Seabee Centenarian Becomes Honorary ACB 2 Fighter Builder

By MC3(SW/AW) Jonathan Pankau, ACB 2 Public Affairs

(Right) Capt. James R. Mims (Ret)On Dec. 2, Capt. James R. Mims (Ret) celebrated his 100th birthday with a party at the Oaks Country Club in Richmond, Va., a letter from the President of the United States and a flag flown over the U.S. Capitol. And, as the icing on the cake, Command Master Chief Johnny J. DeSarro, ACB 2, inducted Capt. Mims as an honorary member of the battalion.

“No one deserves to be commended more than one of the world’s oldest living Seabees,” said CMDCM DeSarro. “Capt. Mims served at Okinawa during World War II, met Adm. Ben Moreell and swore in the first 25 frogmen, known today as Navy SEALs.”

In honor of the special occasion, Mims received a commemorative paddle, designed by Senior Chief Builder John Woolston, operations chief, ACB 2.

“We (Seabees) are fiercely proud of our heritage and anything that ties us to our history we are very protective of,” said BUCS Woolston. ““Everything we do as Seabees we do to live up to the expectations of our predecessors. Making the paddle for him ties us back in a big way to our legacy and our heritage.”

Following the birthday celebration, DeSarro and Mims got together at Joe’s Inn, a local restaurant in Richmond, Va., to share Seabee stories. Mims meets there with the Bon Air Rotary Club every Friday and currently maintains a 56-year perfect attendance record. It did not come as a surprise to DeSarro that the entire restaurant staff knew Mims by name.

Joe Driebe, owner of Joe’s Inn, said that Mims has shown up every Friday morning since the restaurant started hosting the weekly Bon Air Rotary Club breakfast. Mims is there to open the door for Driebe when he walks in at 6 a.m.

“Everybody knows Mr. Mims because he’s the type of person who always introduces himself,” said Driebe. “He’s very pleasant and he’s always interested in how other people are doing. He’s a community fixture here at Joe’s Inn every Friday.”

When DeSarro sat down with Mims that morning at Joe’s, he shared his memories of the largest amphibious assault of World War II.

Mims was a Civil Engineer Corps (CEC) cargo officer during the mission and his task that day was to rendezvous with the main Seabee camp. But his ride to that camp placed him on a Landing Ship Tank – LST – with the 2nd Marine Battalion.

“We rode on an LST from Saipan to Okinawa in 1945 on an Easter Sunday morning. There were 1,400 ships in that operation and we had some Marines in an Army DUKW [a six-wheel-drive truck used for transporting goods and troops over land and water, and for approaching and crossing beaches in amphibious attacks] heading for the east side of the island,” said Mims.

Their mission was to trick the enemy by drawing fire to the location on the eastern coast of Okinawa and to delay Japanese reserve troops. The main landing force assaulted the beach on the western coast, supported by the 2nd Marine Battalion’s effective decoy tactics.

“About halfway to the shore we started drawing fire so the LST driver turned around to lay down a smoke screen,” said Mims. “We repeated this several times to draw the fire away from the west,” he said. “The Army guy driving the LST wouldn’t go all the way to the beach so we had to jump out and wade through the water while the enemy was laying down strafing fire by us.”

Exhaustion set in after two days of combat without sleep and Mims found an abandoned fox hole to take shelter in. As he looked up from his fox hole, a formation of Japanese fighter planes passed overhead.

“I don’t know whether they were kamikazes or what, but they flew so low I could see the first pilot’s face. I’ll never forget the smile on his face,” said Mims.

He paused after sharing his memories of Okinawa to show DeSarro the tie pin he was wearing. The mother-of-pearl-colored shell that he found on the beaches of Saipan before the trip to Okinawa was in mint condition. This tie pin, with its history, became a testament to Mims’ care and consideration.

Mims shared other stories after he was commissioned as a CEC officer, April 28, 1943. As the cargo officer for the 130th Naval Construction Battalion Mobile Unit Alpha Company, he oversaw much of the loading and unloading of LSTs and other ships. Mims emphasized that his Seabees were multitalented and they completed various military and humanitarian projects around Okinawa as well.

“We put in a lot of waterfront pilings, landing strips and airports. We actually built Route 1 in Okinawa running north and south,” he said.

Mims passionately described all the Seabees he knew as great human beings and constructionmen who just plain got things done and who cared about doing it right.

“And they did it right. Every time,” said Mims. “They could do anything and if you didn’t believe it you would ask them and they’d say, ‘I’ve never done that but I think I can.’ And they would.”

Mims also had the pleasure of seeing one of the more famous Seabee units in action. Known today as Navy SEALs, they began as a branch of the Seabees. Not only did Mims see them in action, but he was the enlisting officer for the first 25 frogmen –although he was not aware of the significance at the time.

“I was at Camp Perry and a lieutenant said to me, ‘I want you to go out there and swear in those frogmen.’ And so, as a junior lieutenant, I went out there and swore them in and then I said, ‘What’s a frogman?’ Turns out they were the beginning of the SEALs.”

Mims had no idea that he swore in the original 25 frogmen until he saw a familiar name in an obituary in the Richmond paper. He described the night operation he witnessed, where the frogmen pulled onto the beach in rubber rafts. They performed reconnaissance missions and set up targets for bombing and troop placements. Mims laughed as he recalled the sign they left up for the Marines that said, ‘What kept you?’”

After Mims served three years on active duty, he spent most of his remaining military career commanding Reserve Component Seabee units. At the 25th Seabee Anniversary Ball in Washington, D.C., Mims met Adm. Ben Moreell, known as the “Father of the Seabees.”

“I had the pleasure of shaking hands with the old gentleman, and I was impressed with the fact that he had an air about him that he always knew what he was doing,” said Mims.

Though Mims is a man with military experience, he said it was his childhood that defined him. Exposure to hard work, leadership and compassion for others at an early age prepared him for a long successful life.

“I used to do a lot of wood working and, in fact, I would play in the wood shavings at the town planing mill at eight years old,” Mims recounted from his childhood. “By 15, I was unloading 96-pound bags of cement, one under each arm.”

As a Boy Scout, Mims assumed a position of leadership at an early age.

“I wasn’t old enough to be a Scoutmaster but ours left – I was the senior scout, so I took over,” said Mims. “I was only a few years older than some of the other boys.”

Mims and DeSarro talked for most of the day, but DeSarro said he mainly just listened. Rounding out Mims’ life story…serving as a Marine before WWII, working for his father’s construction company (the historic Mimslyn Inn in Luray, Va., is a family property) and laying a role in the construction of the ‘Eiffel Tower’ at the Kings Dominion theme park in Doswell, Va.

Mims is a lifetime member of the Society of American Military Engineers (SAME) with 80 years of service, and is active in the Richmond Navy League. He recites poetry and is passionate about America’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Last, but certainly not least, he speaks with great pride about being a father, grandfather, great-grandfather and even a great, great-grandfather.

“He was a hard worker, a loving father and he had a consuming interest in the welfare of other people,” said Mims’ oldest daughter, Margaret Hamilton. “Curtailing the knowledge of someone you’ve known for 70 years and lived 100 years is very hard.”

CMDMC(SCW) Johnny J. DeSarro (left), ACB 2, hands Capt. James R. Mims (Ret) a command coin at Joe’s Inn, a local restaurant in Richmond, Va., as they discussed Mims’ experiences as one of the oldest living Seabees.                                                                                                 
Photo by MC3(SW/AW) Jonathan Pankau

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