BROOKINGS – Brookings World War II veteran Billy Brice Jones turned 100 years on September 5.
He served in the Army from July 24, 1942, to Dec. 17, 1945. During that time he became a construction engineer, attained the rank of sergeant and earned military awards that include a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. Meanwhile, he had three brothers serving in uniform; one of them would be killed in action.
He and his brothers were members of what South Dakotan Tom Brokaw called “the greatest generation” and celebrated in a book by the same name. Jones celebrated his centenary birthday 75 years after the war in the Pacific Theatre ended. Like so many of that Brokaw-named generation of Americans born between 1900 and 1924, growing up during the Great Depression and serving during the war both overseas and on the home front, he would put those years behind him – but never forget them – and get on with his life: working, marrying, raising a family, and being a productive member of American society.
Always ‘Billy,’ never ‘William’
Jones was the fourth of 10 children born to Orville P. and Cora Rounds Jones in Tekamah, Nebraska, a century ago. His mother died in 1934 at the age of 37. Following her death, Orville Jones moved with his seven children to the Ozarks in Missouri.
Billy Jones – he was never William – spent most of his childhood growing up in town and received what at the time was a brief but not unusual education.
“I only got through the eighth grade, and most of the time it was in the country schools,” he said.
Jones was “working on the farm in Nebraska” when he was drafted in 1942. He was sent to Camp Roberts, California, a newly built training center that opened in 1940 and was named after Cpl. Harold W. Roberts, a World War I recipient of the Medal of Honor. By the time the war ended, the camp had trained 436,000 infantry and field artillery troops.
Jones recalls that his basic training lasted about six weeks. He was next sent to Camp White, Oregon, another wartime base built in the first six months of 1942. By war’s end in 1945 it had trained the 19th Infantry Division as well as engineering, medical and artillery units.
Much of what follows comes from a narrative written by Jones that begins with his going to war following his two stints of stateside-training. Additionally, he, his wife Agnes Nadine, now 99, and their son Bob Jones visited with The Brookings Register late last summer.
The first lady visits
Billy Jones traveled from California to the war in the Pacific on the transport ship USS U.S. Grant (AP-29). (An interesting piece of trivia is that the Grant was originally a German ocean liner named “Konig Wilhelm II.” It was seized by the United States during World War I and first renamed USS Madawaska (ID-3011) and carried troops to Europe and later returned troops to the United States when that war was over.)
“We just plugged along,” Jones said, laughing as he recounted his days at sea en route to war. “I don’t think we ever made more than 12 to 15 knots (nautical miles per hour). We got there without seeing a single ship until the last day we got there, about a mile off, a destroyer, one of ours.”
His first stop was New Caledonia, where he and other construction engineers built a hospital. A hurricane destroyed two of the buildings, so they had to be rebuilt. But even before it was finished, it was pressed into service.
Jones writes about a memorable VIP visitor from the United States who arrived in late August 1943: “We were already getting patients when Mrs. (Eleanor) Roosevelt (the first lady) came. … We completed the hospital in 1944, but they had already been using it for troops just as fast as we could finish a section. When we were finished building the hospital, they came in and broke up our group and sent us to different areas.” He was assigned to the 37th Infantry Division in Bougainville.
With MacArthur in the
In January 1945 Jones was part of the campaign under Gen. Douglas MacArthur to liberate the Philippines and saw action in and around Manila, the capital. Somewhere during action there he was wounded and awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star medals. His written narrative recounts one episode that shows both the lighter and the more serious side of war.
“There was a brewery on the west edge of Manila, and when we got there some of the combat troops had broken the spickets (sic) off of the beer vats, so we just drank what we wanted. That morning, here comes MacArthur walking with his aides, since the roads weren’t driveable yet because (enemy troops) were on either side of the town. That’s when the whole business district got right in the middle of the battle because they used the artillery … to get the (enemy) out.”
Jones would see more action in the months ahead. Then in early August 1945 came the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; V-J Day followed on Aug. 15; on Sept. 2 the war in the Pacific officially came to an end.
“A month after the war was over, I was on my way home,” Jones wrote in his narrative. “I think that you had to really believe that you were going to come home in order to survive. They warned us not to make too many friends out there. I never thought much about anything I had done while I was over there doing it. It was ‘So what? Do it and go on.’”
Meanwhile, Agnes Nadine Demint, whom Jones would marry in Brookings in 1948, had lost her only brother in the war. He was one of the first men drafted out of Flandreau in 1942. He was killed in action in France in 1944.
The first of Billy and Nadine’s seven children (five boys and two girls) was born in 1950. Their last child would be born in 1963.
In 1952 or 1953, the couple started farming in northern Moody County on the farm she had grown up on. In 1962 or 1963, they bought the farm and worked it until the early 1990s. They stayed there in retirement, until moving into assisted living in 2018. They’ve been married for 72 years.
“It’s in the Lord’s hands,” Nadine said of their long and fruitful marriage. “He’s been good to us.” That goodness includes seven children, 18 grandchildren and 22 great grandchildren.
However, Billy remains touched by and reminded of the war, and his three brothers who also served, with one of them giving his life. Billy still has shrapnel in his legs and arms. And his youngest brother, one of the three who had served in World War II, was killed in the Korean War.
“The war isn’t over for them until the last veteran dies,” his son, Bob Jones, said of his father.
Contact John Kubal at [email protected]