As of Friday, it’s been 77 years since Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and the United States was thrust into war.
Veterans from that era have seen a time that most of America only remembers on paper; we can read books and watch movies that depict it, but we will never know the true scope of what happened.
According to the VA, we are losing 372 World War II veterans per day. Of the original 16 million vets, there are now less than half a million. It has become crucial to hear their stories, and experience the war through the eyes of the people who created its outcome.
Retired Air Force Colonel Albert L. Jones is one of them.
“I never thought I’d make it,” Jones said, of his impending birthday.
The retired pilot will be turning 100 on April 24th. He was only 22 when Pearl Harbor was bombed, and by then he was already fighting in the war. Jones had joined the Royal Air Force in 1940. He started out as an instructor pilot, but his role quickly evolved.
“I flew as a bomber pilot out of England bombing Germany and Italy,” Jones said.
He flew some 40 missions over the course of his three years there, mostly in Italy. In fact, Jones was in the air on December 7th, 1941, when the first wave of Japanese planes hit Pearl Harbor. He learned of the attack over radio.
“At that time I thought: ‘Pearl Harbor, where’s that?’” Jones said. He was just as shocked as anyone. But he had known that the U.S. would go to war; it’s why he joined up in the first place.
For Jones, flying was a passion that started early.
He remembers wanting to be a pilot from the age of 10. His dad was always supportive, and took him out to the airport often. By the time he was 16, Jones had earned his pilot’s license, and by the time he was 21, his desire to protect and serve had brought him to war.
In 1943, he transferred to the American Air Force. It was technically known as the Army Air Corps, and they were short on people, prompting Jones to return to his home country. He would go on to fly night fighters.
A fighter plane is a military aircraft designed for air-to-air combat against other aircraft. A night fighter is adapted for use at night, or in poor visibility conditions. Flying these was a big jump from flying bombers, where Jones’s main task was to attack targets on the ground.
“It was pretty exciting, because you knew that there was another person in another airplane trying to shoot you down, and you were trying to shoot them down,” Jones expressed.
Jones operated a night fighter with only one other crewman, who was responsible for the radar. He would steer Jones on the targets. There was implicit trust between the two, because one wrong move could mean death at any time.
When the war ended, Jones had shot down three enemy aircraft.
Post-War & Boeing Career
Jones stayed on active duty until 1947, and then finished out his service in the reserves. All in all he put in 22 years, and doesn’t regret a single minute.
“I think the best part was I loved doing it,” Jones remarked. “I liked my job, and they treated me well; being in the military was good.”
After he left the military, Jones married his high school sweetheart and had two children. He also went on to a long and successful career at Boeing as a test pilot. He retired about 25 years ago as Chief Pilot.
“I flew all kinds of planes,” Jones recalled. “As an airline pilot I was on DC-3s, DC-4s, 707s, 727s, 737s, and 747s.”
His favorite, though, was the 737. This model was small, and only carried around 130 people.
“It was like a fighter,” Jones said.
Today, Jones has returned to the Puget Sound area of Washington, where he was born. He still belongs to military organizations and remains active within the veteran community. When asked what he would say to new pilots in the Air Force, Jones’s response was immediate:
“Like what you’re doing.”
“I knew several pilots that did it just because they made good money, but I don’t think money is that important. You’ve got to like what you’re doing,” Jones stated. “And that’s true with anything.”