BROWSE BY:     Title Number Subject Creator Digital Content

Interview with Wilbur D. Jones, September 24, 2007 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

pdf icon Get PDF Version
Title:
Interview with Wilbur D. Jones, September 24, 2007
Date:
September 24, 2007
Description:
Interview with Wilbur Jones, local military historian and author of several books, including Giants in the Cornfield and A Sentimental Journey: Memoirs of a Wartime Boomtown.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee:  Jones, Wilbur Interviewer:  Diesenhaus, Doug Date of Interview:  9/24/2007 Series:  SENC Writers Length  60 minutes

 

Diesenhaus: Yeah. I'll just start with a brief introduction. I'm Doug Diesenhaus and today is September 24, 2007. I'll be interviewing Wilbur Jones for the Randall Library Oral History Project on creative writers. So I think a good place to start is if you could just talk how you got started writing, how you've come to it.

Jones: I got started writing when I was very, very young and that was it seems like about 70 years ago. My first writing assignments were when I was a student at Forest Hills Elementary School in Wilmington. I was born in Wilmington in 1934 and raised here. And when I was in Forest Hills School I grew up there, of course, during World War II and we boys we played war games and some sports but mostly war games. We chased the enemy out of Wilmington and out of the county and helped the boys overseas win the war. They couldn't have done it without us. And I got interested in writing and also in drawing. I'd sit up in class at Forest Hills School and I would draw these nice sketches of war scenes, of German and Japanese planes going down in flames and United States Marines assaulting the beaches in the Pacific islands and I would start writing captions with them. And all of a sudden I thought I was a pretty good writer so my last couple of years at Forest Hills School in those days we went through eighth grade at elementary school, I became associated with the staff of the little newspaper. We published a newspaper about, oh, two to four times a year and my junior year, my seventh grade year I was a writer and then my eighth grade year I was editor of the Forest Hills Echo, so that's how I got my start and I remember it well and still have some of the copies of those newspapers, newsletters. The staples haven't worn out yet. Then I moved on to New Hanover High School and joined the staff of the Wildcat, which is the newspaper at New Hanover High School. And I loved English. English was one of my favorite subjects besides history. And the one thing I liked about English was I had some very strict and strong English teachers, females, who had been around for a long time and absolutely insisted that we do all the basic elementary things to write in good grammar, such as not splitting infinitives and not starting sentences with "it is" and "there are" and overusing the word "that" and not ending sentences in a pronoun. And then we had to diagram sentences in those days with participles and gerunds and modifiers and adjectives and adverbs. Anyway, it formed a real basis of solid English grammar for me and eventually helped me a great deal as a public speaker. I've spoken and lectured all over the country and some parts of the world and enjoyed it very much. And all of that is tied in. Well my English teachers took a liking to me and I to them. In fact, probably my most revered and favorite teacher from high school was the mother of one of my classmates at New Hanover High. And when she died a few years ago at a very, very old age I went to the funeral and told my classmate how much I appreciated what she had done for me and gave her a copy of my first World War II Wilmington book that I wrote in 2003. This was an inspiration to me and I really enjoyed it. I got good grades on theses and essays and such and became editor of the paper my senior year, which was quite-- it was one of not only the fun jobs but it was a lot of hard work went into that. It was a prestige job. It was like being editor of the ______ and the yearbook except we had a newspaper to get out about every month or every two weeks as a matter of fact and we had a separate class for journalism and those of us who were on the staff worked on it and it's a lot easier to do that than it is to publish your yearbook and you have nine months in order to do it. So I got used to working under pressure and such and that year our high school basketball team, boys' basketball team, won the state championship and we had real good sports and good athletes. And so it was sort of natural that I would write the stories and travel around with the team and such. And, at the same time, and the story gets even bigger because at the same time I went to work for the