CHICAGO–For African American World War II veterans like Thomas V. Jones, the experience was vastly different from their white counterparts, yet they continued to hold up their head up and make their country proud.
Ford Motor Company wanted to help honor Jones and 90 other veterans from the Chicagoland area. The company sponsored Honor Flight Chicago so that they were able to bring the 91 veterans to Washington, D.C.
Ford’s philanthropic side, Ford Fund, first began its partnership with Honor Flight in 2011. Since then, the company has provided support for nine flights from Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio, Missouri and Illinois. This year, Ford helped fund three flights for more than 200 veterans from across the nation.
“It was a tremendous experience, they treated us so well” said Jones, a Chicago Ford Assembly plant retiree.
The 88-year-old Chicago native participated in a special evening ceremony at the World War II Memorial.
“Ford is privileged to play a small role in what we hope is a big day of reflection, remembrance and recognition for those who fought to defend freedom, democracy and the American way of life,” said Jim Vella, president Ford Motor Company Fund and Community Services.
When Jones enlisted, he thought he was going into the air force. He and other African American men were told that they would join the 99th Pursuit Squadron, an all Black Air Corps unit established by the War Department in January of 1941. Many know that first graduating class as the Tuskegee Airmen, a fighter squadron.
That’s what Jones thought he was joining, but he was in for a surprise, he said.
“We had passed all of these exams and had letters of recommendation, but once we all arrived, they told us that the experiment wasn’t going to continue,” he said.
From that point on, he and others were bounced around because no one wanted to train them to fly.
“They were going to send us to Texas, but Texas sent us back, using the N-word, saying don’t send none of them down here, we’re not going to train them,” Jones said.
The dilemma of what to do with these Black men was soon solved. Many were trained on how to be a surveyor, the person who helps map out the land. This made it easy to create roads and airplane landing paths. Jones served at Iwo Jima, Guam, Saipan, and Okinawa.
He said that the history books don’t come close to describing his experience.
He said the Black men were segregated. The white officers couldn’t even come near them. and if they did, they would get shot. They were on their own. The Black men discovered survival techniques like avoiding malaria, getting clean drinking water and locating safe hiding places, all techniques that were essential to preserving their lives.
“I found that the best place to hide on the island when they attacked were the caves, Jones said. The only thing about that was the caves were where they buried their dead. Well that was the only place that was safe because they blew up everything else.”
Surviving these types of situations, as well as playing a huge role in American history, is something Ford wanted to honor Jones and other Chicagoland veterans for.
All 91 veterans were able to bring one guest on the trip. Jones brought his daughter LaRue Little.
Honor Flight Chicago tries to pay tribute to all of the WWII veterans, by taking them to D.C. There was also a welcome back ceremony held at Chicago’s Midway Airport.