put the hose on it, put it out, go away, it’d flash up again, that hot metal in there. So it was a real job. We could just control certain areas to cool and the rest had to burn itself out. My noon, all the fires were out, except on the Arizona.

Host: Yeah, that’s impressive. How many people, do you think, were on deck with you fighting that fire?

Jim: I was the only one. The word had been given to abandon ship, but I felt there was still something to do. So later, other people then came aboard, but I was the only one that was fighting the fire.

Host: That’s pretty impressive to think about. What’s going through your mind as you’re sitting there? You know, there’s nobody else here. I think it must have been noisy. Was it noisy?

Jim: Well, it was a lot of odor. I don’t remember the noise too much, because the planes, the bombs, torpedo bombers, they did their job in the first 11 minutes. And then, we had the high-level bombers after that. But, yeah, every time a bomb or a torpedo went off, why, there was a huge explosion. But it was the smell that impressed me more than it was the sound, of that gunpowder going off.

Host: Not a good memory, that smell.

Jim: Yeah. But, the reason I had the fire hose on, every ship has what we call ready ammunition at the gun site, so we could answer in a hurry. Most of the ammunition is in the ammunition storage below. So everyone knows ready ammunition boxes was filled with live ammunition. So what I was afraid is the flame keeps up, that they would have a secondary explosion by it. So my job, or what I thought was, was to keep the fire away from those ready ammunition boxes. And as far as I know, none of them exploded, so I guess I was successful in that.

Host: You know, I think about what many may think of what ammunition looks like. And we’re used to ammunition looking like a normal cartridge, you know, brass cartridge in the rear and the round in the front, and a firing pin. That’s not what you were dealing with in those days, was it?

Jim: No, the smaller guns we had were five-inch, so we had both broadside guns and anti-aircraft guns with the five-inch cartridge. And so the cartridge was five inch in diameter, and probably five times that much in length.

Host: Mm-hmm. So, that was cartridge, actually, on top.

Jim: Yeah.

Host: The main guns are the ones that had the projectile and the powder bags, I assume.

Jim: Yes, only one set of our guns were anti-aircraft. The others were surface guns. Our 16-inch guns couldn’t elevate high enough to fight an airplane.

Host: I’m sure the pilots were thrilled about that. I wouldn’t want a 5-inch pointed at me, much less a 16-inch. You know, after that timeframe, and you had some time and distance, what do you think the most profound change was in the way that you viewed the Navy and the outlook on life after that point?

Jim: Well, as I try to summarize my emotions that day, the first thing was surprise. No satellites in those days. Radar was not accepted as being accurate yet. So we didn’t know they were Japanese until we saw them, you know, with our eyes. Surprise. And as I mentioned, I was afraid that the next pilot would be more accurate as he crossed over where I was. So I was afraid. And then, I was angry at our leadership, that our political and military leaders would let us get in a situation like that.

And then, the greatest, strongest emotion was pride in the way our men responded. Without leadership, without training, everybody instinctively did what was needed to be done, and taking care of the dead and wounded, and the fires, and stuff like that. So everybody was a hero that morning, as far as I’m concerned. So I think that my strongest impression, as I look back at Pearl Harbor, was how our men reacted after a surprise, you know, a treacherous thing that the Japanese did.

Now, we only shot down 29 planes, but the Japanese reported that 74 more were damaged when they got back to their carriers. So a lot of the 74, they just rolled over the side because they could not be repaired. So, one day, this proud fleet I bragged about, setting there, you know, could do anything, and here we got caught and most of the ships didn’t get off a shot.

Host: So for you, rolling the time forward, you became a commander of your own ship, and the name escapes me at the moment. But as a commander of that ship, based on your experience from Pearl, do you think it changed the way that you commanded your ship?

Jim: Yes, I can tell you one incident. During the Cold War, the Russians liked to play chicken with the American ships. The Mediterranean is in international waters, so any country has the right to have a ship there. But sometimes, the Russians would put a ship in the middle of our formation and join it, just sailing along. So, they Admiral commanding that Mediterranean fleet took a cruiser, put tires down the side, all along, and his job was to push that Russian ship out of the formation.

