It got to the point where he could recite the response by heart: “We have more names than we do ships, but we will consider you in the future.”
Jones, a Navy aviation mechanic, survived the Pearl Harbor attack, so for him the ship-naming campaign was personal. But it was also part of a larger effort by veterans to keep the memory of Dec. 7, 1941 alive in the public’s mind.
He kept writing letters, more than 60 of them. And eventually the Navy commissioned the Pearl Harbor, a dock landing ship, and home-ported it in San Diego, where for 20 years every time it left for training exercises, and every time it came back, one person was usually at the pier, waving at the crew.
It was Jones, who died Friday at his longtime home in Chula Vista. He was 96.
“He just felt like it was his adopted ship,” said his daughter, Vicki Jones-Pittman. “And he was its adopted grandfather.”
Born Gordon Edward Jones on Aug. 8, 1922 in Philadelphia, he went to high school in New Jersey and enlisted in the Navy while still attending classes. He graduated in his military uniform.
When the Japanese attacked, he was assigned to a squadron at Kaneohe Bay, tending to PBY Catalina seaplanes. It was a Sunday morning, just before 8 a.m., and he was on liberty, dressed in his white uniform and looking forward to a day of leisure.
Then the first fighter plane came in low. He thought it was a prank by a Marine pilot until the bullets started flying.
“We hadn’t heard anything about any war starting,” he told the Union-Tribune in a 2016 interview.
Jones scampered into a hangar for shelter. Most of the three-dozen PBYs were destroyed, and almost 20 sailors were killed. Among the dozens injured was Jones’ brother, Earl, hit in the back with bomb shrapnel and disabled.
The others regrouped to fight another day. Jones, a specialist in aircraft electronics, spent the rest of the war accompanying squadrons as they island-hopped across the Pacific. He kept a diary that included moments of horror, and moments of mirth. On Guadalcanal, sick with malaria as enemy shells fell, he accidentally covered his head with his bed pan instead of his helmet.
He spent 20 years in the Navy, retiring in 1961, and then worked at Convair, the aircraft manufacturing company, and at Naval Air Station North Island on Coronado. When he wasn’t fixing airplanes, he volunteered in band and sports programs at his children’s schools.
Through the local chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, Jones regularly gave talks in area classrooms, sometimes bringing along a piece of a downed Japanese Zero he had picked up at Kaneohe after the attack was over.
“Many of them have no idea what Pearl Harbor was all about, or even where it is,” he said after one school visit in 1996. “Telling them is our legacy. We have to let them know that war isn’t fun. It’s hell, but we did our job. It’s an indelible memory of men who weren’t so much afraid as they were angry that they had been caught unprepared.”
As he pushed for the Navy to name a ship after Pearl Harbor, he and other survivors understood that officials were hesitant to have such a visible reminder of an awful defeat. But remembering was the whole point, the survivors argued. How else could the nation prevent a bloody repeat?
On May 30, 1998, when the landing ship was put into service at North Island, Jones was among the 5,000 people in attendance. He then became a fixture at the ship’s comings and goings, joking that crew members on board were probably taking bets “to see who is the first one to see Jonesy.”
His death leaves about 10 Pearl Harbor survivors in the San Diego chapter, which at its peak had almost 360 members.
But I doubt it. They’d prefer naming ships after homos and leftist fucks and abolitionists.