Article ran : 07/20/2003
Memories of war
After penning 14 books, author and military historian Wilbur D. Jones felt compelled to take a sentimental journey back in time to his hometown.

Home for Jones is Wilmington, and in his latest book, the 69-year-old retired Navy captain captures the essence of life in his beloved port city during the Second World War.

But "Sentimental Journey: Memoirs of a Wartime Boomtown" isn't just about Wilmington; it's about the impact of war on an entire region, including Jacksonville, which became home to Camp Lejeune, and the Topsail Island area, which became home to Camp Davis (the latter of which he devotes a full chapter to in his book).

Jones was born and raised in Wilmington, where he retired to in 1997 after 41 years of service to the Department of Defense. He said all of his life experiences led him to become a military historian. He feels that the unique military history of his hometown and surrounding areas is a story that needed to be told.

"For years I felt I was destined to write the book," he said. "I felt it was my responsibility to write about my hometown and its connection to the most important event of the 20th century - World War II.

Jones, who's also the volunteer chairman of the World War II Wilmington Home Front Coalition, said that during the war Wilmington "was the hub of everything."

"We had all the services stationed around there - Marines at (Camp) Lejeune and Cherry Point, the Army at Camp Davis in Holly Ridge, the Coast Guard in Wilmington, the Navy had submarine chasers in the Cape Fear River, and the Air Force was at the Wilmington airport. At the time, Wilmington hosted the only state port, prisoner of war camps and a large shipyard."

What Jones called the "Defense Capital of the State" went from a prewar population of 43,000 to a wartime boomtown of nearly 100,000.

The city was also home to two Medal of Honor recipients and 191 "boys" who never came home.

Through a child's eyes

Jones was 7 years old when the war came to Wilmington. "(As a youngster), I knew the world was at war, but I didn't know where Hawaii was. We soon found out," he said. "I well remember the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor."

And from that point on, the war "totally consumed" every aspect of his generation's life.

"Everyone was affected," he said. "I lived in a town where every other house had a father or son in uniform. Just in my immediate neighborhood (a few square blocks), five men didn't come home.

And life for those left behind was anything but normal, said Jones.

"The Army patrolled almost everywhere, and took hold of the airports and many key installations in the first six months of the war. We didn't live under martial law like Hawaii, but it was pretty close," he said.

Much of the influx of Army personnel came from Camp Davis near Holly Ridge, north of Wilmington on U.S. 17. What was "the smallest of dots on a road map," Jones wrote in "Sentimental Journey," grew to more than 100,000 in population by 1943.

War was a constant presence in Jones' childhood, and, he said, like most people, he learned to adapt. "The loom of house lights along the beach made silhouettes of cargo ships on the ocean. But we were told if you turn the lights out, they can't see to bomb. When there were blackouts, we kids hurried to get our homework done, then we could go out and play in the dark."

Jones and his playmates always played war games and, he mused, "They couldn't have fought the battle without us - we fought the Japanese in our backyards and playgrounds."

He said at first the war was exciting, but soon reality kicked in. "When we stayed inside, we had to pull down the shades, and back then we didn't have air conditioning. We had to black out our car's headlights, and people couldn't even smoke a cigarette outside for the first two years.

"Because of our strategic location, on the river, and on the coast, we lived under constant threat that we were going to be attacked by the Germans. Interestingly enough, we had German U-boats that operated off the coast of North Carolina with impunity, even before the country got into the war."

"I well remember walking on Wrightsville Beach and stepping in oil and over body parts and debris from the boats that washed up on the shore," he said.

Facing death at a young age was difficult, and Jones said the holocaust and Japanese treatment of POWs was the most frightening to him.

"I can remember sleepless nights after watching the news reels at the movie theater," he said. "Seeing the holocaust victims and POWs had a long lasting fearful impact on me."

Ties to Onslow County

Jones's father was a World War I Navy corpsman with the 6th Marines from Onslow County, and in his book he recalled his visits to the then rural community.

"I have a lot of warm feelings about Onslow County," he said. "Back then, Jacksonville was a one-horse town," he said. "I'm sure it must've had a traffic signal somewhere, but I never saw it.

"There was no place for the Marines to go," he continued. "The thing I remember most about the Lejeune Marines were the ones who'd come to Wilmington on liberty. And I'll tell you that some of the biggest battles not only occurred at Iwo Jima, and Gaudal Canal, but right there in downtown Wilmington between gyrenes and GIs."

Jones said with a laugh, "I'll tell you, the Marines were usually outnumbered by the soldiers, but it was a still a fair fight, you know?"

Even though he spent most of his three tours in the Navy at the Pentagon, Jones worked closely with the Marines, who he came to respect.

One of his crowning achievements, he said, was when he was made an honorary Marine by Fox Rifle Company, 2nd Battalion, 25th Marines, 4th Marine Division. He regards the Marines highly, and still keeps in touch with old friends.

Jones, whose next book is awaiting publishing, was proud to write about troops fighting the present war, and is honored to pay tribute to the troops in World War II, and "the brave men and women on the home front."

Jones also believes the timing was just right. "I conducted more than 220 interviews, and 15 percent of those people have died since I interviewed them," he said sadly.

Jones said his book is more than a detailed account with historical value - it's another testament to what has been dubbed "the greatest generation."

"My generation was called the 'forgotten generation,'" he said. "And I've taken it upon myself to bridge the gap between the 'X-ers' and the 'boomers' in my efforts to protect their history."

To order a copy of "Sentimental Journey: Memoirs of a Wartime Boomtown," go to

Contact Suzanne Grover at or 353-1171, ext. 220.