Wilmington Star News, the local now regional newspaper, southeastern North Carolina. With my interest in journalism and I had at that time planned to go to Carolina to major in journalism and in those days journalism was a separate school and a separate major. Now I think it's in the communications school, of course, so journalism lost a little bit of the identity but planning to go to Carolina to study journalism. I wanted to be a sports writer, so my father was a good friend with the publisher of the Wilmington Star News and the editor of the paper and I got a job working after school when I was a senior in high school in the sports department. Now, Wilmington was so much smaller then and half the size of what it is today and so the paper correspondingly was smaller and the staff was smaller. So I had the pleasure of learning very quickly what it was like to work in a newspaper. I was given a great deal of responsibility at age 16. The sports editor would take off and go home and I'd be there manning the desk and I'd be pulling the copy off Associated Press and United Press off the teletype machines and writing the captions for photographs and headlines and such and laying out the newspaper. And this was exciting stuff and particularly when I had to go to school the next day because I would leave school in the afternoon and then come down, usually catch the bus to come down to the newspaper. And, at that time, the newspaper office was in the Merkison [ph?] Building. It's that tall office building on Front Street across from the Front Street post office. And so I would come down and work anywhere from, oh, four to six hours, whatever it takes and if the sports editor had gone home and one of the other writers was not around or out on assignment covering a game or something, I had to put the paper to bed and this was great experience because I had to go back and negotiate with the layout people to make sure that our page got the attention it should. So it was great experience at age 16 and 17. I ended up working both after school and during the summers for three years on the Star News and I still write for the Star News. They gave just terrific attention yesterday to this piece that was-- if you haven't had a chance to read it, check it out. It's in Sunday's paper about a visit I made to an American cemetery in Italy to visit the graves of six Wilmington boys who died in World War II in the Italian campaign. And the editor did a marvelous job; the layout, everything is just wonderful. But I worked very, very hard on it but the reason I'm bringing that up is because it's sort of like bookends what I've been doing in my writing career has been varied. I'm obviously-- I've been writing for the Star News longer than anybody else. They turn over quite often but I started work in 1950. That's 57 years ago and, of course, there was this long period when I didn't write for them at all but after I moved back to Wilmington, I approached them and so we've had a good relationship for the last, oh, five, six years or so. I write most for the Star News, I write mostly op ed pieces on history. There's so much Wilmington World War II history. I spend-- my life is devoted to preserving World War II history, particularly in Wilmington because we are America's unique wartime boom town and America's World War II city. I'm trying to get that message out and have been fairly successful in my efforts as a volunteer. So I write op ed pieces for the paper. I go on assignment from time to time. I don't cover games, but they give me a specialty to write about. And in '03 during the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom, the invasion of Iraq, during the invasion, the conflict part until Saddam Hussein fell and then in the post period, the run-up, during, and after. I wrote a series of 13 analysis pieces. They gave me the title of military analyst for the Star News. I'm a retired Navy captain and retired from 41 years of service in the defense department so that may have qualified me, but I thoroughly enjoyed that because it gave the readers-- they got wonderful feedback on the pieces and all of them were on page 1-A. I was very fortunate because I studied that stuff. It's in my blood. It's always been military and armed forces and America's freedom and security, those kinds of things, so it was very natural for me. I went over to Normandy, France three years ago to help lead a tour on the Queen Mary II to England, World War II sites in England and then over to Normandy for the 60th anniversary of D-Day, the invasion of Normandy and that was a wonderful experience. The Star News asked me to write a number of pieces and some I filed before I went over. I interviewed a lot of area boys that had been involved in D-Day. And then when I got over there I filed four