Living history

Living history

Surf, sand and palm trees might sound like paradise to a frostbitten soldier lying in a frigid European foxhole, but not for Sgt. Russell Jones, a World War II veteran who retired in 1967 from Hill Air Force Base. Underneath the appeal of the South Pacific Islands creeps unseen risks such as malaria, dengue fever and tropical dysentery which resulted in more casualties than battle wounds according to the "U.S. Army Center of Military History" by Judith Bellafaire.

Starvation and lack of sleep probably aided the soldier's decreased resistance to diseases. Jones luckily escaped from illness during his time in the South Pacific. More often than not the dehydrated rations the soldiers depended on ran out for weeks at a time. Jones remembers bartering old uniforms to local natives for eggs and chicken. Another alternative was scrounging around for throngs of bananas and coconuts growing on the islands.

Before the sergeant's island tour, he had always longed to join the military. As a little boy he had idolized his uncle's service as a Buffalo soldier in the 10th Cavalry, so in the fall of 1941 Jones signed up for the Army Air Corps.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Jones shipped out with the newly formed 811th Aviation Engineering Battalion attached to the American Division to prevent the South Pacific Islands' eminent Japanese invasion.

As an African American service unit, the 811th performed a variety of tasks and distinguished itself by serving over a three-year overseas tour.

"We built airfields from the ground up, built bridges, dug trenches, refueled aircraft, unloaded cargo from ships, buried the dead and serviced equipment," Jones said.

Because of the unwavering work ethic of the 811th, airfields went up all over the South Pacific Islands, including New Caledonia, Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima, enabling American bombers to land within striking distance to drive out the Japanese.

"Wherever the Japanese had island bases we took over and built airfields," Jones said.

With a passenger and cargo ship, the unit traveled from island to island to scout out appropriate airfield sites and often faced heavy Japanese resistance with little ammunition to defend its troops.

Additionally, the South Pacific islands' lush vegetation, crawling over the islands like a rancid infection, made the enemy hard to spot.

"We were ambushed a couple of times," Jones said. "The lead guard would go through the jungle but the Japanese wouldn't attack until the main body of soldiers would reach a certain point. The Japanese were tied to trees and would fire down at us. After a couple of times the NCOIC decided to circle around any suspected ambushes to reduce casualties."

Despite the precautions, Jones' unit suffered routine fatalities and he believes that some may have been prevented had a proper hospital been available.

"Sometimes there was nothing that could be done for the wounded man except to give him a morphine shot and sit and talk to him," the sergeant recalls.

The loss of men always bothered Jones but he had to concentrate on the mission at hand.

Jones' war story shows how America's aircraft and other equipment would have been useless without the 811th and other such units enduring squalid conditions and backbreaking labor to make victory possible.

Another crucial mission involved finding secret underground tunnels, housing Japanese personnel and supplies on Iwo Jima.

"We would look around for oxygen holes and then seal them up," Jones said. "Then we would go underground and find dead Japanese."

The fatal game of tug of war continued on as Americans struggled to wrest control from the tenacious Japanese.

"One morning we might have one section of an airfield and in the afternoon the Japanese might have won it back," he said.

Once the airfield was established and island control was secure, fighter and cargo planes descended onto the airfield, seemingly in a constant need of refueling.

Today's military members joke about our hurry-up-and-wait mindset but today's processes are much speedier than 60 years ago.

"To refuel the planes, hundreds of men lined up with five-gallon gasoline jerry cans and would rotate out one after the other to refuel all the planes," Jones said.

In 1945, the 811th added yet another notable contribution to the war effort by building the airstrip the Enola Gay flew from to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, thereby ending Japan's involvement in the war.

Finally, with the war over Jones continued to serve in the Army Air Corps and then joined the Air Force.

Now, after 64 years, Jones remains somber while looking back on his war memories.

"It is something you don't forget but the experience is hard to explain."

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