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Cimarron Avenue bridge in Colorado Springs will honor World War II hero Lt. Jim Downing

May 9, 2017 Updated: May 10, 2017 at 6:46 am
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Jim Downing, a 103-year-old Pearl Harbor survivor, salutes the Patriot Guard Riders as he enters Lewis-Palmer Middle School to talk to students on Thursday, December 1, 2016. Soon people who travel Interstate 25 under Cimarron Avenue bridge in Colorado Springs will know the span as the Lt. James "Jim" Downing Bridge. (Gazette file photo)

When the torpedoes began to strike and bombs were exploding around him at Pearl Harbor, Jim Downing didn't run for cover. He ran to help, sliding down the gun barrels of the USS Tennessee to reach the injured and dead aboard his own ship, the USS West Virginia.

He memorized the names of the men he tried to help, so he could write to their families and tell them he was with their sons in their last moments. He hoped that would offer the families comfort after the Japanese attack on the Navy fleet in 1941 that launched America into World War II.

Soon people who travel Interstate 25 under Cimarron Avenue bridge in Colorado Springs will know the span as the Lt. James "Jim" Downing Bridge. The Colorado House and Senate made the 103-year-old Navy veteran from Colorado Springs the namesake Tuesday.

He was greeted with standing ovation from lawmakers, who also rose for chimes that honored the state's war heroes.

After he retired from the Navy in 1956, Downing settled in Colorado Springs to work for The Navigators, a Christian ministry that is publishing Downing's third book, "The Other Side of Infamy." The book is focused on Pearl Harbor, the lessons Downing learned and examines how his faith led him through troubled times.

He has been described as both the oldest and second-oldest living survivor of Pearl Harbor.

The attack killed more than 2,400 people. After the war, 84,000 men and women were considered Pearl Harbor survivors. It is estimated that fewer than 2,000 survivors remain.

"It will be a marvelous piece of construction when it's finished, and it will be a fitting tribute to Lt. Downing," said state Sen. Mike Merrifield, a Democrat who represents the district where the bridge is located.

"It'll be part of what we use to remember the heroes of that war, and especially Jim Downing. I hope this bridge will be as strong and long-lasting at Lt. Downing is."

Work on the $113 million interchange is expected to be complete by the fall, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation.

State Sen. Bob Gardner. R-Colorado Springs, cited Downing's bravery and compassion under fire.

"Jim Downing is a true testament to the bravery and dedication to his country of the greatest generation," Gardner said.

Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, added, "We get the chance to create a permanent marker in our community to not forget what happened and what our forebears have gone through in order that we may be here today, and we may go home tonight and sleep in peace, and sleep in comfort and sleep in safety."

Downing was the West Virginia's mail clerk, and he knew most of the 1,400 sailors aboard.

As he spotted the bodies of some of the 105 men killed aboard West Virginia, he committed their names to memory. Some were recognizable, for others he had to check identification tags.

"I went around memorizing as many as I could with the intention of writing their parents," he said.

After the attack, Downing wrote to as many families as he could, relaying his belief that the sailors killed in the attack were heroes.

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Tom Roeder contributed to this report.

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