From ‘farm boy’ to WWII fighter pilot to Chatham farmer

Posted 4/26/19

On May 4, 1919, a “little ol’ farm boy” made his entrance into the world.

A little more than 20 years later, the boy from Apex had become a young man and was seeing the world — much of it …

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From ‘farm boy’ to WWII fighter pilot to Chatham farmer

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Posted

On May 4, 1919, a “little ol’ farm boy” made his entrance into the world.

A little more than 20 years later, the boy from Apex had become a young man and was seeing the world — much of it from the cockpit of a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk fighter, courtesy of Uncle Sam.

And before it was all over, that little farm boy, as Ben Jones calls himself, would fly 102 World War II combat missions against German and Italian pilots and troops over a period spanning 16 months.

During that time — November 1942 through February 1944 — in the skies over the Mediterranean, Africa, Sicily and Italy, he would be shot at, shot up and shot down. (Twice.) Another time, not in combat, he would bail out of his plane when his engine caught fire.

Today, that “little ol’ farm boy” lives on a farm between Siler City and Pittsboro on land where he once ran cattle, miles and years from those places of long ago.

And a week from Saturday, he’ll turn 100 years old.

“It’s no big deal,” Jones says, “just another birthday.”

Last Survivor

As he nears that milepost, Jones reflects on his life, knowing he’s the last surviving member of the 316th Fighter Squadron of the 324th Fighter Group, known as “Hell’s Belles.”

“We didn’t think anybody could fly like we did,” he reflects. “We could do anything. We had a lot of confidence in each other and you needed that when you were flying combat missions.”

By the end of his service, Jones was Captain Jones, an accomplished pilot who flew a number of different planes. But getting there took many twists and turns.

His story starts one day when his mother Bessie was an 18-year-old from Leiscester in the North Carolina mountains, watching her her father hitching up his two-horse wagon and taking her to the train station to go to school in Boston. There Bessie would meet Alexander Graham Bell, who was working with deaf students and inventing the telephone. That would not be the last time a Jones family member would rub shoulders with well-known folks.

After completing school, his mother took a position as a teacher in the Fairview community near Apex.

“I guess they paid a little more in Wake County than some other places,” Jones says, “so she went there.”

In time, she caught the eye of local lumberman Cary Braxton Jones. The two married and to their union were born three children — Ben arrived between two sisters.

“They built a home but my father died during a pneumonia epidemic when I was 3,” Jones remembers. “They were only married 10 years.”

Mrs. Jones became a single mother with daughters, aged 7 and 2, and son Ben.

“She taught at Fairview for $50 a month for six months a year,” he says, “with no promise of a job for the next year.” Ben went to Fairview School for seven years, then to Apex for the eighth grade and high school. “I played every sport I could,” he says. “One year I earned letters in five different sports – football, basketball, baseball, track and boxing.”

In 1937, his senior year, his high school coach took Jones and teammate Robert Wilson to see Wake Forest College football coach Clarence “Peahead” Walker to see if there was a spot on the team for the pair.

“That was when Wake Forest was in Wake Forest,” Jones says. “Robert was a big boy and Walker said he could use him, but he looked at me and told my coach he didn’t have ‘a bit of use for that scrawny little kid.’ So, I wound up going to N.C. State, playing football and baseball there. They called me ‘Jackrabbit Jones’ and once when we played Wake Forest, I was lucky enough to get off a 92-yard run. I don’t think Walker knew who I was then, either.”

That same year, another turn happened that would come to play a big part in his life.

“My mother took me to (N.C.) State for an aptitude test,” he said. “I’d never had anything like that before, but it showed that I had an orientation for business so I registered for textiles because that was the biggest thing going but I still found time to play ball.”

Something else also was happening in those days, however, that would push the young farm boy farther into a storied military career.

“The Air Force was coming along,” he says, “giving credit for cadet flying. The war was going on in 1939 but I wasn’t sure I wanted to give three years. So, they told me to keep my papers just in case. By 1940 the war was getting really close.”

In one of those events that’s humanly hard to explain, Jones left college just before graduating.

“The war was coming on; there was lots of unrest,” he remembers. “There were no jobs or money. An uncle in Central America offered me a job with his fruit company at $400 a month. But then I went to California to visit my sister and wound up taking a job with Bank of America for $90 a month so I didn’t make it to Central America. I bought my first car – a ’29 Model A. Paid $90 for it and paid it off at $10 a month.”

During that time, his brother-in-law was in the cattle business in El Centro.

“I’d help him on weekends and when I could,” Jones says, “and we’d decided to open a meat packing business. There wasn’t one around and it just didn’t make sense to ship the cattle somewhere else to fatten them.”

War Time

Then came Dec. 7, 1941, and Pearl Harbor.

Suddenly those N.C. State cadet flying school papers were about to come in handy.

