By Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun
7:56 PM EST, November 10, 2011
Wherever Alvin T. Jones has lived throughout his adult life, he has reserved wall space for his Navy memorabilia. He displays his three Air Medals and his Distinguished Flying Cross, his honorable discharge, dated 1945, and a wedding photo of a young uniformed sailor and his bride.
Another photo shows Jones in the center of the 10-member crew of a B-24 bomber.
At 89, he recalls the name and assignment of each man posing in 1944 in front of that plane. Most notably, he recalls his pilot, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., the smiling young man holding a puppy in the picture.
"Kennedy was such a good pilot that we would have flown with him anywhere," he said.
Veterans Day offers the nation an opportunity to reflect on all those who have served and to take note of their stories. Mark Evans, historian with the Naval History and Heritage Command, said recording the recollections of veterans like Jones is critical.
"For so many reasons, we need these accounts, but most importantly because of what these veterans did," Evans said. "Almost everyone knew someone in the armed forces then. There were epic battles, where more men were lost in a few days than in the last 10 years of war across the world."
Jones, a resident of Essex, grew up in Waverly and briefly attended Clifton Park High School. He had tried to join the Navy when he was 17, hoping to learn a trade. Recruiters told him he was too young and too scrawny, but he succeeded in enlisting at 19, immediately after Pearl Harbor.
"I wanted to join anyway, and that attack really ticked me off," he said.
After boot camp in Norfolk, he was assigned to an ammunition ship, delivering supplies to naval ports in the North Atlantic, including Iceland and Labrador.
"We prowled the North Atlantic for months on a zigzag course," he said. "We were so loaded with ammo that they wouldn't let us sail with the convoys."
He later served on a flying boat squadron searching for German subs.
Eventually, he volunteered for the Navy's aviation program, took the requisite training and landed in a squadron of B-24s, called PB4Ys by the Navy. His pilot was Kennedy, the eldest brother of the family that would include a president and two senators. The two would fly together for 21/2 years.
"That was good duty with Kennedy," Jones said. "At first, it was just four of us, the pilot, co-pilot, radioman and me. I called him Joe and he called me Jonesie."
For several months, the crew ferried the planes, known as Liberators, from Norfolk to San Diego, where designers modified them to meet the Navy's needs.
"It really was one of the sturdiest planes," Jones said.
While training for combat flights in Providence, R.I., Kennedy would often take his crew to the family compound in Hyannis Port, Mass. Jones did not recall touch football games of legend or sailing on the Atlantic, but he remembered relaxing evenings by the water amid a lively, friendly family.
The crew expanded to 10 and transferred to England in the months before D-Day. Theirs would be bombardment duty, trying to minimize threats from enemy submarines and planes.
"Our forces could never have landed on D-Day without support from these planes," Evans said. "They were extremely important to defeating German U-boats. The crews put in long hours, often in freezing cold. The squadron suffered heavy casualties, with many planes shot down. But these crews continued to do their mission."
Jones was an aviation machinist's mate who inspected the plane before every flight. Kennedy usually borrowed a quarter from his mechanic, so he could call a girlfriend before takeoff. Their crew's navigator was probably the least experienced, but "Kennedy always straightened him out," Jones said
"Before every flight, I would check the plane and start the engines one at a time," he said. "Kennedy would come out to the field and say, 'Jonesie, are we ready to go?' But he already knew I had made sure we were."
From their base in Devonshire, England, they flew 32 combat missions and were frequently attacked by enemy planes. Their squadron took heavy casualties and lost more than half its planes.
"Missions flown by such men as Joe Kennedy Jr. and Alvin Jones played a key role in weakening German coastal batteries, airstrips and submarine bases along the coast of the Bay of Biscay and elsewhere," Edward Renehan, author and Kennedy historian, said in an email. "In so doing, they saved an incalculable but large number of American and British lives, both on sea and land."
The planes were rugged and could take punishment, but they rattled constantly, offered little protection from the elements and small comfort to those who flew in them, Evans said.
After their 32nd mission, Jones returned to the U.S. Kennedy, 27, remained in England and volunteered for a dangerous mission in August 1944. He and a co-pilot flew a plane loaded with more than 10 tons of explosives toward a German bomb-launching site in Normandy. Their plane exploded before they could bail out, and no trace of them was ever found.
Jones was in Norfolk, waiting to be deployed to duty in the Pacific, when he learned of his captain's death.
"I was devastated when I heard," he said. "He had talked about being president, and he would have been a good one. I figured if that happened, I would do something in Washington for him."
Jones returned to Baltimore in 1945. He married Marie Schulze, whom he had met at a city ice rink before the war.
"I saw her skating and told a friend I was gonna get that gal," he said. "I followed her home."
They had two children and were together 58 years until her death 10 years ago.
He did learn a trade in the Navy. That machinist experience led to a career as a master plumber. At 89, he is still working part time, giving plumbing advice to customers at Home Depot in White Marsh.
"At first, they wanted me to be a greeter, but that was not where I belong," he said. "Now, they send the plumbing problems to me. I get them straightened out one way or another."
His assistant manager, Dan Cole, said he values experience like that in an employee. "He has so much knowledge in a field where you have to know what you are doing," Cole said.
At the entrance to the store, the staff has put up a wall of honor for its employees who are veterans, including Jones, the oldest of those pictured.
"We put it up for Veterans Day last year and just kept it up," Cole said. "It is important to recognize these veterans. They have kept this country free."
Jones said, "Customers see that wall and look me up. We chat a little about my time in the service. Then, the best part, many of them thank me for taking care of the country."
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun