Jim Downing: A Life Well Lived

Jim Downing, beloved patriarch of The Navigators, went home to be with the Lord on February 13, 2018. He’d undergone surgery in recent weeks, and was unable to rally. He was known as Navigator #6, one of the first servicemen discipled by The Navigators founder Dawson Trotman.

The Navigators U.S. Director Doug Nuenke says, “Jim was an influence among us for walking with God and having our life’s work flow from our knowledge of the Word and walk with Christ. Jim has influenced me by being a man who finished well—with a spirit of humility and faith, not demanding influence but having influence because all see the character of Jesus in his life.”

Jim was born August 22, 1913, in Oak Grove, Missouri, a small community on the eastern outskirts of Kansas City. While his family moved around frequently during Jim’s early years, he spent most of his childhood in Plevna, Missouri, where his father owned the local hardware store. “At the time I left home in 1932, I had never lived in a house with indoor plumbing or electricity,” Jim said.

He joined the Navy at age 19, primarily because it seemed the best way for him to earn a living. “Down deep in my sneaking heart I had a suspicion God might have some design on my life, but, like Jonah, I felt that by going to sea I would get away from Him for another four years,” Jim said. He discovered God was waiting for him aboard the first ship he was assigned to, the USS West Virginia.

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. “Through the combined influence of the five shipmates of mine whom Dawson had trained, I gave my life to Christ in April 1935,” Jim said, making him Navigator #6.

“My life’s ambition was changed when I became [Dawson’s] spiritual descendant. I had planned to attend law school and enter political office. After meeting Dawson, my life became all about availability to his Lord and mine.”

After seeing one of his Navigator friends quoting Scripture as he talked to a fellow sailor, Jim realized he, too, wanted to have key Bible verses committed to memory. He ordered a Scripture memory course from Moody Bible Institute in Chicago with 108 verses.

“I got a list of the verses and tried prioritizing them by category to help me decide which to memorize first,” Jim said. “Because they all seemed of equal importance, I memorized 10 verses a day until I learned them all.”

As his Navigator friends accepted other duty assignments, Jim became the leader of the ministry aboard the West Virginia, and he assisted Dawson with the ministry throughout the Pacific fleet, teaching groups of sailors as they came into port.

God had something else waiting for Jim in southern California. Jim met his wife, Morena, through the Navigator ministry. Morena was one of the women who led Dawson’s ministry to high school girls.

Jim accompanied the Trotmans to Morena’s college graduation in June 1940. Jim said, “She was the graduating class women’s speaker and really wowed the audience, me included.”

By year’s end they were engaged, and on July 11, 1941, they were married in Hawaii, where Jim was stationed. “The altar was covered with orchids for which we paid $10. The bill for the 55-guest banquet was $55.”

Just 149 days later, the Downings’ lives were interrupted by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. “I lost everything I owned except the clothes on my back. The only money we had was the change in Morena’s purse. On Christmas Day, Morena left Hawaii on a passenger liner turned military transport. We would not see each other face-to-face for the next 18 months.”

Jim’s life would be forever linked to the “date which will live in infamy.” During his later years he spoke frequently to church and civic groups about his experiences fighting fires, memorizing the names of his fallen comrades, and carrying their bodies off the ship. He wrote personal letters to the parents of each sailor who died on the West Virginia.

By the time Jim reached age 100, he was believed to be the second-oldest living survivor of the Pearl Harbor attacks. Jim’s story is related in detail on a website devoted to the USS West Virginia, and in his final book, The Other Side of Infamy (NavPress).

Jim’s Navy career culminated with his becoming commanding officer of the USS Patapsco from 1952 until 1955. He was also the self-appointed ship’s chaplain.  Dawson once said, “On Sunday mornings, his crew listened with respect to the gospel message given by their firm, kindly commander.”

Wherever Jim served with the Navy, Dawson asked Jim to work as a Navigator representative. “When we moved to Honolulu in 1952, I asked [Dawson] for an update on what I was expected to do,” Jim remembered. “Dawson responded, ‘Do what you have always done. Lead people to Christ and build them up to where they can repeat the process.’ The ministry of The Navigators never got more complicated to [Dawson] than that.”

After 24 years in the Navy, Jim decided it was time to devote himself to The Navigators full-time. In June 1956, Jim drove with a friend through the night from his home in Virginia Beach, Virginia, to Schroon Lake, New York, where Dawson was speaking at a retreat. Jim and Daws were going to work out the details of Jim’s transition to Navigator staff. When Jim arrived, he learned Dawson had drowned the previous afternoon.

Jim was needed more than ever, and the new Navigator president, Lorne Sanny, asked Jim to handle affairs at The Navigators headquarters at Glen Eyrie in Colorado Springs.

“One of the biggest needs I saw for improvement was in our financial management. Lorne responded by making me financial vice president, which was the first administrative title I held,” Jim said.

Jim went on to serve in many capacities as part of Lorne Sanny’s team—Glen Eyrie supervisor, Military ministry director, treasurer, headquarters manager, assistant to the president, vice president, and deputy president. In 1978, Jim moved his family to London, where he served as director of the Navigator ministry in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

Jim grew to love and respect Lorne Sanny as much as he had Dawson. “When we were both at home, Lorne and I had a standing appointment at 1:30 every day for prayer, fellowship, establishing responsibilities and schedules, and making plans and decisions.”  They met this way for nearly two decades.

