William Atkinson Jones III was a classic man-at-arms and a tenacious competitor, yet a devoted son and a warm husband and father who combined rare qualities to earn these descriptive laurels in a full life, unfortunately cut short as he reached his prime. Bill’s untimely death occurred in his own private airplane near Woodbridge, Virginia. He was making that typical extra effort on his own to check out a small civilian airfield for forthcoming military participation in the field’s dedication. His passing was and is hard to believe for us who knew him well as a selfless leader, enthusiastic pilot and personal friend. Yet, in consolation, his story is seared forever in the annals of Air Force history and is enshrined in the Hall of Heroes in the Pentagon reserved only for those who win our nation’s highest award for gallantry. His memory will stand as an inspiration to all who follow and who revere our American heritage.
“Jonesey,”came to West Point from his native Virginia already richly endowed with strong determination, individual confidence, and a thirst for the unique opportunity for service and comradeship offered to professional soldiers. The years at West Point undoubtedly were most satisfying as he absorbed the training, the academic life and the traditions of the Corps with consistent excellence. He was a natural scholar with a strong flare for individual thinking. The military academy was the culmination of a youthful ambition and be honed himself for his life’s work with a healthy balance of relentless vigor and social recreation. He also exhibited cool tenacity and rugged, but precise, physical coordination as he excelled with the epee from Plebe through First Class year on the Army Fencing Squad. Years later these same qualities did lead him to great achievement under demanding stress and into the select company of our country’s greatest heroes when he earned the nation’s highest military decoration, the Congressional Medal of Honor 'for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidy in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.” He was then a squadron commander on a “Sandy” rescue mission over North Vietnam, The official Air Force narrative below of Bill’s incredible feat tells more about his faith, dedication and courage than any personal description can convey:
“On 1 September 1968, Lt Col William A. Jones III, flying an A-1H Skyraider, was the on-scene commander in a rescue attempt for a downed USAF F-4 pilot near Don Hoi, North Vietnam, The weather was poor and the terrain was extremely mountainous.
“Descending into the area, Jones maneuvered through the karst (rock) valleys searching for the survivor. The forward air controller at the scene notified Jones that there were several known 37 mm antiaircraft positions and other smaller automatic weapons sites well within range of slow-moving and vulnerable propeller-driven aircraft.
“Despite being fired upon by these gun positions, Jones continued his slow, methodical search for the downed airman.
“On one of his passes, Jones felt an explosion beneath his aircraft. His cockpit filled with smoke. Even though his aircraft had been hit, he maintained control of it and as the smoke cleared he continued searching. Without regard for the fact that his aircraft may have been on fire, Jones continued the search for another 10 or 15 minutes.
“At the moment that the survivor radioed that Jones was passing directly overhead, Jones sighted a multiple-barrel gun position firing at him from above the survivor near the top of a rock outcropping,
“The gun position was so close to the survivor that the jets orbiting overhead could not be employed for fear of killing the survivor. Had the enemy known where the survivor was, they could have fired down directly at his location. Attacking the gun emplacement had to be done with extreme caution.
“Leaving himself exposed to the gunners, Jones attacked with cannon and rocket fire. On the second pass against the enemy, Jones’ aircraft was hit with several rounds of automatic weapons fire. One round hit the seat ejection system directly behind his headrest, igniting the rocket. The entire cockpit burst into flames and two-thirds of the windshield was blown away.
“He pulled the ejection handle jettisoning the canopy but the rocket motor had been destroyed and would not eject the seat. The influx of fresh air made the fire burn with even greater intensity. Jones received third degree burns on his neck, shoulders and left arm, second degree burns on his face, hands, fingers, both arms and both legs.
“Shielding his face from the wind blast behind the remaining one-third of the windshield, Jones maintained control of aircraft and pulled the Skyraider into a climb. His attempts to transmit the location of the survivor and the enemy gun position were blocked by other aircraft repeatedly telling him to bail out. Before the fire died out, all of his radio transmitters had been disabled and he could only receive on one channel.
"As he reached altitude, Jongs wingman came alongside and through hand signals Jones indicated he would fly the Sky raider back to base-approximately 90 miles away—rather than hail out over the first secure area. The wingman took the lead and, flying through instrument conditions in close formation, Jones followed his wingman and made a ground controlled approach landing.
