War heroJohnnie Jones

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Growing up in Laurel Hill, Louisiana, Jones went to Southern University in Baton Rouge and, shortly after graduating, was drafted into the U.S. Army. It was 1943: World War II was in full swing, and Jones was assigned to the 494th Port Battalion, attached to the 6th Engineer Special Brigade that took part in Operation Overlord, the code name for the invasion of Normandy, France on D-Day, at Omaha Beach. As a warrant officer, Jones was in the third wave of the invasion, responsible for leading a unit unloading equipment and supplies onto Omaha Beach. He was the first African American warrant officer (Junior Grade) in U.S. Army history. He was wounded several times during the operation: his ship hit a mine, he received shrapnel wounds to the neck, and was hit by sniper rounds, but continued his service, going on to fight in the Battle of the Bulge.

Jones during his service (source: U.S. Army)

“Because of racial inequalities,” the U.S. Army said in a statement, “Jones had [his] war stories overlooked for decades, despite rightfully earning” a Purple Heart; he had earlier received the Legion of Honour and the Croix de Guerre with Palm from France. After the war, Jones was on his way to New Orleans to have a piece of shrapnel surgically removed from his neck. He was pulled over by a sheriff’s deputy and beaten. Jones returned to Southern University and, in 1953, received his law degree, and was the first Black member of the Baton Rouge Bar Association. Jones was almost immediately recruited to represent people arrested in the Baton Rouge bus boycott, a precursor to the Montgomery bus boycott led by Martin Luther King, Jr. Later, Jones jumped out of his car just before a Ku Klux Klan car bomb exploded. During his legal career, Jones successfully fought for pay equity for teachers; sued to desegregate local parks, pools, amusement centers, schools, and courtrooms; represented Southern University student protesters during the Civil Rights movement; guarded the constitutional rights of indigent defendants; and challenged voter discrimination practices. He continued to practice law until he was 93 years old.

U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy presenting the Purple Heart to Jones on Saturday, June 26, 2021, finally righting an intentional oversight. (U.S. Army)

In June 2021, 77 years after being wounded in battle on D-Day, the U.S. Army finally awarded Jones a Purple Heart. For the ceremony, Jones requested a dress uniform. “Wanting to be dressed appropriately that many years later [shows] he is still thinking like a Soldier,” said Lt. Col. Scott Johnson, the Army Human Resources Command’s chief of awards and decorations, who made sure Jones got it. U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana pinned the medal on Jones’ jacket. “Here’s a man who could be bitter,” Cassidy said, “but he speaks only of affection and he speaks not of himself, but his love of our state and of our nation and his desire that everyone have the same opportunity to enjoy the blessings of the state in nation.” Jones was 101 years old. The ceremony was just in time: Jones died April 23 at a veteran’s home in Jackson, La. He was 102.

From This is True for 1 May 2022