The war came to a Marshalltown family
A reflection on Pearl Harbor 80 years later
Sunday afternoons in Marshalltown a lifetime ago were quiet. Not much happened.
With little to do on an early December sabbath, 17-year-old Roger Jones took in a movie at one of the town’s five theaters. The Marshalltown High School junior strolled–he never hurried–from his family’s small house on West Madison Street uptown to the Capitol Theatre. After watching a double feature, a drama with Charles Boyer and Olivia de Havilland and a Henry Aldrich comedy, Roger walked west on Main Street.
At about 4 p.m., he passed the Tremont Building that housed a pool hall and beer tavern. The noise within caught Roger’s attention. It was greater than the usual afternoon din of voices and crashing pool balls.
“The radio was really loud inside, and I could hear something wild going on,” he recalled.
Too young to enter the tavern, Roger stepped into the smoky room far enough to see the root of the excitement. Several men intently, almost angrily, listened to a radio that blared an urgent news bulletin. Someone yelled to him, “The Japs bombed us at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii!”
It was Dec. 7, 1941.
A block away on North First Street, Roger’s big brother, Richard, puttered in the back room at Marshall Ice Cream. A mature 21-year-old, Richard enjoyed working for “Fergy,” shop owner Vernon Ferguson. The gig helped pay his way through Marshalltown Junior College, as a transfer to a four-year college was in the works. After completing his chores, he realized he was hungry.
“I made a lemon milkshake, with just about half the amount of ice cream,” Richard said. “Just enough ice cream to get it cold.”
As he enjoyed his treat, he heard a commotion at the front of the shop, and that was when he found out about Pearl Harbor.
Surprised and outraged customers were learning about the Japanese sneak attack on the United States Naval base in Hawaii. The reactions were predictable.
“Blow ’em up,” said one customer.
Others echoed the sentiments. Richard was unsure what to think, although he did not have a good feeling.
What started as an innocent Sunday across America ignited a nearly four-year span of American involvement in World War II that immeasurably changed the nation and the planet. A generation was about to be molded by events unfolding in the far reaches of the globe, but no one knew it at the time.
That evening, 12-year-old Randall Jones watched his two brothers and parents, Arthur and Lillian, dissect the day’s events. Randall did not comprehend the enormity of the attack until later. Roger observed the family “took it in stride” but admitted “no one really understood what was coming.” Richard listened intently to the radio for the latest news.
Art and Lillian were understandably worried. They had lived through the Great War in which Lillian’s brother, Victor Lien, endured trench warfare in France. He was never the same afterward. Now Richard was draft-eligible, and Roger and their cousin Edward Lien, Victor’s son, were not far behind.
The next day, President Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan. Axis powers Germany and Italy also became the enemy. Citizens in Marshalltown and elsewhere reacted by enlisting in the military, and manufacturers soon halted peacetime production to make the tools of war–planes, tanks, uniforms and everything else.
The Jones brothers considered their futures. Richard sidestepped the draft by volunteering for the Marine Corps. He made his decision after long talks with his uncle Victor. Roger told a friend, who had a relative on the county draft board, that he wanted to join the Army Air Force.
“I wasn’t that keen about all the marching they do in the infantry,” he said.
So the Air Force it was.
The brothers shipped out of Marshalltown on the same day: June 1, 1943. After seeing Roger leave by bus in the day’s early hours, Art came home, collapsed on the floor and wept in front of Randall. Richard departed hours later.
Following training, Roger was assigned to a B-24 bomber crew. He flew 23 missions out of Venosa, Italy, returning to base in planes shredded by exploding anti-aircraft shells. Richard, the college boy, was sent to Michigan to study logistics, and he was commissioned an officer.
“But the war wasn’t going well in the Pacific, and they pulled us out and sent us to Marine boot camp,” he said.
Richard survived two bloody Pacific island invasions, Peleliu and Okinawa, and faced terrible shelling and hand-to-hand combat. He was training for the dreaded invasion of Japan when the war ended.
“I never would have survived that battle,” he always said.
Lillian’s nerves were at the breaking point in 1945. Her sons were in harm’s way. Nephew Edward Lien was missing in action in Germany (his body was found later), and several neighborhood boys had been killed.
In addition, she and Art had heard nothing from Richard in a while. They feared the worst. Then late one afternoon, their letter carrier, Victor Lents, was about to go home when he noticed an envelope ready for delivery the next day. Knowing the Jones family’s concern, he went out of his way on his own time to deliver them a precious letter from Sgt. Richard Jones.
The Joneses were a common family during an uncommon time. Yet they were among the fortunate ones: Richard and Roger returned home to live long and full lives. They talked at length about their wartime experiences. Going to war, Roger explained, “was just something you had to do.”
The Jones brothers helped save the world in 1945, but Richard emphasized they never considered themselves heroes. “The heroes were the ones who never came home.”
Steve Jones, the son of Randall Jones, is a Marshalltown native who is writing a history of his family during WWII.