pieces, took my laptop and we had a small sort of typically old-fashioned French hotel in Falaise where William the Conqueror was from and fortunately I was able to use their computer too to send it back to the Star News and I had a cell phone and communicated with them. So the first three pieces took a lot of work. I interviewed a lot of veterans and people who were over there. I went to the famous Normandy American Cemetery, "Saving Private Ryan," which I mentioned in yesterday's Star News article and visited a number of the battlefields within Normandy, Omaha Beach, Utah and so forth. So those three went off fairly easily and then on June the 6th, which was D-Day and the 60th anniversary, June the 6th presented a separate problem because I had had to work hard to get press credentials from both the French government and from our embassy in Paris as a member of the media and things don't work as fast over there as they did here. So I got my credentials and fortunately on June the 6th I went to the Normandy cemetery where President Bush and French President Jacques Chirac were going to preside over a memorial service and this was the biggest single event of D-Day, of the actual 6th of June. So I got there early and the service was supposed to start at ten o'clock and I got there way before 9:00 so I stayed down at a place in press row so that I ended up about, oh, 15 feet from Bush and Chirac and right at the rope line standing next to the Washington Post and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Associated Press and there I was the Wilmington Star News and I was wearing my credentials. I thought I was big stuff. I mean even at my age, finally a foreign correspondent. So I interviewed, oh, a number of people Karen Hughes and Karl Rove, who worked for the president and I was this close to First Lady Laura Bush and it was just an exciting kind of thing and with the veterans. And, of course, I was also even closer to Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg and they were back at the cemetery where they had filmed "Saving Private Ryan." So, I at that time was traveling with a very good friend of mine, a retired army colonel from Virginia who had met me over there and we had to check out of our hotel room very early that morning and came over in a bus with some other people. We had to get back to our hotel, pick up our rental car, and drive to Paris to catch an early morning flight out the next morning and I had to file, I had to write and file the story. That was a very harrowing experience because if you've ever been to Paris, you know that the traffic is a million times worse than it is at Market and South College Road, I can tell you. So we drove like bats out of, you know where, finally found our hotel and went rushing in, wrote my story, went down to the business center of the hotel. It was a deluxe hotel so a nice business center and I got set up on the Internet and sent my story into the Star News, confirmed it with Trisha Vance [ph?] who was the editor that I was reporting to and I just made it. Of course, what we had was a five-hour head start so that when I finished the thing about, oh, 10:30 or 11:00 by the time I'd gotten back it was just meeting their deadline here in Wilmington so that was interesting. But I thoroughly enjoyed that experience and so when the opportunity came when I was part of leading a cruise, a small ship cruise of the Italian campaign this past June of '07, I approached the Star News because I knew that we had Wilmington boys in the cemetery just south of Rome and we were going to visit there, our tour group, and so I made arrangements with them. They were just wonderful people to work with and so this is a result of my effort. It was an awful lot of work to try to figure out as the Star News says, and I'm saying this for a purpose for our interview, a local historian travels to pay his respects, which of course I have great respect and appreciation for all World War II veterans and particularly those who didn't come home, and tries to recreate their lives. I try to learn as much about them as I can which is one of the things that you wanted to discuss was how I did my research and that sort of thing. So that's my experience with the Star News. Another sideline is I've written a few sports pieces for them too. They asked me to write the sports obituary for Charlie "Choo Choo" Justice, a great, the greatest known, finest football player the state of North Carolina has ever had. He played at Carolina at Chapel Hill. So I wrote his obituary when he died four years ago and so occasionally I do that. So I also am coming around to the research part. I've also written for magazines and journals. Well I've written journal articles which are different from magazine articles as you're well aware.

