Wilbur Jones has returned home from another trip to Washington, DC. There is new excitement in a project he has headed for a decade, to have his hometown designated as the first “American World War II Heritage City” in the United States. State lawmakers recently passed HR 970, which urges Congress to award that designation to one city every year, with Wilmington being the first to receive the honor. The selection would be based on several criteria, including the city’s contributions to the war effort during World War II, and the city’s efforts to preserve the history of those contributions. The proposal is the latest in Jones’ efforts to chronicle the history of his beloved Wilmington.
“For Wilmington, it's the historical markers,” Jones said at a news conference announcing the resolution passage in the General Assembly. “It's the preservation organizations that have been established. It's the veterans that we have looked after with USO dances and meet and greets, and ceremonies honoring the Pearl Harbor survivors every December 7th. I could go on and on and on.”
December 7, 1941, stands as the earliest memory Wilbur Jones has of World War II. More than 76 years later, he can tell you exactly where he was and what he was doing when the news came over the radio of the Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor.
“I was in the sun room of my (family’s) home in Forest Hills,” Jones says. “I was listening to the Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles football game, which had just gotten started in DC. I had no idea what was happening. We knew the world was at war. I was seven-years-old, and went to my parents and said, ‘what was happening?’ and went from there.”
Jones says life as he knew it then changed immediately. The Star-News of Wilmington published several editions with details of the attack. The seven-year-old was about to join millions of others in the United States whose country was at war. Jones watched it transform his city into a bustling boomtown. The shipyard became the largest employer. The population tripled. Jones talks about the impact it had on his formative years starting at 2:15 of the podcast.
“I became very interested in the armed forces,” he remembers. “My father had been in the Navy in World War I. It was the thing to do in those days, not only for my generation but for the boys who went away to war. I don’t think I had an opportunity to do anything else other than serve my country, starting with the Navy.”
As a teenager, Wilbur Jones showed a penchant for writing. He became the editor of the student newspaper at New Hanover High School. That led to a part-time job with the Star-News at the age of 15, and the intent to study journalism at the University of North Carolina. He wanted to be a sports writer. Two years later, reality set in and plans changed.
“I decided after my sophomore year, you’ll get a kick out of this, there just wasn’t enough money as a sports writer and in sports journalism,” he says with a chuckle. “I changed my degree over to history. It really was a brilliant move. Brilliant move.”
But detailing history would have to wait for Wilbur Jones. He followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the Navy, where he would spend the next 28 years in service to the country (14 years on active duty, 14 in the ready-reserve). Assignments would take him around the world, on at least a half-dozen different types of ships and duty-stations, including a deployment to the Mediterranean where he would meet his future wife Carroll. Jones also pulled a tour in the Pentagon, which he comically calls “purgatory”. He shares some the military memories starting at 8:15 of the podcast.
“I had a very responsible job when I was on active duty, and then when I was assigned as an assistant to the Under Secretary, the number three guy in the Pentagon, I was given a lot of responsibility,” Jones said. “So, I felt very good about my career in the Navy.”
When Jones submitted paperwork to resign his commission and go into the Naval Reserves, he became interested in politics. He lived in California at the time, and worked on the campaign to elect Ronald Reagan as governor. Connections led him back to Washington, DC, and work on the President Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign. Jones says a decision he made to stay away from assignments considered too “political”, kept him from becoming part of a political scandal.
“I could have been, hypothetically, the guy across the street from the Watergate Hotel as the lookout,” Jones says. “I turned down (the chance) to advance Attorney General John Mitchell’s wife to Florida. She was causing a lot of problems. She drank a lot. They needed to get her out of town and dry her out. Between my boss and myself, we thought ‘ugh, that’s too political’. I couldn’t do political stuff. ‘No, I better not do it’. Turns out the guy who took that role was a fellow named Baldwin, who became the lookout. That was one of his next assignments.”
Jones later went to work as an “advance man” for President Gerald Ford, setting up the president’s schedule when he left the White House for appearances across the country. Jones says he did 49 of those events, nearly all that happened on military bases and many overseas trips. Jones talks about his time serving President Ford, including an incident with a football helmet that put the commander-in-chief in a less than notable position, around 16:45 of the podcast.
When Jones ended his career of military and government service, he and Carroll decided to return to Wilmington. He had a longing to see how his hometown had preserved its’ rich World War II history. It didn’t take long for him to join the effort.
“When I came to Wilmington in 1997, the first day I heard on the radio that the city was going to tear down the Community Arts Center, and it was going to be a parking lot for St. John’s Museum across the street,” he recalls. “I joined immediately with Hannah Block, the Thalian Association and others to stop that. Since then we’ve gotten one hundred percent support from (Wilmington City) council and staff, and we have a wonderful World War II Memorial to our county dead, to our Medal of Honor recipients, the Museum of the Homefront. Most of all, it’s a perfect blending of the art and history.”
Jones went on to launch the WWII Wilmington Homefront Heritage Coalition in 2000, which leads the effort “to identify, preserve, and interpret the rich World War II legacy of Southeastern North Carolina.” The group won two statewide awards in 2005. Seven of the 18 books Jones has written deal with Wilmington’s World War II history. He is known as the preeminent authority on the issue. But his work won’t be done until Wilmington receives that coveted designation from the federal government.
“I’ve given, since I’ve been here in over 20 years, well over 700 interviews, lectures, presentations,” Jones says. “I’ve been in national media. All on behalf of Wilmington, not on behalf of Wilbur, in our effort to get the World War II City national recognition. I don’t get anything out of it, other than the wonderful pride of having my hometown, where I grew up during the war, recognized for what we did during the war and then what we have done since then to preserve it.”
Jones has recently completed his 19th book, a memoir, which he calls the toughest of his literary efforts. He says his children prompted him to compile his life stories into one book, after writing about others for more than two decades.
“I think everyone will really enjoy reading it, even if they don’t like me,” he says. “If they can just take the name of the author associated with it, put it out of the way, and just read about somebody’s life who has done all these things.
My conversation with Wilbur Jones covered many other topics. Some are related to World War II, including the story of German U-Boats firing on a chemical plant in Kure Beach, while others are from modern time, when Jones was asked to help give academy award winner Sir Ben Kingsley a tour of the Battleship North Carolina. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
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