Jim officially retired in 1983, but in many ways his ministry was just beginning. His retirement allowed him to travel the world to speak and teach. His practical application of Scripture, his warmth and wit, made Jim a popular speaker, especially among college students.

In his 2007 book, Living Legacy, Jim wrote, “One of the lessons I have learned in 94 years is that when we are healthy mentally, physically, spiritually, and emotionally, there is no problem or challenge to which we cannot find a solution we can live with. When we are depressed and stressed about an unsolved problem, we should look beyond the issue to find the real problem. The problem is likely that we are unhealthy in one of these areas. When our health is restored mentally, physically, spiritually, and emotionally, we can solve any problem and finally get a good night’s rest.”

This is the kind of wisdom that endeared Jim to everyone he met.

Jim lost his beloved wife of 68 years in February 2010. Her life and ministry is recounted in the article “Morena Downing: Hero of the Navigator Movement.”

Jim’s 100th birthday (August 22, 2013) became a community event with stories in the The Denver Post  and on local televised news programs, and with celebrations with family and friends at Glen Eyrie and in The Navigators U.S. headquarters office. Colorado’s U.S. Representative Doug Lamborn read a declaration into the congressional record honoring Jim’s birthday, which began, “Mr. Speaker, I rise today in honor of Jim Downing who will be celebrating his 100th birthday on August 22, 2013. Throughout his century of life, he loyally served the United States Navy, was a devoted husband and father and faithful to his Creator.” Jim also received a letter of congratulations from President Barak Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.

Jim penned his biography in 2016, The Other Side of Infamy. This book allowed him to express his deepest beliefs and detail his significant military career, including his experiences at Pearl Harbor. The book also earned him a Guinness World Record as the oldest male author, having completed the book at age 102.

Jim wanted to speak and teach as long as his health allowed. One of his favorite messages in the last few years of his life was that the most important things in life are meaningful relationships with God, family, and friends. “I’m satisfied as long as I can have those three things,” he said.

The legions of people he influenced for Christ, the hundreds who called him “friend,” and the living legacy of his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren testify that Jim left this earth a very satisfied man. It is equally certain the Lord was satisfied with the life of this faithful servant.

“Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matthew 25:21 NIV).

Jim is survived by 6 children, 9 grandchildren, and 10 great-grandchildren, including his daughter Marobeth Ruegg; his son Jon Downing and his wife, Cheryl;  son Joe Downing; son Don Downing and his wife, Deb; son David Downing and his wife, Crystal; and daughter Joy Riley and her husband, Mark. His son James died of a heart attack in 2013.

Read Tributes to Jim Downing

Article Sources

  • Daws: A Man Who Trusted God by Betty Lee Skinner, NavPress, 1974
  • My Story, an unpublished manuscript by Jim Downing
  • Living Legacy: Reflections on Dawson Trotman and Lorne Sanny by Jim Downing, NavPress, 2007
  • Local Pearl Harbor Survivor Celebrating 100th Birthday Recalls Attack, KKTV television interview by Dianne Derby, August 23, 2013
  • “Pearl Harbor survivor James Downing, 100, shares story of that fateful day, by Ryan Parker, The Denver Post, December 8, 2013

Resources by or about Jim Downing


  1. In the summer of 1971 he taught about 30 of us from the book of Esther in Nav summer training program. He told us it was his favorite Bible book, and had the elements of drama: One side is up and then down, back and forth. Soon I am responsible to speak on Esther chapter 5; I remember that time, so I came to read about him to see if he is still living. He is, not on earth, but with the Lord. Praise God for His faithfulness to Jewish people, to Jim, and to everyone who trusts in His mercy.

  2. A great general of discipleship…(transforming lives )has changed address and his legacies endure for years…this is lesson for us to get involve in transforming lives.

  3. My wife, Jan, and I met Jim in Seoul, Korea, when he was really old. I mean, he was 50! Of course we were in our early 20’s. But, in 1964, Jim made a profound impact on our lives. We have been privileged to visit him 3 times in the last 3 years in Colorado Springs. His impact on us continues, and will. In Korea we were living in the home of Ron and Betty York, Navigator missionaries to U.S. servicemen. We were recruited to join them and served for 14 years in America and Germany and still have many friends from those years. All a part of Jim’s legacy. Thank You, Lord, for allowing us to know and learn from Jim, Ron and so many others.

  4. Every time in the last few years that I have heard the phrase “A life well lived…” I would immediately be think of Jim…and he wasn’t even done yet. He had more Kingdom impact in his last year than I have managed in my entire 46 years. That should inspire us all!

  5. I was honored to have him as my Great Uncle. I was so fortunate to have gotten to meet him last April with the help of his amazing caregiver, Carol Lucke Dodge. I’m so sad that he is gone. My thoughts and prayers are with all of his family and friends. I love you and will miss you much! RIP Great Uncle Jim!

  6. Zach Barki. Jos, Nigeria

    Known and fondly remembered in Nigeria as the grand Pa of the Word and Prayer. Jim is now in the Lord’s bosom of the Lord. You have left a legacy to be followed

  7. I was privileged to spend a weekend with Jim in 1970 at UW River Falls. Jim was one of severall influences in that time period that lead me to decide to follow Jesus for my life,
    develop that relationship as a central theme. To invest in lives for Christ and assist God in raising up men who will walk with Him was Jim’s legacy. I hope to finish with just a little of the Class and godliness of his example. Praise God for his faithfulness.

  8. got to be with Jim a couple of months ago here in Fayetteville, AR. I brought seven young guys to hear him. We were all impacted. If you havent read his book, Living Legacy, please do. Incredible pieces of insight on Trotman and Sanny I never knew. Jim was God’s man throughout his life. A great model for all of us.

  9. Well done, good and faithful servant!

    “I may never march in the infantry,
    RIde in the Calvalry,
    Shoot the artillery.
    I may never fly o’er the enemy
    But I’m in the Lord’s army!
    Yes Sir!
    I’m in the Lord’s army!
    Yes Sir!…”

  10. Another young Army officer and I were tasked to drive Jim from the Atlanta airport to our conference in N. Ga. He began to observe (I found out later it was a set-up) that the late 20’s which we both were was high time to get serious about marriage. Within a year I had met Sharon and in a few months we were married. She beat me there to help welcome him in! Thank you Lord, and Jim!

  11. Jim has been the ballast of the Navigator ministry to give the ministry direction, stability, and affirmation that we are doing the ‘right thing’. At every period in his life he has demonstrated for me how to live it fully for the Lord. A very unique legacy!

  12. I met Jim at Great Lakes Naval Training Center in 1962. He was invited to speak to our small Bible study group that met in the chaplain’s office. He spoke about spiritual reproduction and how sharing Christ with others and disciplining them could result in multiple conversions to Christ. 1962 was the year I was introduced to The Navigators and Jim had a big part in that.

  13. Let just say in 1969 I was at a Nav conference when he was speaking. Because of that I gave my life to Jesus. Thank the Lord for people like him.

  14. “And he was not, for God took him” Thank you LORD for giving us a “long minute” with Jim & Moreana. May their legacy continue to spiritually multiply for Christ’s kingdom and Your glory by the power of Your Spirit. Amen

  15. I can hear the LORD saying “Weldone gone and faithful servant, welcome into your rest.” Adieu Jim till we meet again

  16. I had the privilege of hearing Jim speak in 1968 at s servicemen’s weekend conference in Germany where I was stationed. I recently read Jim’s book “The Other Side of Infamy”, and enjoyed it thoroughly. I plan now to read Jim’s book “Living Legacy: Reflections on Dawson Trotman and Lorne Sanny. Those of us being discipled by the Navigators in Germany had the good fortune to be under the teaching of both Jim Downing and Lorne Sanny in 1967 and 1968.

  17. Jim was a mentor and example to me since I met him early in his life, at age 81. My wife Lyla and I felt perpetually and excessively loved by him and Morena. I will miss my dear friend.

  18. Jim commissioned me when I went on staff with the Navigators 15 years ago. It was amazing having him pray over me as I began campus ministry. I’m sad I never got to see him again to thank him, but am so honored that I have that memory.

  19. Jim has long been one of my heroes. When my wife and I went overseas on our first missionary assignment in 1977 Jim met with us and gave us a very motivational sendoff. Then to watch him active in ministry into his 100s was such an inspiration!

  20. Although, I can’t donate at this time. My prayers are with everyone who knew, seen, and met him. 104 years is a longtime, God is MIGHTY.

  21. I was worked with the Navigators from 1964-1974, part of that time on staff and have fond memories of Jim. While at Glen Eyrie I often heard him speak and also had some 1-1 times with him. He was always rock solid in this advice to me, for which I am grateful. Both his messages and life have had a lasting effect on me.

  22. So blessed to know and love Jim since I was a child. He was my hero when I was young in his dress uniform taking my brother and me down to the corner shop in London for a treat while we stayed at their home after being evacuated from Beirut. As I got older my respect grew for Jim; his integrity, kindness, attitude and keen desire to meet the next generation where they lived with the person of Jesus. His book capped an already amazing life with wisdom, honesty and humor. You will be missed Jim. I will remember you each time I travel across the bridge renamed in your honor. Give Morina a kiss from me. Laura Vidano Blackburn

  23. Very sad to hear of this news. Although I never knew Jim personally I know it is a great loss to the Navigator Family. A life long lived & well lived. I agree Janice, I am sure GOD is smiling at Jim saying “Job well done my good & faithful servant”.

  24. Heaven is rejoicing but I’m feeling sad. I will miss seeing Jim at special Navigator events and in the halls at HQ. What a privilege to hear Jim teach. To say I will miss him seems to small to say, but we all will miss him so much. There’s a hole in our hearts but we have hope. Well done, Jim — Well done.

    1. What a joy to read about a faithful disciple in this current day. Peace and blessings to the Downing family. Much joy in heaven for the arrival of this saint soul.

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