James D. Fairbanks of Ponsford was the first Native American to serve as force master chief, according to the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum -- the highest ranking enlisted Navy Seabee. He served with honor and had a distinguished career, earning 42 awards and ribbons, including the Bronze Star.
So it’s only fitting that Jimmy Fairbanks (as he was called in the Seabees), who grew up with eight siblings in a small house just south of the White Earth Reservation line, should be the first person honored under Becker County’s memorial roadway program.
An eight-and-a-half-mile stretch of Becker County Road 26 -- formerly State Highway 225 -- that runs like a set of steps from Ponsford down to Osage will have signs honoring Fairbanks.
Fairbanks surely traveled that stretch of road a lot, since he went to school in Pine Point, Osage and Park Rapids, where he graduated from high school in 1970.
He served in the Marine Corps and Navy for more than 28 years, and earned a chestful of medals. He served during three war eras: Vietnam, the Gulf War and the Iraq War, where he served two tours and earned the Bronze Star.
“He was a very smart guy,” said his younger brother, Tim Fairbanks of Ogema. “He was a born leader, he got the most out of his people … and they loved him -- he was a good people person.”
James Fairbanks joined the Marines right after he graduated from high school, served two years, and left as a corporal. A welder and steelworker by trade, he worked as a civilian for several years, did a two-year stint in the Navy, went to work at American Iron and Supply Company in Minneapolis for several years, and then found his true passion when he re-enlisted in the Navy Seabees in 1986.
"Seabee" is the nickname for the U.S. Naval Construction Battalions (C and B making "Seabee").
“He was promoted from an E-1 all the way to force master chief petty officer on the first attempt, which is unheard of,” Tim Fairbanks said. Fewer than 1% of Navy personnel make master chief petty officer E-9, he added.
There were about 20,000 Seabees in the Naval Construction Battalions when Fairbanks became force master chief in 2005, his brother said.
James Fairbanks loved a challenge and excelled wherever he was sent. During a 30-month tour at Keflavik, Iceland, for example, he implemented operational changes and efficiencies that saved the Navy $1.1 million, according to a commendation letter from Rear Admiral S.W. Bryant.
In the Iraq War, “the Seabees were basically fighting side by side with the Marine Corps,” Tim Fairbanks said. “It was the first time that Seabees stood alongside Marines during a fight with an enemy.” James Fairbanks earned a combat action ribbon in Iraq.
The secret of his success was a can-do attitude about everything, from rebuilding bombed-out airfields in Iraq to launching a fund for injured Seabees and their families.
Tim said his brother’s favorite quote, which sums up his approach to life, was from General George C. Marshall: “There’s no limit to the good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.”
James Fairbanks acted on that advice personally as well as professionally, mentoring troubled kids in Gulfport, Mississippi, and helping displaced veterans there move into a new, much larger facility after Hurricane Katrina destroyed a veterans home in Gulfport, Tim said.
James served as force master chief petty officer from December of 2005 to May of 2008. He stepped down six months early because his wife was fighting cancer, and became command master chief, Naval Construction Battalion in Gulfport, Mississippi, where he was serving when he died in May of 2011.
His New Year’s Resolution for that year had been to help as many people as he could, Tim said. James’ wife, Denise, who was from the Gulfport area, died a few years later.
James Fairbanks’ career with the Seabees was intense and demanding, but “he loved it,” Tim said. “He absolutely loved it. All the people that worked with him loved him -- he took really good care of his Seabees.”
Officers were also impressed with him, Tim said. Three rear-admirals were among those who sent letters of recommendation to the County Board as part of the application process to Becker County for its memorial roadway program.
"Jimmy Fairbanks was an absolutely superb leader and human being," wrote Rear Admiral Bret Muilenburg. "Not only did he influence battalions of enlisted men and women, he steadfastly developed officers as well to reach their leadership potentials. It is fair to say that I and many others can directly trace the leaders that we became to Jimmy Fairbanks."
Fairbanks was respected by the rank and file as well, said Greg Shear, who traveled extensively with Fairbanks as chief of Navy civil engineers. "As an experienced combat veteran, he was a huge inspiration to the Seabees, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan," Shear wrote in his letter of recommendation to the county. "It was remarkable how the Seabees would gather tight around him, drinking in his words. He spoke softly, so it usually was a close knot, with Jimmy Fairbanks somewhere inside."
Tim Fairbanks said Becker County officials were helpful every step of the way, and he appreciates the due diligence they put into ensuring his brother was a good candidate for the memorial program.
"They were all very good to work with, they were great," he said.
The County Board gave its blessing to the honorary road designation earlier this month. Commissioner Larry Knutson, who represents the district, said at the meeting that James Fairbanks had an impressive military career and set a high bar for future nominees for the memorial roadway program.