“As he was lifted from the cockpit of his aircraft, Jones’ immediate concern was pinpointing the location of the downed pilot and the enemy gun position so that the rescue could be made. He believed this information so important that he flew his heavily damaged airplane in excruciating pain for 40 minutes rather than bail out over the first secure area he could fly to.
“The survivor was rescued later in the day, but only after the gun position which Colonel Jones identified had been destroyed.’’
Following prolonged treatment at Fort Sam Houston to recuperate from his severe burns, Bill requested to return to Southeast Asia to finish his combat tour, but he was returned to flying status and assigned command of the 1st Flying Training Squadron at Andrews AFB, Maryland. He was promoted to colonel on 1 November 1969, fifteen days prior to his premature death. Despite an extensive investigation, the cause of the aircraft crash following his normal takeoff was never determined. The fact that the aircraft was maintaining climb power, and that the flight controls system was operational at impact gives credence to the theory that Bill suffered some physical incapacity or lost consciousness during climb out.
Burial was with full military honors next to his father and paternal grandfather in the historic northern neck of Virginia near his ancestral homestead in Warsaw. His beautiful and loyal wife, Lois, their three daughters, Anne, Elizabeth, and Mary Lee, and his mother, Mrs. Elizabeth Hart Kelley of Charlottesville, were comforted in their bereavement by a personal letter from the President of the United States to Lois which said in part:
"There is little I can say, I know, that would make your grief any less.
“I had the honor to approve the award of the Medal of Honor to your husband on the 14th of November 1969 for his heroic action on 1 September 1968 while attempting to rescue a fellow pilot. Your husband will go down in the annals of our nation’s history along with that very select group of Americans who have received our nation’s highest award. There will always be a special place in the thoughts and hearts of his countrymen for him and for you who have borne the burdens of this loss."
Fortunately, Bill knew shortly before he passed into eternity that his Medal of Honor award had been officially confirmed. Also, on the day before his death he had jubilantly received the first copy of his own literary creation, Maxims for Men-at-Arms from the commercial publisher, Dorrance & Co. of Philadelphia. Later, on 6 August 1970 when President Nixon posthumously presented Bill’s Congressional Medal of Honor to Lois at the White House at a ceremony attended by all his surviving family, their youngest daughter Mary Lee, then 9, presented a copy of Bill's book to the President.
Maxims for Men-at-Arms is a collection of quotations by the great and the humble which Bill chose for their aptness and humor. Their themes all align with activism, not only concerning the military, but also courage, wisdom, statesmanship and noble aspirations. They also illustrate much about the character and the strong beliefs of the compiling author. One of his favorites, from General Robert E. Lee’s farewell address to his troops in 1865, certainly is most appropos for Bill’s life—“You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from the consciousness of duty faithfully performed.”
The book will appeal to those who believe in fighting for what they believe is just and right, such as love of homeland, liberty, and human dignity. Each page bears a formal border, personally done in pen and ink by Bill, depicting armaments used throughout various eras of history and is reminiscent of handcrafted manuscripts of the middle ages. These illustrations undoubtedly are the fruition of some of his "doodling” in the long winter evenings during cadet days. Later, he developed the habit of posting favorite quotations each day on his office wall to stimulate conversation. Still later, while working on his master’s thesis at George Washington University, he decided to incorporate his collection into a book. Lois advises her husband particularly treasured the following, and, again, they tell the world a lot about Bill Jones.
"Poor is the country that boasts no heroes, but beggared is that people who, having them, forgets.”—attribution unknown.
"Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be, for without victory, there is no survival.”—Winston Churchill.
Notwithstanding the above sentiments, Bill showed his ingrained personal discipline by reluctantly accepting the political constraints which precluded a military victory in Vietnam, as evidenced by his thesis at the Air War College in 1966. His thesis, which he later lightly referred to as the "Jones Plan” to end the Vietnam war honorably, involved a practical plan to physically interdict the borders of South Vietnam to deny resupply to the enemy. Five years later on 21 May 71, the then Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Ryan, dedicated the Air War College Auditorium at Maxwell AFB to the memory of their gallant graduate, the late Colonel William A. Jones III. Bill had been selected from a group of nominees by the personnel at Maxwell AFB based on his "distinguished military career and the contributions he made to the Air Force and the security of the country.” A bronze plaque and picture of Bill were unveiled to preserve his memory and achievements for posterity. Lois, her three girls, and Bill’s remarkable mother were flown to Maxwell in a C-131 as guests of honor of the Air Force on this proud occasion.