“I went to a recruiting station at Lindberg Field in San Diego. They asked me if I could go tomorrow and I said, ‘No; I’ve got to get rid of my car and take care of some personal things but I can go next week.’ On Jan. 20, 1942, I was sworn in as an aviation cadet.”

Seven months of intensive training followed. The first phase was an airfield near Phoenix that wasn’t even completed. Would-be pilots trained in civilian clothes since there were no uniforms.

“We’d wear them, wash them at night in the shower and put them back on the next day,” Jones says.

Next was primary training at a field near Riverside, California.

“We were paid $75 a month,” he said. “I was surprised because I didn’t expect to get paid; that’s how naïve I was. I just thought we’d fight the war and come home. They were trying times, wondering if the Japanese were going to attack California.”

More training followed — basic and then advanced — in instrument flying, aerobatics, night flying, cross-country and flying in formation. On August 27, 1942, 2nd Lt. Jones graduated from Luke Field, near Phoenix, after flying 270 hours at three different schools, including his first solo flight.

“Man, what a feeling,” he says of that flight. “When you do that for the first time, you have feelings you’d never have doing anything else.”

Jones was all but sure after graduation that he’d be off to the Pacific but it didn’t happen. Instead, his orders were to report to Philadelphia where three squadrons were being formed — Philadelphia, Boston and Norfolk.

“Everybody was going to the Pacific, it seemed,” he says. “but after graduation, I took my mom and sister to the train depot, got a DC-3 flight to Washington, took the train to Raleigh and met my family at the station.”

After a week and a half of leave, Jones arrived in Philadelphia, where he reported to Lt. Col. Pete Quesada, who headed up the first fighter group before eventually becoming a four-star general, the Tactical Air Command’s first commander and also helping develop air-ground warfare and air refueling flights.

Jones wound up in the 316th Squadron in Norfolk, where he transitioned to the P-40.

“It was an unbelievable plane,” Jones says, “1200 horsepower with a lot of torque. It was different from anything I’d flown.”

For six weeks, he and his fellow pilots flew the P-40, learning it inside and out.

By mid-October, war was closer.

“They sent our ground crew and mechanics by ship from New York,” he says. “We were supposed to leave a month later. I had two weeks leave so I went home and got married.” Orders were then to take a train to Miami “but we didn’t know where we were going,” he says. “We had a set of khakis, a uniform, parachute, parachute bag and a .45 pistol.” Soon, the pilots were aboard a DC-4 that landed in Puerto Rico. An engine that caught fire had to be replaced; after a week, the group was off to Brazil, then Ascension Island, halfway to Africa, before arriving on the continent.

Their P-40s arrived at a Nigerian harbor, disassembled in crates. The wings were attached and engines installed and the pilots flew what they called “slow-timing,” flying the engine as slowly as possible to break it in. For a time, they ferried those planes across central and north Africa to other groups, often stopping for fuel brought in by camels. Eventually ground crew and pilots got together at Cairo before shipping out to a field near Alexandria.

“We were training when a sandstorm hit for three days and all the engines were ruined,” Jones says. “The British had some planes we could use and we always did a lot of low flying.”

That low flying would be a forerunner of the majority of the group’s combat missions. With three 50-mm guns of 250 rounds each on both wings as well as a 500-pound bomb underneath, the majority of the missions were strafing troops, equipment, trains and even a naval destroyer. In addition to borrowing British planes before the P-40s were repaired, Jones and three fellow pilots flew with the British at the front to learn tactics — and then teach them to their fellow pilots — since the British had been fighting for some time.

“When our squadron commander called out our names to fly with the British, I remember thinking ‘This is different,’” he says.

“Here I am wanting to go up and fight and now this is the real stuff. We went up on a strafing mission as the Germans were retreating on the one main road out of Egypt back to Tunis. We were hitting the troops as they moved along and we really took a beating, losing six out of 12 planes.”

An Introduction to Combat

The commanding British officer planned a similar attack the next day. Jones asked to go in earlier at a different approach, to surprise the Germans.

“He told me, ‘Relax, Yank, this is a long war. We can’t win it by ourselves.’ So, we did it again,” Jones says, “and lost half our people again. Back at the tent, I told a buddy, ‘This is getting serious and he said, ‘Relax, Ben, we’ve already beat the odds.’ That was my introduction to combat.”

All the stateside training was basically for one purpose: to prepare pilots to react instinctively completing missions and to survive. Still, Jones says, “when I went up with the British, I never envisioned anyone would kill me. I was that little ol’ country boy from Apex. Then I saw the smoke and the Germans opened up and I thought, ‘They’re trying to kill Bessie’s boy; they’re trying to kill me.’ We chased (German General Erwin) Rommel all over Africa but it gave me a different perspective when they started shooting at me.”

