Nicknamed SOB Jones – SOB referring to “Smiley Old Bob,” — Robert F. Jones never spoke much of his time as an Army paratrooper during World War II.
Jones, who joined the American Legion Post 239 “six or seven years ago,” was somewhat of a “crusty old gentleman” who wore farmer-style white striped overalls that were cut off at the knees. Members knew of his connections to the local fire department and that he had summited Mount Rainier more than 100 times. They knew he had lived in Bellevue’s Lake Hills neighborhood for quite some time and worked for Lakeside Sand and Gravel Co., retiring in 1986.
But little knew he was a decorated war hero with two Silver Stars, three Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts, among other honors.
It wasn’t until Jones learned he and American Legion Post 239 Vice Commander Richard Sparks were in the same Airborne unit that the “dam broke and SOB spoke.”
Jones passed away at age 95 last year, but not before Sparks and other members of Jones’ family and the American Legion tracked down that war hero’s story.
It was sometime in September 1939 – after Nazi Germany invaded Poland, but well before Pearl Harbor – when Jones and his friend Tommy Vint joined the U.S. Army. Sent to Fort Bragg, North Carolina for basic training, they had joined expecting the United States to join the war soon. Once Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, the two were offered to join the then-new airborne training, in which Jones volunteered.
Upon completing Jump School, Jones was assigned to the 505th Parachutes Infantry Regiment 82nd Airborne Division, which was activated on May 1, 1940 at Fort Bragg.
“The division was in its very beginning and Bob got to know officer James Gavin, who would become the 82nd Airborne Commander in the future,” Sparks wrote of Jones.
Jones was later one of 40 sent to England to train with the British Red Devil Division. This was after the United States had entered the war and England requested troopers serve with the British Red Devil Division in the North Africa theater of Operation.
“Bob felt that training helped him to survive,” Sparks wrote.
Jones was sent to North Africa, where the plan was to parachute in at night near enemy outposts and kill as many commissioned officers as they could.
“Bob said he felt more like an assassin than a soldier, but was assured that they were speeding the end of the war,” Sparks continued. “After an attack, they would take enemy vehicles and escape back to their own base.”
During his time with the Red Devils, Jones was captured, put in an internment camp in Germany and interrogated. He also managed to escape under a wire fence and be promoted to first sergeant.
In May 1943, he was transferred back to the 82nd Airborne Division and took on Operation Husky, an Allied invasion of Sicily from July 9 to Aug. 17, 1943. The time was tumultuous as the allies lost 23 of the 144 aircraft.
It was during this time that Jones was fighting in Sicily, he earned the first of his three Purple Hearts.
“An Italian soldier playing dead jumped up and stabbed Bob in the chest,” Sparks wrote. “The knife cut him but didn’t penetrate the chest cavity. The Italian soldier paid the price – it cost him his life.”
Jones went on to fight in Operation Avalanche, the invasion of Italy in September 1943, in which he came up with a plan to disable German railroad guns used for firing at Navy ships; and a special operation in France, in which he disabled bridges the Germans would use to bring tanks and troops to battle – both were operations that reduced enemy manpower in the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
In the fall and winter of 1944, Jones fought in Operations Market Garden and the famous Battle of the Bulge, Dec. 16, 1944 through Jan. 24, 1945.
“Bob and four other soldiers were traveling in a Jeep and slid off an icy road into a ditch, at which time a squad of German soldiers took them Prisoners of War,” Sparks wrote. “The officer in charge was an SS Major who spoke perfect English and wanted to know information about their outfit and other things a soldier was not required to tell the enemy.”
Threatening to kill Jones, the major killed the first four soldiers, but when it got to Jones, the pistol misfired. Jones took the time to run into the woods, escaping.
Sparks learned that near the end of the war, Jones saw the same major in a United States Prisoners of War camp.
“Bob told the guard that he would take charge of the prisoner,” Sparks wrote. “A few days later, a second lieutenant wrote up a report against 1st Sgt. Jones, saying he killed the major and sent the report to headquarters.”
The lieutenant was later told to report it had never happened by Gen. Gavin, the previous officer he had met during his time with the 505th Parachutes Infantry Regiment 82nd Airborne Division. When it was time for Jones to return home, Gavin called him and invited him to join him on his flight back to the United States, which he did.
In all, Jones walked away with three Bronze Stars, two Silver Stars, one Distinguished Service Crosse, three Purple Hearts and a French Croix de Guerre.
“Of all the decorations, Bob said he was most proud of his combat Infantry Badge,” Sparks wrote.
Jones returned to his home in Michigan, married wife Helen and moved to Bellevue, where they had three children.
“We thank SOB (smiling old Bob) for his years of service to our country,” Sparks wrote. “1st Sgt. Robert F. Jones is a patriot.”
Sparks, and the American Legion Post 239, also thank John Roten, R. J. Huntsinger and Robert Schmidt for their help in telling Jones’ story.