Not many birthday parties can claim to have partygoers from three generations representing military service in four wars. But that was the case on Oct. 1 as friends and family gathered at the American Legion Hall in Rocky Mount to celebrate World War II veteran Walter Jones’ 96th birthday.
“Dad said at 96 he feels like a young man in an old man’s body,” said Jones’ daughter, Kathy Palmieri. “He still wants to do all those things he did when he was young, but he just cannot. His secret to a long life is loving his family and just living life to its fullest. When somebody comes by and says, ‘Let’s go,’ he’s ready.”
Born in Sontag, Jones grew up in Sydnorsville and attended school through eighth grade. In his adult years, Jones operated a sawmill and owned a service station. After retiring from the sawmill, Jones returned to work as a foreman for Ferguson Land and Lumber.
After being drafted on Dec. 30, 1942, Jones served as an infantryman on the front line with service in North Africa, as well as a march across Italy. After being wounded twice, Jones’ responsibilites changed — he then was responsible for driving a wrecker between Rome and Caserta, Italy picking up disabled but repairable vehicles and transporting them to the motor pool.
Jones, then a private first class, was honorably discharged Dec. 6, 1945. Since that time, Jones has been awarded two Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts, Unit States and combat campaign medals. In 2013, Jones also received the Franklin County Patriot Award at the annual Independence Day Festival.
Jones’ son, Roger, 71, was born and raised in Rocky Mount. After graduating from Franklin County High School, he attended Ferrum College before transferring to Virginia Commonwealth University where, in 1969, he was part of the university’s first graduating class. After receiving a deferment from the draft, Jones completed his education two years later at Tennessee Tech.
Roger Jones served in the Vietnam War from 1971 through 1973, although his career in the Army spanned 35 years with active duty, the Army Reserves and the National Guard.
Upon reflecting on his years in the service, Roger Jones said, “You learn a lot about yourself.”
After a year of college, Roger Jones’ son, Matt, 31, decided to join the Army National Guard in April 2006. As his father was ending his military service, Matt was just getting started, but said that military service brought them closer together. “My dad and I can talk about things and we know a lot of the same people.”
Matt Jones has deployed twice as part of the Iraq War, first with Operation Iraqi Freedom and then with Operation New Dawn.
Matt Jones has served as a mechanic, as well as a driver, similar to what his grandfather had done.
Walter Jones’ brother, Herbert, 87, who was the youngest of eight children (Walter was the third youngest), was born in Sydnorsville. After graduating from FCHS in 1950, Herbert Jones served in the Korean War from February 1952 through November 1953.
While in a fox hole Herbert Jones was injured by a grenade and spent 64 days in the hospital. For that injury, he was awarded a Purple Heart.
Today, Herbert Jones still farms, raking and baling hay, according to son-in-law, David Woody. “Herbert still tells everybody he feels better when he’s working.”
It’s the Jones’ brothers “won’t give up” attitude and determination that keep them going, Woody said.
As the men (and their families) compared their military careers and the wars in which they served, they noted the differences and the similarities.
Roger Jones recalled having discussions with his father about how large the attacks were back when he was in the military compared to how strategic they are today. While the atomic bomb had been used in World War II, that isn’t a realistic option these days, he said.
“I don’t know if I could’ve mentally handled what my grandpa went through,” Matt Jones said. But the camaraderie among members in the military remains the same, he added.
The birthday party was an opportunity for family members to offer their thoughts on what they admired about the 96-year-old Jones.
“He always seems to keep things in perspective,” Roger Jones said.
“His military awards and his commitment to family,” Matt Jones added. “The Jones’ are very close. I’m amazed at what he still does, like go hunting.”
Palmieri also added that her father is a protector. “He kind of looked out for others like he looked out for his own family,” she said. “My family has been the protector of our freedom.”