Howard P. Jones Jr. is a 93-year-old hospice patient who plans to skydive into a celebration of a remarkable life this Saturday in Walterboro.
“I like it,” is the three-word explanation of a man dying of congestive heart failure.
For the past 10 years, Jones has been doing a tandem jump on his birthday at the airport near his home. But this time PruittHealth Hospice in Beaufort arranged the jump and celebration of life as an “ode to him” that could include a couple of grandchildren also jumping from a plane.
“His wish was to have one last jump,” said Michelle Stanton, volunteer coordinator with the hospice.
But you never know. Jones still wants to go up on his birthday in June. He’s been in hospice for a year. And the old man of the “greatest generation” will dive headlong into life as long as he has breath.
Jones calls skydiving “kind of indescribable. The first minute is a free fall, running 120 miles per hour, and then you pull the chute and float all the way down.”
That’s a milk run for a long life that’s been tough — at least in airplanes.
Jones was raised by grandparents until striking out on his own at age 16. He worked farms in Upstate New York until something happened that still brings tears to his eyes. It was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The day that lives in infamy, Dec. 7, 1941, changed everything, and Jones wanted to do something about it.
He joined the U.S. Army, went into the Air Corps and became a tail gunner in a B-24 Liberator.
When he got to Hardwick air base in England in July 1943, he was told the average life expectancy was 13 weeks. A lot of guys went out in the heavyweight bombers with sexy nose art and catty names like Juicy Lucy — and never came back.
Jones survived 13 months and 28 combat missions over Europe with the 93rd Bomb Group of the Mighty 8th Air Force.
“I wanted to fly,” he said.
You had to be small to even get in a rear tail turret.
You were strapped into the thing, hanging out into the freezing skies with flak exploding all around and German fighters sneaking up from below. You were in the fetal position. There wasn’t enough room for a parachute. You could barely reach your machine guns.
But you were the rear lookout. It was up to you to keep the 10-man crew from getting blown to bits.
“You saw where you’ve been,” Jones said, holding a model of the B-24. Even the model is heavy. And dusty.
“You’re going 220 miles per hour in one direction and the German fighter is going 300 miles per hour in the other direction,” he said.
And you’re five miles up — on a mission to blast away at Axis rail lines and factories to end a war that claimed 26,000 lives in the Mighty 8th alone.
“It could be anywhere from 20-below-zero to 50-below in that turret,” Jones said.
He wore silk long johns over silk underwear. Then came a cotton flight suit. Over that was a leather, sheepskin-lined suit laced with electric heating coils plugged into the plane. Boots and gloves were also lined with heaters.
“Hopefully the power worked,” he said.
Jones has never flown alone. His free fall on Saturday reflects America’s history, and its spirit.
Americans cranked out 19,000 of the behemoth B-24s — 8,000 of them by the Ford Motor Company.
And a man from Ridgeland came up with its most famous use.
Gen. Jacob E. Smart was architect of Operation Tidal Wave that performed a low-level bombing raid on the oil refineries at Ploiesti, Romania.
A major contributor was Gen. Edward J. “Ted” Timberlake’s 93rd Bomb Group, named “Ted’s Traveling Circus.” Timberlake retired to West Beach Lagoon Road in Sea Pines on Hilton Head Island in 1965, and helped establish the Community Association, Association of Sea Pines Plantation Property Owners and the Sea Pines Golf Club.
Jones didn’t get there in time for the famous, tree-level mission, but still proudly claims membership in “Ted’s Traveling Circus.”
And he’ll pick a fight over which was the better heavy bomber, the B-24 or the more glamorous B-17 Flying Fortress.
“Both were there to do the same job,” he’ll admit. “To get rid of Hitler.”
Jones was working on a Jeep at a base in Charleston when Germany surrendered.
He went back home to work more than 30 years with General Electric. “I’m like an engineer without the papers,” he said. They sent him to the Lowcountry to help make large turbines for nuclear power plants.
“Three Mile Island ended that,” Jones said.
In retirement, he used those same skills to make things from wood.
He has lost his wife, and he’s in hospice care. But the old tail gunner is still living at home.
And he’s still flying.