In retrospect, what environment produces such a splendid individual? Bill was born in Norfolk, Virginia, on 31 May 1922, the son of the late William A. Jones Jr., long time Commonwealth’s Attorney for Richmond County. His grandfather also had been the Commonwealth’s Attorney for Richmond County prior to serving as a United States Congressman from the first Virginia District for over 28 years. Congressman Jones Sr. authored the bill that granted independence to the Philippines, and a huge memorial on his grave from the grateful people of the Philippines commemorates that fact.
Bill lived in Warsaw, Virginia, home of the Jones family since 1840, until he was seven. Then he spent most of his youth in the Charlottesville area, graduating from Lane High School under the able tutelage of his mother who instructed locally for many years at St. Anne’s Episcopal School for Girls. He had accelerated his education and graduated from the University of Virginia at the young age of 19 with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Spanish, prior to entering West Point.
In June 1945, he was commissioned in the Air Corps after having completed pilot training in Oklahoma and Stewart Field, New York. Transition flying schools followed at Douglas, Arizona (where he first met and courted his lovely wife-to-be, Lois McGregor of nearby Bisbee, Arizona), Smyrna, Tennessee and Sebring, Florida. He then served in the Philippines as a fighter pilot from 1946 to 1948. Returning to the United States, Bill spent the next four years at Biggs AFB, Texas, with the Strategic Air Command flying A-26, C-54, C-97, and C-124 aircraft. During this most enjoyable period, Bill and Lois were married and initiated their rich family life together.
In 1952, he was assigned to Europe for four years with the 317th Troop Carrier Wing, flying principally C-119’s. He returned to the states in 1956 and completed navigator training for pilots prior to being assigned to SAC again. He soon became a B-47 aircraft commander at Lake Charles AFB, Louisiana, and later served at Pease AFB, New Hampshire, in the same capacity, and for two years as Director of Controls for his Wing. In 1965 he departed for the Air War College, where he also received his master’s degree in International Affairs. Duty at the Pentagon with the Air Staff followed; however, the administrative burdens of the Air Staff could not replace his strong desire to return to the cockpit and the operational scene. He volunteered for A-1H training at Hurlburt Field, Florida, and in 1968 he was assigned to Southwest Asia where he commanded the 602d Fighter Commando Squadron until he sustained his serious injuries over North Vietnam.
During his career, Bill accumulated over 7,000 hours in many different types of aircraft. He was particularly proud that his tours and trips had taken him overseas at least once during every year from 1946 to 1968. Besides his Medal of Honor, additional awards include the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Purple Heart, the Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters, the Air Force Commendation Medal, the Order of the Able Aeronauts with citation, and the Pacific Air Force Well Done Award.
Yet, despite all this well deserved recognition, Bill really didn’t believe himself to be any type of special hero. His personal conversations after he heard through the "grapevine" that his Congressional Medal of Honor nomination had been approved indicated that he had merely done what he had been trained to do and what had to be done. He considered the high award to be a tribute not so much to himself, but to all rescue pilots who had flown out of his squadron. However, his calm, articulate modesty belied his unswerving devotion to duty and personal integrity. His stubborn determination served him well in attaining high marks in his life’s work. He has left a valiant legacy to his country, his Alma Mater, and the Corps as he takes his honored place in “the long gray line.”
We who knew him find it hard to say in writing that Colonel Bill Jones is gone, for words are inadequate and superficial to cover his achievements and his strength of character. A true patriot, his life stands as a model for those who would achieve success based on courage, integrity, dedication, and plain, old diligence. We shall miss him greatly and shall not forget. Our heritage is enriched forever by the deeds he dared and by the life he led.
“Farewell and Godspeed” to a kind friend, compassionate family man, and noble warrior. All honor to his name!
—J.B.S., classmate, for his family and friends
- Class of 1945