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Witness to war’s worst

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John Wesley Jones Jr., 97 and living in Union Level, and mementos from his time as an U.S. Army guard at the Nuremberg trials: his pass to gain entry to the Nazi war crime tribunals, and a letter he received decades after World War II from Albert Speer. / May 22, 2019

It was 1944 when Uncle Sam called on John Wesley Jones Jr. to serve his country.

The 97-year-old retired electrician from Union Level said at the time, all he wanted to do was work on planes. Instead he became a witness to some of the most horrific and historic chapters of World War II, among them the Battle of the Bulge and the Nuremberg war crime tribunals.

Jones had been out of school for about four years, having graduated from Buckhorn in 1939 and the Curtis Wright Technical Institute a year later, before he was drafted into the U.S. Army on July 21, 1944.

He was already working in the aviation industry at the time, building planes and gliders at various factories in California and Maryland. He remembers what it was like living in California in the aftermath of the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. “There were blackouts. It was a scary time.”

He eventually returned to his home in Virginia and six days later was drafted into the Army.

After completing infantry training in Georgia, Maryland, and New Jersey, Jones and the men of his unit, part of the 358th Regiment of the 90th Infantry Division, boarded the Queen Mary in New York City bound for Scotland. In less than a week they were involved in heavy fighting in Belgium.

Nearly 75 years later, Jones said he still remembers those first days on the battlefront. It was cold and snowy. The men were hunkered down in foxholes with only a blanket for warmth and K-rations for food. The area around them was covered in dense forest, and “we were scared to death.”

Jones does not know why, but after being in Belgium for only three days his commanding officer made him an assistant squad leader. Jones protested, telling the CO he did not know if he was qualified. A sharp response came back: “You’ll find out in a hurry.”

He does acknowledge that he was an expert rifleman, but does not believe that was the reason he was chosen to lead.

As the division pushed forward through the Bastogne area in the Ardennes Forest of Southeast Belgium, Jones said he and another soldier who would become his best friend for life, Benjamin Crump, were assigned to reconnaissance. They would patrol the nearby woods, collecting intelligence about the enemy. Crump, who was part Cherokee Indian, served as the unit’s scout.

Jones remembers one particularly deadly battle that took place while he and Crump were on patrol. There were mortar shells bursting all around them. Somehow the two escaped uninjured. He also recalls the surprise he felt during another recon mission when he and Crump realized the Germans were in retreat, the area was desolate except for the ruts left behind from German tanks as they moved east through the forest toward Germany.

Jones did not know it at the time, but his unit was in the midst of a battle now known as the Battle of the Bulge. It was the last major German offensive campaign on the Western Front during World War II.

With the enemy on the run, Jones said his unit pushed on into Germany and eventually Czechoslovakia where the 358th Regiment is credited with being the first Allied Regiment to enter that country. They are also credited with liberating at least one concentration camp. But Jones’ memories of his time in Czechoslovakia are more mundane.

He remembers staying at a farmhouse in the countryside. The woman who lived there spoke no English, but she would make them cookies. He also recalls heading outside one day in May after hearing planes approaching overhead. As the planes drew near each other, one piloted by a German and the other by an Allied pilot, they dipped their wings and flew past.

It was then Jones knew that fighting in Europe was over.

Returning to Vohenstrauss, Germany, Jones said he spent the next two weeks “having a party” with the men of his unit while waiting for his next orders. He assumed he would be going to Japan since the war in the Pacific Theatre was still raging.

On Aug. 15, 1945 when Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender of Imperial Japan, Jones said he was left to await new orders.

He was reassigned to the 26th Infantry Regiment, 1st Division and his new assignment was to guard war criminals during the Nuremberg trials. Before he left for Nuremberg, Jones said he met and shook hands with Gen. George Patton while the general was on a goodwill tour of troops under his command.