Diesenhaus: Is the process of writing them different? Do you approach them differently?

Jones: Very definitely. When I write, to go back and start, when I write, I write non-fiction and I write primarily history and of that military history. The first thing I want to do is get the complete story within the frame of the time I have and the energy I have, meaning that there's always another rock to kick over to see what's underneath the rock. The question is do you have an editor's deadline? Do you have your own personal deadline? Like I do so many other things; I'm very active in the Rotary Club and civic work around here that I don't have but X amount of time to spend on research, so the question is when do you stop your research? I'm sure that non-fiction aspiring authors and a creative writing class will have to confront that point because I've known friends and I've known people around the country who are always writing a book. It's the same book. They don't know when to stop the research. They'll put it aside for six months and then they'll pick up the research again and then the book never gets written or by the time it's written, gee whiz, I forgot what chapter one said. So it's key to being able to know when to stop the research. And in the case of the story I did for the Star News I thoroughly researched every one of those six boys to find out everything I could about them and fortunately four of them, five of them have either family, relatives, or friends who remember them from over 60 years ago and most of them were in this area so it wasn't easy because you have to keep asking questions. And my research, first of all, I want to get the complete story within reason and then I want to get the facts straight and if I have to double check facts I will. In the case of military history, for example, we all know that Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941 by the Japanese. You don't have to check that again. But in this case, two of the boys who are buried in that cemetery were members of B-24 liberator bomber crews that flew out of Italy and I had to go from link to link to link to find out exactly where they were stationed, the correct name of their bomb group, even to the point of finding the name of one of the bombers and how these boys died. I thought that was essential to the story but I had to stop at a certain point because I'm limited as to space. The editor says only 1,200 words, different writing for a newspaper, then writing for a magazine or a journal where you have a little more leeway and completely different from writing on the Internet in a blog, for example, so all of that has to be weighed. So do you want to try one more website to get one more little factoid and the answer is no because right now I have 1,200 words and that's what she told me. And so you go back and you have to edit everything and I try to use the best grammar my English teachers taught me and I try not to overuse the verbs "to be" and "to have." Those drive me absolutely up the wall. We have Pulitzer Prize authors, like Stephen Ambrose [ph?] and David McCullough [ph?], for example, who write and never change the verb. They always use "to be." Everything is, is, was, were, have, had, and it drives me nuts because there are other words to use so I'm trying to be literary to get the facts straight and within the scope of my research. So the difference say between writing for a magazine and a journal is writing for a journal and I've written for a couple of journals, they are subject to peer review, a jury, and if that's the case you want to make doggone sure you get everything annotated and I am a-- I'm very thorough on research. I will keep all my research notes and if I don't use them so what? They're there because I have had on occasion someone to get in touch with me later and say, "Where did you get that fact? You said my father was so and so." "Well here it is right here." So I keep all of that on a disc and also on paper. But for a journal, there's a different style the way you write for a journal, but you want to make sure that you get adequate in notes.

Diesenhaus: I'm not too familiar with military records. I imagine some of that that's where you're getting some of your information. Is there something about the way that they're kept the way that that information is handled that has been helpful to you or perhaps has made it harder for you at times to track down all of these links?

Jones: Well that's a very good question. Now, when I first began writing books over 20 years ago for the defense department and also commercial the Internet-- we didn't have an Internet so it was impossible to Google in the name of a bomber, a B-24 bomber and get what you can get now. And military records are paper records and until they're all converted digitally and put online you have to go to the site to get them. The first commercial book I wrote was a book about the common soldier of the Union Army based on an Indiana regiment and it's done very, very well. It's been out for ten years and I spent hour after hour in the National Archives in Washington going through all these Civil War records and none of them were digitized and probably today they aren't because it's just too voluminous, I mean, and some of it is on microfilm so you have to go day after day after hour after hour. And I would leave work at Fort Belvoir, drive down into Washington. They gave me a special parking place and for a year and a half I was in there four, five times a week and I closed the place every night and I'd take a sandwich to eat. I mean I was dedicated and still am, but I went through every Civil War record of that regiment and every man and these voluminous records and so forth and I did the same thing with the Indiana State Archives in Indianapolis.

Diesenhaus: But you had to be there.

