Sam’s Club CEO John Furner welcomed 104-year-old U.S. Navy veteran Jim Downing to Bentonville Friday at the retail giant’s annual Veteran’s Day event held at its headquarters.
Downing told Talk Business & Politics he made the trip from his Colorado Springs home earlier this week to speak at Friday’s event. He said staying active in honoring veterans has long been important to him. Downing is believed to be the second-oldest survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Stationed on the U.S.S. West Virginia docked at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7,1941, Downing said a wide range of emotions swept through his body on that fateful day. The first he said was utter surprise.
“The first thing I saw were planes flying low and the flames shoot high, fortunately it wasn’t over my head as it went well behind me. Then fear set in and soon it was anger that our leaders, political and military, could get caught like that. I made a resolve that if I got into a position of authority it would never happen again. Overall, there was pride about the way our people responded without training, without leadership. Everybody saw what needed to be done and they did it with no thought about their own life or safety. I am proud of the heroes I saw that day,” Downing said.
Downing said he helped fight the flames and will never forget his fellow servicemen in water, covered with oil and burning. He spent time in the local hospital talking to 65 badly burned comrades chronicling their names and last thoughts for their families. More than half of those men died that night, he said. But Downing was able to send their families notes he took and messages from the sailors on their last day.
He has returned to Pearl Harbor several times over the years and no matter how beautiful it is he can’t help but see the devastation of that day with 22 U.S. ships sunk and so many of his fellow servicemen dead. Downing left home and joined the Navy at age 18 and remained in the military through the Korean War where he was commanding officer of the U.S.S. Patapsco, a gasoline tanker.
Downing authored a book about his military service, “The Other Side of Infamy: My Journey Through Pearl Harbor and the World of War.” The book was published in 2016 when Downing was 102-years old, making him the oldest person in the world to publish a book according to Guinness World Records.
Wal-Mart also recognized Lois Bouton, 98 of Rogers, who was recently honored with a lifetime service award from the U.S Coast Guard. She is known as the “Coast Guard lady,” and the “chocolate-chip lady.” Bouton met her husband while in radio school. After World War II the couple moved to Chicago, where she taught first grade and her husband was a barber at the Veteran’s Administration hospital near the Great Lakes Naval Training Center.
Bouton said she began visiting patients in the hospital and did so throughout the Vietnam War, taking them chocolate-chip cookies. She had a special connection to those in the Coast Guard which is how she got the nicknames. They moved to Arkansas in 1974 and she began writing letters since she couldn’t go in person. She wrote to the lighthouses in the most remote of regions and also wrote to those serving in the Coast Guard. Over the past 43 years, Bouton said she’s written more than 100,000 letters to servicemen and women and their families. Even now she still sends more than 1,000 cards a year to her Coast Guard family.
Also speaking at the Wal-Mart event this year was Julie Duncan, director of store planning at Wal-Mart Stores. Duncan has spent 26 years in the Coast Guard, 20 full time and the past six in the reserves. Duncan said she applied for a job at Wal-Mart in 2014 out of curiosity when she was turned down by others despite her bachelor’s degree in construction management and a master’s degree in business administration with emphasis on sustainability.
“I kept being told I have no real construction experience and they looked past my years of military service. An Indeed ad popped up for me about opportunities at Wal-Mart. They didn’t look past my service because they wanted a degree and leadership skills. Check, check. I have those,” she said.
Duncan is one of of the 188,000 veterans Wal-Mart has hired in its commitment to employ 250,000 by 2020. She’s also one of the 26,000 who have been promoted. In August, right before Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas Coast ,she was promoted to director of store planning. Once the hurricane hit and Houston took on water Duncan was called by the Coast Guard into action. She was told it would be a 60-day assignment.
“I didn’t want to have to tell my new boss that these orders had come through. But when I did Wal-Mart was great. They told me to go and serve and be careful. Luckily it was only an 18-day assignment,” she said.
Furner said the last thing veterans still serving in the reserves want to worry about is their jobs at home when they are called into active status. Wal-Mart protects the position and provides differential pay while employees are on active duty. He said Wal-Mart Stores hires veterans because “it’s great business and veterans get it done.”
HONORING THE FALLEN
Admiral James Stavridis, who led NATO alliance forces until 2015, also spoke at Friday’s event. Stavridis shared three short letters from fallen soldiers throughout history and said each has one thing in common – the young men were willing to sacrifice their lives for others.
A 32-year old soldier of the Civil War on the eve of Gettysburg attack wrote to his wife the duty for country was too great to ignore. Army Captain Michael McKenzie wrote a short note to his daughter Madison before he was killed in Iraq telling her to stay beautiful and nice and know she would always be his little girl. Young Private Jesse Givens wrote his final words to his young family shortly before he died in Iraq in 2005, telling his wife to hug and kiss the kids, go outside and count the stars in the sky and not to forget to smile.
Stavridis said the take-aways from the last letters home is that we are a lucky nation to have people from all generations giving selfless service and we should give voice to that level of sacrifice, not just talk about it, but celebrate it. He said the soldiers will be forever young and Givens’ advice is one we should heed: hug and kiss the kids, go outside and count the stars in the sky and don’t forget to smile.