Jones: ‘I saw it, I lived it, I survived’
DERIDDER, LA —
For 17-year-old Houston native Jack Jones, an assignment with the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, seemed ideal.
“It was absolutely beautiful,” said Jones, 89, who now lives in DeRidder. “If you were going to be assigned to a foreign port — remember, Hawaii wasn’t a state yet — Pearl Harbor was great. The island was wonderful, the beaches amazing and the women fantastic.”
The time was the fall of 1941 and Jones was stationed on the battleship USS Tennessee. “We had been at Pearl Harbor a couple of months and would put out to sea for maneuvers, then return to our berth,” he said. “It was a good life for a sailor.”
That “good life” came to an abrupt end at 7:48 a.m. Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese launched an attack on Pearl Harbor, a day U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt said would live in infamy.
Saturday marks the 71st anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor that officially claimed the lives of 2,402 Americans. Jones vividly recalls the event as if it happened yesterday.
“I had mess duty, which meant I was responsible for feeding and maintaining the chow equipment for 20 men,” he said. “I had just finished cleaning all of my gear following breakfast and putting it up when the call was sounded for ‘general quarters.’”
The call for general quarters is an announcement on board a naval warship signaling the crew to prepare for battle or imminent damage. When the call is announced, the crew prepares the ship for battle. Off-duty or sleeping crewmembers report to their stations and prepare for actions. Jones said the call had him confused. “I wondered why in the world general quarters was being sounded on a Sunday morning,” he said. “This was time for everyone to hit the beaches and relax.”
Jones said he heard a rattling sound coming from outside of the ship so he moved to a porthole to take a look. “As I looked out, the first thing I saw I was a Japanese aircraft flying down the middle of the harbor,” he said.
During a general quarters call, Jones mission was to report below decks to help shuttle ammunition to the Tennessee’s guns. “I missed the whole battle,” he said. “I spent the entire time at my station handling ammo. It was nerve-wracking to be in the ship while all of the fighting was going on around us.”
As it turned out, the Tennessee was the only ship not sunk during the battle as she was “protected” by the USS West Virginia and USS Arizona, and the mooring quays — deep water berths — located on the southeast side of Fort Island. “We lost a couple of men killed and a few wounded, but our ship was the only one that survived,” Jones said. “And based on what happened on the other ships, our casualties were very light.”
Jones said it took 10 days to free the Tennessee from the wreckage surrounding her. During the interim he served on a three-man crew recovering bodies from water.
“It was horrible,” he said. “There were so many dead. It was burned into my brain and really affected me. I couldn’t talk about it for years. My family had no idea what I had been through or seen.”
After she was freed, the Tennessee and her crew headed to Puget Sound Navy Yard in Washington for repairs. Once repaired, the ship headed to San Francisco for intensive training operations in preparation for battle in the Pacific. While Jones was with the ship, she participated in battles in the Aleutian Islands and Tarawa.
During refitting following those battles, Jones was reassigned to a troop assault ship based out of New York. “I took part in three beach assaults — North Africa, Salerno and Palermo,” he said. “Palermo was the worst.”
Jones said anyone who has seen the movie “The Guns of Navarone,” where the cliffs come right down to the water’s edge, has a good idea of what Soldiers from Texas’ 36th Infantry Division faced when they assaulted the beach at Palermo, Italy. “It was a five-day battle and they had to call a truce after the third day to move the dead bodies out of the way so they could continue the fight,” he said. “From our boats, you could see the bodies stacked like cord wood on the beach. These were just a bunch of farm boys from Texas who had been in the Army for six or eight weeks. It was devastating.”
And it was another chapter Jones said he tucked away and tried to forget, along with his memories of Pearl Harbor. “I was able to bury it for a while, but in the last 10 years or so, I’ve found that it helps to talk about it,” he said.
Jones finished the war on a ship in the North Atlantic, hunting German submarines. His last battle experience actually came two weeks after VE Day — Victory in Europe Day, May 8, 1945. “We captured a German sub and her crew,” he said. “Neither of us realized the war was over in Europe. We didn’t find out until after we returned with our prisoners.”
Jones’ ship was then sent to the Pacific to join the fight, but VJ Day — Victory over Japan Day, Aug. 15, 1945 — happened before his ship could reach the Far East.
“I spent the rest of my time in the Navy in Florida decommissioning ships,” he said.
Although he said visions of the carnage at Pearl Harbor and Palermo still haunt him, he’s learned to handle it. “Talking about it helps,” he said. “Looking back, keeping it all inside probably did more harm than good, I just wanted to try and forget it. But I couldn’t forget it because it really happened and I was there. I saw it. I lived it. I survived it. And I came home. So many didn’t. That’s why I need to talk about it, so they aren’t forgotten.”