World War II veteran Forest Jones, who has spent much of his life in Victoria, clearly remembers the events and dates of his military career that correspond with key moments in modern American history.
For six months in 1958, he was part of atomic bomb testing in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. He was in the communications division on a small island.
“We had to be special radio operators because you had to be able to type 25 words in accurate, high-speed code. We were taking weather reports with the scientist headquarters,” Jones said. “When they got the weather reports in, they would determine when they could fire off one of them atomic bombs. We fired about 34.”
Personnel who were not working would go to the beach, he said. Ships were stationed from the island between five and 1,000 miles away.
“We had to go to the beach and sit down with our heads between our legs, eyes closed, so when it goes off, we could still see light,” Jones said. “The first time we were standing, you could feel the heat on your legs, that was the radiation. After that, we had to sit with our heads between our legs and cover up.”
The 91-year-old veteran served in two branches of the military during three wars, served under six U.S. presidents and lived the civil rights movement that led to military integration. Jones recently traveled to Washington, D.C., on an Honor Flight to see the monuments and memorials that recognized fallen soldiers.
“Dad’s a walking history book,” said his daughter, Arminda Grissett, of Arlington.
Jones was born April, 9, 1927, to Emmitt and Annie Jones, of Brenham, who were share farmers. Jones was the middle child among seven brothers and two sisters.
“My dad died three weeks after I turned 18,” he said. “I wanted to help with the finances of the family.”
Jones was 18 when he entered the Army during World War II. During the occupation after the war, he was assigned to Yokohama, Japan, in March 1946 as a dump truck driver and became a supervisor at 19.
“They broke up segregation in 1948; we were all segregated until then,” he said about his unit of about 58 blacks and two white officers. “Back then we didn’t know nothing different; we just had a good time.”
In Yokohama, Jones helped build roads and haul coal. After 2½ years, he was rotated back to the United States, where he went back to high school to earn his diploma in May 1949. He immediately enlisted – this time in the Air Force on June 2, 1949.
He noticed societal changes happening, he said, but focused on his service.
“Even when we were segregated overseas, segregated period, but we integrated over there for like playing sports,” he said.
In the Air Force, Jones went to the communications school at the University of Mississippi in Biloxi to be a radio operator and learned Morse code.
“Back then, segregation was tough, especially around Mississippi,” he said about being among the first African-Americans to be integrated in the school. “I had my rank and the other students who were there (were) just coming in.”
While attending the University of Mississippi, Jones was an assistant barracks chief for the Air Force and served as a coach for a basketball team.
After Jones received a complaint from a native Mississippi player that he was not playing an all-white team, Jones’ commanding officer gave Jones an ultimatum: He could continue coaching or stay in the military.
“‘I never had black folks over me … You know I can get you back when you get to town,’” Jones recalled the player telling him.
Jones chose to serve his country and gave up coaching.
A short time later, Jones left the Air Force and moved to Victoria with his wife, Lucile. There, he applied for a job at Western Union.
“Why do you think you’re qualified,” he said an employee asked. “I started talking to him in Morse code in dot, dot dot spelling his name. He said, ‘I’ll be damned, you sure do know, but can I be truthful to you,’” Jones recalled. “‘We’re not hiring Negroes down here.”
To find work, Jones went to Foster Field Air Force Base, which was looking for a radio operator. He was selected for the position Dec. 15 and had to fill out paperwork on Christmas Eve an hour before the facility closed for the holiday.
Along with social change, technology underwent a transformation during his time in the service.
“The computer was just coming in,” he said about two computers that were as large as his living room. “I didn’t know anything about that. I was a radio man for 12 years.”
After his last tour in Italy that lasted three years, Jones retired on May 31, 1969, with the rank of master sergeant and returned to Victoria.
In 1970, he built a home on Juan Linn Street and worked for about 20 years at Alcoa. By his fifth year, he became a shift supervisor, becoming the first African-American in the company’s security detail.
Reflecting on his long career in the military, Jones said he looked forward to celebrating America’s independence on the Fourth of July, which he described as one of the most sacred days of the year.
“Something had to be won to attain that” independence, he said. “All my time in the service was fighting for my country. I don’t get into politics. If you’re in the military, you serve up under all.”
“I’m just happy to be an American.”
© 2018 Victoria Advocate (Victoria, Texas)
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