Jones: And you got to go there. So some authors if they're financially capable will hire others to go out and do their research for them but that can be very tricky because Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin [ph?] got themselves into some trouble and it was sort of their own making because they just got too big. I mean their operations are too big. I will never reach that point but I did in writing the Civil War book, "Giants in the Cornfield," I did pay some people in Indiana to go check some of the local library records for me because I made something like 18 trips to Indiana over a period of about three years doing research. It gets quite costly so that's another question of the return on investment. You have to go there because if you hire somebody else and you tell them about what you're looking for they may come up with A, B, and C but overlook D and D is a jewel because only you will recognize it. So, anyway, for a magazine, as you know, magazine articles are not end noted and generally not footnoted. The publisher of a magazine may or may not ask you to annotate everything and to prove it and generally I have found that magazine articles are terribly written. I get two World War II magazines every month and it's a struggle to read the stuff, getting back to the "to be" and "to have" the overuse and just they didn't have the same English teachers I did in a generation where writing was pushed more than it is now. But I am a meticulous researcher but I'm smart enough to know after 16 books that I'm not going to let it-- it's not going to be an albatross around my neck. It's not going to hold me down because I feel like I have to break out and finish the story. I'm working on a book now, I have been off and on, on military and college football in World War II. It's a subject that's never been really written about and how if it hadn't been for the armed forces, particularly the Navy and the Marine Corps, sending students to college, college football would have collapsed during the war. As a result, there were some very, very good military teams and some of the great stars in the NFL both pre-war and post war, college all Americans, Heisman Trophy winners, they all went into the service and they played military football and they were some great, great games and people packed the stadiums buying war bonds and things to see them. And I've been working on this off and on and I'm back in the on now that I've done about all the research I want to do but if I come up with some jewel, if I find something that will prompt me to follow up on it then I will, but you got to know that's one of the hardest things to do when you write non-fiction. When do I cut off the research? Let's say you cut off the research in January for let's say you're writing a monograph, okay. You cut off the research in January and you start writing and you don't have to start writing chapter one. You don't have to start writing the preface or introduction. You can start writing chapter six if you want to. And then while you're writing chapter one or two you may come across something that you can use and you put that into your research file, so it doesn't mean that you stop the research. When my research is stopped for the books I've written it's when the last galley proof goes to the publisher and I usually get two galleys. That's when it stops.

Diesenhaus: And given how you talked about the problems that can come from using assistants or other folks, I'm curious does the actual research process can that inspire you? It sounds like getting that D, you said D could be a jewel can that be one of the things that pushes you forward and that sort of re-energizes you or really gets you going ___________?

Jones: Yes, that's an excellent question, excellent observation also because it does. It does for me. I'm a very nostalgic, emotional historian and I have as I said dedicated my life to preserving World War II history and so when I find something that is just real noteworthy that energizes me to keep working harder. I am a self starter. I've never had any problems being a self starter and if you're going to be a writer, and I imagine this is true for fiction also, you've got to be a self starter. You've got to be self disciplined, self motivated and you've got to learn to deal with numbers of distractions, every day, every week. If you have a family, you have family responsibilities and in my case I'm very heavily involved in the community and as a volunteer, so all of those have to be factored in. And people ask me often "When do you write? Do you set a period of time?" Because John Grisham, for example, made famous that he goes in and turns his computer on at six o'clock in the morning and writes until 10:00 or 11:00 and then takes off the rest of the day. Well buenos suerte John Grisham, if you could do that that's why you're John Grisham. That was in a day before you had to answer 35 emails every day and get constant phone calls and if he's got a staff to handle all that. But I write when I can. There are days when I get up and I have nothing on my calendar except to go work out and I know that I'm going to try to get part of a chapter done. If I am writing and I am now in that phase of trying to squeeze every minute out of writing and keep the family distractions down and taking the dog to the vet and other things, if I can get one, if I can write one chapter which is about let's say ten to 13 single-spaced pages, if I can write one chapter a week I've done real well because-- and I write from-- I keep all-- the way I do my research is I photocopy documents. If I'm getting it from the Internet I print them out and you got to be very careful about using Internet sources and you've almost got to know that they're telling the truth. I mean Wikipedia, forget it, except in verifying somebody's birth date or what school or college they went to. There's a lot of stuff on Wikipedia that's a bunch of crap. But I work from paper and I come home and I go through all of my handwritten notes, the copies, and I load it into my computer and I start organizing my stuff by general or specific file. And let's say for this football book I went in with about 20 files that I was going to-- West Point and Anapolis football, Navy officer training programs, whatever it might happen to be and everything that looked like it was going to be in that I loaded them on. And then I went back after I had done all of that and you can see right in front of you that this is just part of the material, my paper research. Then once I have loaded that I will see if something that could be in this file, like file under C, is also applicable in what's in file under G. So then I blank copy that and paste it in there so it's duplicated so I won't forget it. Then I have to be careful when I'm writing that if I've cited something that came out of file C that I don't replicate it in another chapter and forget that, oh my gosh, I used the same material but you can get over that. So then I put everything in the files and then I print them out so that I have a paper printout. And if I'm writing a book, a chapter today, I've got both the raw notes open as a file and I've got my chapter file that I'm working on and then I've got the paper over here. And if I see something I want to quote and don't use too many quotes, try to summarize what they're saying, and without plagiarizing anything and credit. And then if that's a footnote, I mean end note number C-12, then I'll write C-12 in the margin so that I can know that's already been used that material. It's just my style but it's worked for 20 years.