The pilots soon learned — or instinctively knew —were there for the long haul.

“We knew we were there until it was over or we were killed,” Jones says. “There was no timetable for going home, like if you had so many missions. You knew that your chances of living weren’t good. I never thought of myself as a hero; we just had a job to do. And if it meant getting killed, you couldn’t do anything about it. We were just trying to learn all the time and be as good as we could be. I was told the odds of getting shot down on missions we did were five times greater than if you were just escorting bombers.”

Still, he says, even with the skill and training, there was always the great unknown.

“I’d been flying along close to people and see them blown up and not me,” he says. “We very seldom went out without being hit by a German pilot. They were crack pilots and highly experienced. And the Italians were still active and had good airplanes.”

Just how close to death the pilots were was reinforced to Jones one day when he’d been briefed for a mission, gotten into his plane and put on his parachute.

“A Jeep came out to me with another pilot. He said, ‘I don’t have as much time as you; they told me you had more missions than anybody else and for me to take your place.’ So, he got into my airplane, used my chute and was the first one of the squadron to get killed.

“That just shows you how things happened,” Jones says. “He was flying the exact same spot I would have been on a strafing mission.”

In May 1943, an incident occurred that made the war very personal to Jones. He and three comrades were flying non-combat in North Africa.

“We were flying over some mountains and they called out, ‘Ben, you’re on fire.’ I suspect a piece of shrapnel had hit the liquid-cooling line but whatever, I was on fire.”

Yes, Jones told his fellow pilots.

“I know,” he said to them. “There’s smoke coming in the cockpit. I’m going to try to belly land.”

“None of us wanted to bail out,” he remembers. “There were no ejection seats then and we lost pilots who were hit in the head by their plane’s tail when they bailed out. So, I cracked the canopy to clear the smoke since I thought I’m a smart ol’ country boy. Only that wasn’t so smart. It just made the fire start coming back at me.”

Rather than risk being struck by the tail of his plane, Jones rolled it over and “half jumped and half threw myself out.”

“Really, I can’t tell you how I got out but I’ve never been calmer in my life,” he said. “I knew that in a little bit I was going to be alive or dead. That was just a fact.”

When he bailed out, he hit the radio antenna but missed the tail.

“It looked as big as a house,” he says. “When it went by, I pulled the parachute ripcord and nothing happened.”

At that point, he says, “I’m falling on my back and thinking, ‘good Lord, don’t let me be conscious when I hit the ground.’ But pretty soon the chute opened.”

‘That’s War’

As he floated to earth, Jones saw his P-40 explode, crashing in a farmer’s wheat field in a ball of fire.

“There were some Arabs standing nearby,” Jones says, “and they were transfixed at what they’d seen. They hadn’t seen many airplanes, much less a white man coming down out of the sky. They thought I was a god.”

A French farmer picked him up in a cart and wanted to take him, but Jones told the farmer they should put the fire out first.

“He said, ‘C’est la guerre (“that’s war”) and that the Germans did far more damage earlier,” he said. “We finally got it out and I went with him to his house.”

At the house, Jones was given wine in a white bowl covered with flies. “But I turned it up and drank it,” he says. “We’d been told whatever the natives offer that you don’t offend them.”

Even though fighting in that area was over, there were still pro-Nazi Frenchmen who wanted to turn Jones over to nearby Germans. Some of them came to the house, Jones remembers.

“There was a lot of talking back and forth but finally they left,” he said. “We went that night to a little town nearby where folks were happy to see me. They cooked a lamb and gave me half a bottle of creme de menthe.”

Later, Jones and his host made their way back to the man’s house. After surviving his jump and aggravating an earlier leg injury, the reality of what had happened began to sink in on Jones.

“The man’s family was hiding in the mountains, staying away from Germans who had been there the day before,” he says. “He told me we had to sleep together and I thought, ‘OK, I might get my throat cut,’ but I went to sleep anyway.”

The next morning, a rescue party came for Jones and attempted to pay the Frenchman, but he refused to accept money. The group then left with gifts of bread, a bucket of lard and a lamb.

“We hadn’t had meat in months,” Jones says. “By the time we got back to camp, there were maggots in the bread and lard so we couldn’t eat that but we did cook the lamb.”

After flying in North Africa, the squadron was transferred to Sicily. There, they endured concentrated attacks from German fighters as his squadron escorted bombers into Sicily as well as “friendly” fire from an American fleet.

“Most of them had never been shot at before,” he says. “They had just come from the States. The ships were shooting at us and we called them and gave them the password but they just kept shooting at us. We got some shrapnel hits but nobody was shot down.”

After Sicily was captured, the squadron flew in the invasion of Italy. “We flew strafing and dive-bombing missions in support of the invasion,” he says. “When we went to Africa, the plane was set to carry one 500-pound bomb and six fragmentation bombs on the wings.” Then, alterations were made to allow the planes to carry a 1,000-pound bomb.