Jones spent the next year watching the trials of Rudolph Hess, Herman Goering, Albert Speer, Alfred Rosenburg, Karl Doenitz, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Fritz Saukel, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, Hans Frank, Julius Steicher, Hjalmar Schacht, Baron Konstantin von Neurath, and Wilhelm Frick, among others. These former high-ranking officials within the Nazi Party were on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The Nuremberg trials were a series of thirteen trials carried out in Nuremberg, Germany, between 1945 and 1949 conducted by an international tribunal made up of representatives from the United States, the Soviet Union, France, and Great Britain. The first and best known of these trials was that of the major war criminals before the International Military Tribunal (IMT), conducted between Nov. 20, 1945 and Oct. 1, 1946.

Of the 24 men tried by the IMT, 19 were convicted and of those 12 were sentenced to death. The remaining seven were handed prison sentences ranging from 10 years to life. Three men were acquitted — one of them being Hjalmar Schacht, who was guarded by Jones.

He said Schacht spoke no English but came off as dignified if not somewhat arrogant. Schacht had been the head of the Reichsbank before the war and an early Economics Minister in Hitler’s cabinet. By 1944 he had been imprisoned in a concentration camp by the Nazis.

Jones said he never entered the area where the trials were taking place. His job was to escort the prisoners to and from their cell and walk with them during their daily exercise period. Since he was honorably discharged from the Army before the trials ended, he did not learn of their outcome for some time.

While there, Jones said, “We were under strict orders to not speak with any of them [the prisoners].” That did stop Jones from asking for and receiving autographs from several of those on trial. One of the prisoners was reluctant to sign Jones’ autograph book, but Admiral Karl Doenitz eventually relented telling Jones it — his autograph — would be of value someday.

Doenitz was the head of the German Navy and briefly, following Hitler’s suicide, president of Germany. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his crimes. Upon his release he lived in Hamburg until his death in 1980.

Jones said his most vivid memories are of conversations he had with Hermann Goering, former Commander of the Luftwaffe and original Head of the Gestapo. The two would walk together in the prison yard. “He spoke perfect English and we would often talk about his life in Germany before the war.” Even though their conversations were pleasant, Jones said he did not like the man, who he describes as conceited, and was not saddened to hear Goering committed suicide the night before he was to be hanged for his crimes.

Jones does admit to being surprised that Goering had access to a cyanide pill since the prisoners were stripped and searched daily.

While he did not have regular contact with Albert Speer at Nuremberg, he reached out to him in 1969 after Speer’s autobiography, “Spandau: The Secret Diaries” was published. Speer wrote back saying he still remembered “quite fondly the friendly American soldiers during my days at Nuremberg. Many of them exchanged kind words with me although it was forbidden, which helped me greatly at that time.”

Before the war, Speer was an architect. As a member of Hitler’s inner circle, he was named Minister of Armaments and responsible for the use of slave labor — mainly from occupied territories — in the production of armaments. During his trial he expressed repentance for his action and claimed to have been unaware of some of the greater atrocities. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison for his crimes. He died in 1981 while living in London, England.

Exactly two years after he was drafted, Jones said he received an honorable discharge and returned to his home in Union Level. He met and married Bevelyn, his wife of 51 years and together they raised two daughters. While enjoying the life he made with Bevelyn, he never forgot his time in the Army.

He treasurers the mementos he collected from that time and in the years since, as well as the medals he earned, a Bronze Star for Meritorious Service in the Battle of the Bulge and a medal for service in occupied Germany — Jones said in his off hours while stationed at Nuremberg, he would sometimes serve as an MP in the town.

He still has copies of his pass authorizing access to the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg where the trials were held, autographs from several prisoners and the letter he received from Albert Speer in 1969. Hanging on the wall above his dining table is a map marking the battle route of the 90th Infantry Division.

Years have passed since Jones spent time with the men tried as Nazi war criminals, but he says time has not diminished his dislike for them or the atrocities they committed against people around the world.

“And for what?” he asks, not expecting an answer.

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Good story, and thanks for what you did for us during the war, sir.

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