Diesenhaus: And then the actual writing of the material is that solely on the computer? Do you then move to the computer to put it down?

Jones: Yeah, if I'm writing, again if I'm writing chapter-- I'm literally writing a chapter on army station and base, army camp, air force base football teams, I've got that chapter open that I'm writing the draft and then I've also got open two other files of my research stuff so that I can go back and forth. Then I've got the paper printouts of both of those research files and I'm looking through it. That's a nice item. Oh, okay well I don't want to put that up here. I'll put that down at the bottom and you refine it as you go along because you'll see that I didn't like the way I said that and go back. But if I really concentrate and give the time that I can and I don't write at night anymore. The first couple books I write at night and on weekends. I drove my family crazy. But I'd be finished with this football book if I did that now but I usually cut it off about 6:30 and go have dinner and watch TV just to get away from it. But that's how I write. Sometimes, in this case, I did write the preface and introduction first because when you write a book proposal you're going out to an agent or publisher you try to put your best foot forward and so a lot of that information you can just transfer to the preface or the introduction. The preface is why I'm writing this book and what makes me such a smart schlep. And then the introduction is this is what you're going to read about and this is some of the-- you can actually cover a lot of material in an introduction to a book that you won't need to repeat later on or you can make a two sentence reference to it and then in chapter four you can expand it to a two paragraph reference.

Diesenhaus: Given what you said about being a self starter it sounds like you really don't experience writer's block per se but that it's more of managing your time and your other responsibilities with the writing is that it?

Jones: Management of the time and other responsibilities is important. Fortunately, I'm in excellent health and I don't wake up with a migraine headache and I don't have an elbow or a shoulder that pains me so that I have to type with one hand so that's not a factor even at my old age. But as far as a writer's block, very good point, that's what makes writing exciting and different from absolutely anything else except perhaps designing a building or a bridge because you start out with a blank sheet of paper. It used to be a blank sheet of paper. Now it's a blank screen. And what do you do first when you're writing a chapter, for example? Do you pick out the title, the subtitle? Do you start every chapter with a quotation like I like to do so it gets the reader interested in what's going to happen? Do you write the first couple paragraphs first or do you just start going from those research files loading stuff into that file, the draft that you think you're going to use? And I've never had writer's block for more than just momentarily because I will often-- and the nice thing about a computer is you can just blank it out and you go back to the National Archives, as I have and the Library of Congress and look at some of the famous authors who wrote when it was only just a hunt-and-peck typewriter and how they had to edit their own work. And General Eisenhower had to draw a line through his D-Day statement of 1944 and write above it as so did Franklin D. Roosevelt the same thing because they didn't have computers that could erase it. So once you erase it or delete it you don't know what you've written but it thinks, oh I got a better way to say this. Okay, momentarily I don't know how to say that so I'm going to move down here. I like this material. And in this case let's say before I start writing about West Point and Army's great football teams of the war years. I'll refine their won/loss _____. Each one of these schools I'm writing about has a won/loss record for '42, '43, '44, and '45. So I go in that and figure it out and then I'll find something over here and I'll start piecing it together. And then I say, "Huh, that's something," and I go back and I write the first paragraph. So writer's block has never been a problem and I would advise anybody who's writing particularly non-fiction because I think writing fiction is so much easier because even if you don't want to have or, in fact, you can invent stuff. I can't invent things. It either happened or it didn't happen. As a historian and consequently writing non-fiction, I have a license that I can summarize and come to conclusions and I can look. In the case of this piece, I've written about this Wilmington officer who led a charge across the Rapito [ph?] River at _____ in 1944 and I can write that it was the most controversial, ill-fated tactical mistake and disastrous defeat of the European theater for the American army during World War II. I mean I didn't invent that but that's a conclusion I come to based on everything else I've read and studied and it's a very logical conclusion. So a historian can lay out facts or any non-fiction writer in one through 25. As a result of that here's what I conclude. You come to your own conclusion. That's why I think writing fiction is just so much easier and I don't even read fiction. I have no interest in fiction whatsoever, none. I started reading-- the last fiction I picked up was about six years ago, "Cold Mountain." I read half of it. I got bored and haven't picked it up. I haven't read fiction since.