Host: Did the tires help?

Jim: Yeah, I guess they helped from damaging the ship. But, as a captain of a ship, I’m operating in the Aleutians one summer, pretty close to Russia territory and not part of the Aleutian chain. And one night, a ship came in my direction at fast speed. And in the ocean, ships have right of ways like just cars do. So, you keep the ship on your port side. A ship on your port side has to give way.

So this high-speed ship tried to get me to give the right of way away, you know, even though I had it. Played chicken. So I told them, assembled general quarters, got everybody to gun stations and said, “We’re gonna watch him. When he gets a dangerous distance, we’ll shoot a warning shot over the bow, at his bow. If he doesn’t stop, we’ll just turn loose on him.” So I had my crew alert. This is about midnight.

Later, my operational commander in Alaska found out about it, called me, and said, “You’ll cause an international incident.” And I said, “Well, I was at Pearl Harbor. I know that weakness invites aggression. And I will never give the right of way away to somebody else. I’ll shoot him down before I’ll let him do it.” And he was kind of shook up about it on that. So, I said, “Now, the only answer is for you to give me air cover out here. Let them decide what to do on this.”

So, during the attack, I made a resolve. If I ever get in a position of authority, we will never be caught napping again. Now, I still have that philosophy today, that an Army officer in Hawaii there, got the report from his radar that there was ships coming in, there were airplanes coming in. He said, “Well, I read in the newspaper that there’s a bunch of B-17s arriving today. It’s probably them. Don’t worry about it.”

Well, the thing was that, you know, the B-17s were coming from the States, on the east, the Japanese from the west. So that should have been a clue. So, I don’t have any authority in the Navy. I have some influence, but I didn’t want anybody in a decision-making position that hasn’t been in combat. Officers who have not been combat are too optimistic. Officers that have been in combat, they don’t take a chance. So that’s a change that’s been made with me, that I advocate that nobody that has not had combat experience should be in a decision-making position.

Host: You know, I think there’s…my background is Army. We had garrison commanders and we had combat commanders, and they weren’t the same. And there was a reason. You know, unfortunately, now, I think we have a lot of combat veterans after 20 plus years of engagement. So, you know, for you, we touched on it. You rotated out of the Navy and retired, and then you went with the Navigators, which had been influential in your life for what seemed like most of your Navy career. What disciplines from the Navy did you bring to the Navigators to help that organization grow and prosper?

Jim: Well, as we mentioned earlier, I was number six, so the organization was pretty small when they brought the six of us in there. But, I would say that I grew professionally in the Navy and as a Christian side-by-side through those years. And there’s a lot in the Bible about military people. The Christians are compared to military people throughout the Bible. So, at every stage of my growth as a person, I passed it on to Navigators.

When I became the captain of the ship, I had a crew of about 125. And when I came with the Navigators, I had employees, about 125. So, I found out that that was perfect training for what I did in Navigators, what I had in the Navy. So, I think, you know, everybody that’s in the military, including you, agrees that you learn some things about discipline there that are in good stead the rest of your life.

Host: You certainly know what good times look like, and you know what times that aren’t so good look like, and you have a frame of reference for you. And, you know, I think about you guys refitted your ship. You had to get back to, was it Bremerton, Washington, to get your ship refitted?

Jim: Right.

Host: And then you rotated right back out to sea, and that was, what, 1940, when you rotated back to sea?

Jim: Yeah. What I did, I stayed with the ship. I took a year and a half to get it raised and back to Bremerton. I got orders to a new battleship in South Dakota. Came back to Washington, D.C. to go to school. At the end, when I graduated, they were one instructor short. They picked me to fill that vacancy. So I rode out the war in Washington, D.C., after…

Host: That’s a dangerous place.

Jim: Yeah. After ’43. And as I went to school every day, I rode a streetcar. They still had streetcar tracks in the city, and that was kind of dangerous. But I didn’t go to sea again until I left Washington, D.C.

Host: Okay. And then you picked…when did you pick up your command? What year was that?

