It’s been 77 years and Johnnie Jones still sees the German sniper who tried to kill him as he came ashore on Omaha Beach for D-Day.
“I remember it all,” he said. “Sometimes reminiscing is a terrible thing. I close my eyes at night and still see him. I lay down at night and as soon as I close my eyes, I relive the whole D-Day invasion.”
Jones almost never made it to the beachhead that day. His ship hit a mine and he was blown from the second deck to the first. The explosion, “blew me sky high into the air,” he said. “I was flying like a bullet.”
Later in the war, Jones got hit with shrapnel when he didn’t hit the ground fast enough during a bomb attack.
“The doctor told me it would really hurt in 75 years, but I wouldn’t have to worry about that. I fooled him. It hurts, and I’m still picking it out of my head and arm. A piece came out just above my left eye yesterday.”
He never got the Purple Heart for any of those battle injuries.
Now 101, he finally received the award Saturday at the Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Jones, a civil rights icon, still lives on his own and gets home-based primary care from the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System in Baton Rouge.
“Like a lot of my Veterans, he is so real and been through so much, but he is so humble,” said VA social worker Keith Horcasitas, who checks in regularly. “Here I am, before a living hero who put his life on the line – not only in military service, but otherwise making some much-needed changes in our country.”
Johnnie Jones dressed in style for his 100th birthday party last year. “I’m doing OK for a young man,” he said. “I’ll make it to 125.” He was instrumental in starting civil rights boycotts and protests in the 1950s.
Jones grew up in a farming family. His parents insisted he go to school. He graduated from Southern University and was drafted into the Army in 1942. By 1943, he rose to the rank of Warrant Officer Junior Grade.
Though he fought for freedom overseas, he wasn’t given it when he came back home. While driving in 1946 to New Orleans to get shrapnel removed from his neck, he was pulled over by a white police officer.
“He knocked me down and started kicking me,” he said. “Things weren’t right. ‘Separate but equal’ was unconstitutional and I wanted to fight it and make it better.”
Jones got his law degree. Just 15 days out of school, the Rev. T.J. Jemison recruited him in 1953 to help organize the United Defense League’s eight-day bus boycott in Baton Rouge and defend the participants. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King used that event to plan his larger bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, two years later.
Jones defended students in drugstore sit-ins and others as civil rights protests spread throughout the south. His car was bombed twice.
“I was in the car and got out as it got blown in the air,” he said. “We had to take a firm stand. You only live once, but when you die, you die forever, so I wasn’t going to rest until we could fix things.”
His daughter-in-law, Mary Louise Jones, said it never made him bitter.
“I think that’s because of his ability to make a change,” she said. “He just tried to work within the system. He has had so many civil rights cases that set a precedent, and he just knew it was right to get those things done.”
His friend, Russell Kelly, knew it also wasn’t right that he never got the Purple Heart. He spent the last 18 months collecting as much paperwork as he could find to prove Jones’ story and get him the award.
“He knocked me down and started kicking me. Things weren’t right. ‘Separate but equal’ was unconstitutional and I wanted to fight it and make it better.”
— Johnnie Jones, describing how he was treated after coming home from World War II.
“So many records were destroyed or lost,” Kelly said. “The fire in St. Louis (in 1973), and then Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Gustaf.”
But Jones had proof he served in the 494th Port Battalion that stormed the beaches of Normandy, France, and fought in other parts of Europe. Medical records from VA detailed treatment for war wounds.
Jones was honored March 9, 2020, by the French government when they presented him their country’s Legion of Honor for his World War II service. That’s where Kelly brought up his story with Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy, who helped expedite the case. Cassidy presented the Purple Heart at the ceremony.
“He is so real and been through so much, but he is so humble. Here I am, before a living hero who put his life on the line – not only in military service, but otherwise making some much-needed changes in our country.”
— Keith Horcasitas, VA social worker from the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System, who checks in on Johnnie Jones regularly.
The Army also sent thanks, along with the award.
“I want to express our deepest respect for your distinguished service, and long overdue recognition of your wounds received during the invasion of Omaha Beach on D-Day,” wrote Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville. “We owe you a debt of gratitude, both for your sacrifices during World War II and for being a role model for African Americans aspiring to serve. We serve to honor your legacy.”
Mary Louise Jones said her father-in-law’s influence was felt throughout the family – two sons, a daughter and granddaughter became attorneys.
Jones said it’s an honor to be recognized, in honor of those he served with. But he’s more focused on telling his story after the war.
“This is for my children, and my grandchildren, and any young people who want to listen to me,” he said. “I love talking to young people, because you cannot hide the past. You have to deal with the past, and you have to deal with history. You have to read and understand so we don’t repeat the past.”