“We hit Monte Cassino (site of a strong German defense line southeast of Rome) a lot of times and bombed the heck out of it,” Jones says. “We were a fighting outfit and that’s all we cared about; we were there to do a job and we just did the best we could.”

By that time, the war was drawing nearer to a close and combat missions were winding down for Jones and his squadron.

“I stayed until after the initial invasion of Anzio in January of 1944, strafing and dive bombing until I had enough time so I could go home,” he said. “Things had changed by then.”

In February 1945, Ben Jones returned to the United States.

“We were worn out when we got back, just beat,” he says. “I thought the war was winding down because we weren’t getting hit every time we went out. It was so different but it was still dangerous.”

With his combat tour of duty over, Uncle Sam thought it would be a good idea for pilots with combat experience to teach aviation cadets.

“I didn’t like that at all,” Jones remembers. “If someone knew how to fly, I could sharpen them up some, but I wasn’t a good teacher.”

Discharge and Transition

An engineering officer who had been a classmate at N.C. State got Jones into engineering school and there, he became a test pilot. Eventually, he was in charge of all the fighters at Luke Field, flying P-51 Mustangs, P-47 Thunderbolts, the P-38 Lightning and the B-25 Mitchell bomber.

That experience prompted Uncle Sam to try for one more assignment involving Jones.

“By then, they were trying to assign me to B-29s and send me to the Pacific,” he said. “After two years of being shot at, I got out of that, and was assigned to test flight work in Connecticut.”

That lasted until early 1946, when Jones was discharged.

Making the transition from the armed forces back to civilian life often isn’t easy, especially years ago before awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder and similar conditions.

“It was quite an adjustment,” Jones says, “after two years of trying to kill or be killed. I remember once when my wife wanted to go to a July 4th celebration and I just didn’t want to go — too many people, too much noise with fireworks and such. She couldn’t understand. I’d hear people complain about things like not having any sugar during the war; it was very different after getting back. But I’d done everything I was asked to do and was still alive so I thought it time to be a family man.”

Back in the States, Jones connected with his brother-in-law again and the two started a meat-packing business in California.

“My wife’s family was in the banking business in eastern North Carolina but I wanted to make it on my own,” he says. “I didn’t want to feel like someone gave me something.”

For two years, Jones worked for a meat-packing company before he and his brother-in-law ventured out on their own.

“It took lots of work,” he says, “but eventually we raised and fed 45,000 head of cattle a year. Later we became diversified, opened a hotel, supply house and retail stores. But the times and business world were changing and we had to get bigger to survive, so I got out.”

As those times changed, Jones began to ponder his future.

“The good Lord was still looking after this ol’ farm boy,” he says. “I had promised my wife not to do anything else, so for a while we traveled. But she used to say that the closer I got to North Carolina, the bigger my grin got.”

In time, they began to look for property and a friend suggested Chatham County.

“I wasn’t interested,” Jones says. “I’d been through there and seen that worn-out red clay but he said, ‘Oh, it’s changed. They’ve been fertilizing it. You ought to check it out,’ so we did.”

And the rest is history. The meat-packing business was post-war therapy for Jones, who says now, “I don’t think I’d be alive without it.” “I really enjoyed the business,” he says. “I was happy when I came to work and happy when I left.”

And the love of flying stayed with him. He purchased a private plane and flew it often. Through the years, that love led to some memorable meetings, including a dinner one night. Jones and his wife, along with Chuck Yeager, who first broke the speed of sound, and Yeager’s wife and other couples were having dinner in a private home.

“We were sitting there talking when a door opened and in walked Dwight Eisenhower and Mamie,” Jones says. “They were just regular people.”

Today, folks who meet Ben Jones might find it hard to picture his storied past. His home contains mementos of those years and he regularly digests books and magazines about aviation. And while a good deal of his brown hair has flown away, his brown eyes and memory are still sharp; he still stands an erect 5-foot-7, just as he did the day he enlisted. His wife Velda died in 2002, and with a lifetime of memories behind him, Jones looks back with a sense of a responsibility fulfilled.

“It’s a privilege to feel like I made a contribution,” he says. “My mother was a widow and we farmed. I could have gotten a deferment but I could never have been happy doing that. I couldn’t think of somebody taking my place and fighting and me not doing anything.”

But beyond the service time, there’s also a larger understanding.

“I’d get up in the sky and see those clouds and experience how close to God I feel and I look down and realize how insignificant we all are. When I look back, there’s nothing that helped me more than playing football. It taught me how important teamwork is and taught me to make a decision quickly, and it needed to be the right decision when you made it.

“You can’t,” he advises, “take an hour or two to make a decision.”

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