Life story

Wilbur D. Jones Jr., native of Wilmington, shares his life story in new memoir

Wilbur D. Jones Jr. led the campaign for Wilmington to be declared the country’s first World War II heritage city. In the meantime, while he was supposed to be retired, he wrote a shelf of books, most notably “A Sentimental Journey”, a story of Wilmington during World War II.

Along the way, he led WWII battlefield tours and wrote extensively on local history for StarNews.

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But that’s just the tip of the iceberg of a long and eventful life. Jones, in an airy, informal style, completes the rest of the story in an often entertaining memoir, “The Day I Lost President Ford”.

Jones’ credentials in Port City are impeccable: born July 9, 1934 at James Walker Memorial Hospital, he attended Forest Hills School (now Forest Hills Global Elementary) and New Hanover High School, where he edited the journal. school, The Wildcat. Her father, an executive at Carolina Building & Loan, had served in the Navy during World War I.

Young Wilbur was 7 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and as the book clearly shows, WWII was the critical period in his life. He and his pals won the war at the Forest Hills playgrounds, while his stay-at-home mom volunteered for the Red Cross. (At one point, she worked at the dispensary at the German POW camp at what is now Wilmington International Airport.)

From an early age, Wilbur was passionate about sports, if not a spectacular player. (He lost his position as starting third baseman to a child named Sonny Jurgensen, who would go on to play the National Football League quarterback.) His older sister married an Army lieutenant who she met at the downtown Wilmington USO; for much of the 1950s the couple lived in New Jersey, which allowed young Wilbur to make a detour to New York City for some of the classic games with the Yankees, Dodgers and Giants.

En route to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for college, Jones wrote for The Daily Tar Heel alongside Charles Kuralt and future Washington columnist Ed Yoder. He has also written in soccer and lacrosse. He then secured a commission from the Navy and headed out to sea, often aboard amphibious support ships. (His major achievement was to marry the Commodore’s daughter.)

After eight years, with a slowdown in advancement, he transferred to the reserves and tried his hand at business in Southern California.

Then politics intervened. Jones volunteered in Senator Barry Goldwater’s losing presidential campaign in 1964; which led to jobs with a succession of Republican congressmen, including Rep. Barry Goldwater Jr. In 1972 he led the Nixon campaign in New Hampshire, which won him a job in the General Service Administration , which kept him away from Watergate. (Martha Mitchell, the famous uncontrollable wife of Attorney General John Mitchell, once asked him to chaperone a vacation in Florida, but he managed to dodge that bullet.)

This, in turn, led to a period of service as an advanced man for President Gerald Ford, planning the details of trips, visits and visits to the White House – hence the title of the book. (Spoiler alert: Jones and the staff were left on deck during a rainy visit from a Navy ship. The President, wisely, had slipped discreetly below the captain’s cabin to a dry seat and a hot cup of coffee.)

After Ford’s defeat to Jimmy Carter, Jones briefly returned to duty, then found a position as a civilian faculty member at what became Defense Acquisition University, a Pentagon school. This led to his huge book, “Arming the Eagle”, a history of US military procurement from the days of George Washington to the present day.

After retiring to Wilmington in 1997, one of his first causes was to lobby for the restoration and renovation of the old downtown USO, now known as the Hannah Block Historic USO / Community Arts Center.

Like a certain fictional sea captain – Pug Henry in Herman Wouk’s “Winds of War” – Jones has shown a lifelong talent for appearing at historic moments, chatting with important people. Example: On a ferry while stopping at a Navy port in Hong Kong in the 1950s, Jones struck up a conversation with Christine Jorgensen, one of America’s first and most famous “trans” people. They got along well.

Contact StarNews Arts & Entertainment at 910-343-2343.


“THE DAY I LOST PRESIDENT FORD: Memory of a Caroline Tar Heel born and raised”

By Wilbur D. Jones Jr.

Wilmington, Dram Tree Press, $ 19.95, paperback

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