Jim: Picked up…

Host: Command of your ship.

Jim: That was 1950.

Host: Okay.

Jim: That I became a captain now.

Host: You know, I think about those days, and part of my interest and some of my questions here is my father was Navy as well. And so I can remember the good days is when he’d come home from being at sea. And, of course, as a little kid, you know, the mom would always say, “Just wait until your dad gets home,” so it was with mixed thoughts when Dad came home, whether it was a good thing or not so good thing.

And my father was a Chief Petty Officer, as you were at one point in your career as well. You know, for thinking, for the folks that are listening, and, you know, the experience that you had in the Navy and the experience that you had in the Navigators, what advice would you offer to either CEOs or guys running companies nowadays that you think stood the test of time? What would you recommend to them?

Jim: Well, there’s a few people that are so talented they’re gonna succeed no matter what the opposition is. But that’s not the most of people. And I have a four-point advice that I give to college graduates and to people in retirement homes, everything in between. And it’s four words that begin with the letter D. The first is discover your gift. I believe everybody has something unique about them, that they’re good at, they’re successful at it, they enjoy it, and everybody should find out what that is and then do it.

So, the first word is discover your gift. Not many people have done that. And talking to college students, I say, “Is what you’re studying enhancing your gift?” Well, if they don’t know what the gift is, right, it’s kind of a waste, I think. The second word is dedicate your gift to a higher cause than yourself. I’m sure that there’s a high suicide rate among those who use their gifts for their own pleasure and prosperity.

I think about Billy Graham. He was offered a million dollars a year to go on late night TV. He could be a Shakespearean actor on Broadway. He’s the only evangelist that has a star in the Walk of Fame in Hollywood. He could have had any job he wanted. His gift is communication. I think he’s glad he dedicated that to a higher purpose than himself.

Host: Mm-hmm.

Jim: I admire the Gates Foundation. They have given for 25 charter schools in New York that they finance. They do more for overseas medicine and health than all the other foundations put together. So I admire people that use their gifts to help others. The third thing is to develop your gift to the maximum. Before I got into politics, I was a fan of…don’t tell me I can’t give his name, Dr. Ben…

Host: Ben Carson?

Jim: Ben Carson. Greatest brain surgeon in the world. And he used his talent to teach others. And, of course, while he could do that, he was a strong Christian. He would share his faith with others. The fourth word is deploy, which is a military term. And that is use your gift. I spoke on this to a battalion at Fort Carson here, where I live in Colorado Springs. At the end, I said, “Who do you think is the most fulfilled person in this battalion?”

I didn’t get much answer. So I said, “Well, if I were trying to decide, it would be a toss-up between the chaplain and the commanding officer, because both have discovered their gift, they’ve dedicated their gift, they’ve developed their gift, and they’re about to deploy it.” I spoke at a stand-up mic. The minute I finished, the commanding officer came over, put his hand on my shoulder, pointed in my face and said, “I am the most fulfilled person in this battalion and don’t you forget it.”

Host: Yeah, I actually served in a battalion out there as well, out at Fort Carson. So, understand, understand. And I’m guilty of saying um a lot. Through your career, you’ve seen some gifted leaders and gifted people that run businesses. What are the one or two smartest things you ever saw a commander or a business guy do in his career?

Jim: Well, in the military, I think that civilian companies have got a lot of smart people, but they can learn from the military. I’ve had a lot of contact with senior officers, generals in the Army and Admirals in the Navy, and I’ve tried to see what do you find in common among them. And the one thing I find in common is they say, “If you look out for your men, they will look out for you in battle, when you’re depending on them.”

So, senior officers are very conscious of the needs of the people they’re leading. I invited a general to have lunch on my ship one day. He said, “Will this take away from your crew, if you feed me.” And I said, “No, it won’t.” He says, “Well, if it would, I wouldn’t take it.” He wouldn’t even take a free meal. The other thing I’ve noticed, they’re good listeners. And I’ve talked to many senior officers.

Now, their mind is probably a hundred miles away, but they make you think I’m listening to every word you said. It’s important. So they’re good listeners. I don’t know that much about civilian leadership, but what I have studied, that it’s also true that the top leader, he better be aware of the needs of the people that’s working for him, and their needs come first.

Host: You know, I actually worked for a couple of general officers during my time, and so I got to see leadership from the top down. And it was absolute spot-on that the general officer would go to training, and the first guy he’d talk to is the private and he’d go, “What are we doing here today and have you had a warm meal?” That was his first question, and we were last in chow line every time. So, yeah. Those things don’t go away, those methods.

Jim: And that a connection, I did some book selling at the Pentagon about three weeks ago. And I counted 10 Admirals, you know, from one star to three star. They were in line to get my signature. It’s the first time in my association in the military that I’ve had Admirals standing in line to get my signature.

Host: Finally had to happen. You know, for you, you’re a best-selling author. What do you got going on over the next 5 or 10 years? You gonna do another book?

Jim: Yes. I’m 103. I don’t know how long I’ll last, but I feel that my book has a message for everybody, and I can touch more lives through the book than I ever can in person. So, my objective is to get it in the hands of as many people as possible.

Host: Does your book tour end at some point, or are you still gonna be on the speaking circuit?

Jim: Thursday, I go to Florida. Come back, one day, go to San Diego. Then, we’re working on things for the state of West Virginia and the state of Arkansas. So, I think with the help of these good people here that we’ll probably be busy the last of this year, anyway.

Host: You know, I think that, you know, for the folks listening, it’s an impressive body of work that you’ve accomplished in your life. And, you know, I like the part where we go back to the early years and how you grew up and, you know, the influences in your life, and, you know, going forth and working hard, and with the…they’ll say it’s the American Dream. You work hard and you’ll do well.

I think you take care of others, and that’s always been my concept, is to take care of those that take care of you and that works pretty well. You know, for you, I don’t know many folks who have had a defining moment in their career. What do you think is the smartest thing you ever did in your career?

Jim: I’ve been asked a lot of questions. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that one before, so I don’t have an instant answer to it. I think it’s, as I try to think of it, it was a big decision for me to make a career out of the Navy. That wasn’t the way I was headed, you know. I wanted to save money, go to college. But, I found out, in the Navy, this was a mission field. So, I decided to abandon my career, which included trying to go for President of the United States.

You know, I read in a civics book, anybody can be President, so I said, “Well, I’m anybody, so I’ll try that.” The most defining moment is when I abandoned that ambition and I decided to give my life to other people.

Host: You know, I think about that and I…you know, we talk about what goes on in our mind as we talk to ourselves. Do you remember the conversation you were having with yourself when you said, “You know what? I’m gonna do this Navy thing?” Do you remember what that was like?

Jim: Yes, well, after I’d been in the Navy, you know, I grew up like most Midwesterners, where you had a church event and went to church, and was baptized, and so forth. But I had not had a meaningful experience. So, after having a meaningful experience, and being born again, my ambition changed. So, to me, helping people in the Navy was more important than running for office.

Host: You know, and we look at that kind of story, and so, as you went through your career, and you have the influences, what do you think was one or two of the best pieces of advice you ever received during your career?

Jim: Yeah. You know, I don’t want to preach a sermon here, but in grade school, we used to have a baccalaureate sermon along with other academic speeches at graduation. So, one day, this pastor gave advice to our class. He said, “After telling all this, the best advice I could give you is get acquainted with Jesus Christ. He’ll prove to be the best friend you’ll ever have.” I took that advice. That’s the best advice I ever received, and the best advice I could give.

Host: You know, I think about that, for the folks that are listening, and there are those that’ll resonate with now, and those that’ll resonate with maybe later, or somewhere along the journey. But I can’t tell you how much I appreciate and am honored to have you on the podcast. It’s been fun. I’ve enjoyed it.

Jim: It’s been my pleasure, sir. Thank you very much.

Host: Thanks, Jim. Thanks a lot.

Jim’s Facebook page- James Downing

Books mentioned-

“The Other Side of Infamy: My Journey Through Pearl Harbor and the World War.” 

Horatio Alger

Zane Grey

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