Diesenhaus: Just going back to the time management I wanted to talk a bit about when you retired from your defense work and moved to a full time historian. Where were you before you retired? Were you thinking in that direction? Were you working on the weekends? Were you dabbling or had you sort of made a full investment into it before and then had more time once you retired?

Jones: Another well thought out question. I have given you an indication of how I got started early as a writer and while I was on active duty and inactive duty in the navy I wrote on all that stuff for the navy, technical and government and navy-ease type stuff. I became a speech writer for a congressman, a senator, undersecretary of defense in the Pentagon, for the commandant of this university I worked for at Fort Belvoir, so I was keeping my hand in writing speeches and stuff. I got an opportunity to write for the defense department over 20 years ago and that's really what started me into this current cycle. So by the time-- and I was able to-- I wrote a real good book one and a real good book two and they liked it. The defense department liked it. The secretary of defense liked what I was doing so they gave me some other assignments in addition to what else I was on the faculty of this defense university. So when I retired I was in the process of writing a book for the defense department and I got a contract from them to continue to write it, to finish it after I retired. And I retired in '96. We moved here exactly ten years ago in '97. And so I finished that book under contract and that was a military history of the United States. It took seven years. You want to talk about how long it takes to write stuff? It could take that long or it can take that long. You got to have patience. But before I retired I had written the Civil War book, which was my first commercial book which has been a huge success and I had also written a couple of journals. I had uncovered the greatest intelligence coup of the Civil War and Lee's lost order prior to the Battle of Antietam so I wrote journal articles on that and part of it was in my Civil War book. And then the Marine Corps found out that I could write and with the 50th anniversary of World War II in the early '90s the Marine Corps gave me a grant to start writing a book on what the leatherneck was like in World War II and that was much more fun than writing another battle story about Iwo Jima, Okinawa and Guadalcanal. They wanted to know, the Marine Corps had no idea what kind of man, enlisted man had fought for the Marine Corps and had been in uniform in World War II, so they gave me a grant to start writing it and the project just exploded. It became much larger than they thought it was. I went with at my own expense to reunions of World War II marine groups, units. I went to a number of their battlefields, Saipan, Tinian, Iwo Jima twice, Okinawa trying to learn about them and this is what you have to do. You can't sit back in your office and get on the Internet and hire somebody to go to the National Archives and be successful. You just can't. So I had started-- I was still working. I was still a professor at Defense Acquisition University but I had took leave time to do all this and wrote this book called, "Gyrene: The World War II United States Marine" which has been my best seller nationally, still a lot of acclaim. I got great reviews and it's still being used today. It's helping me out in some of the things that I'm doing and it's still selling. So to answer your question about did I figure on transitioning into this afterwards? The answer is very definitely yes because I finished the Gyrene book and the military history of the United States, called "Arming the Eagle" after I retired. And when I moved to Wilmington I knew that I had to write about Wilmington and World War II and the result was these two books, "Sentimental Journey" and "The Journey Continues." "Sentimental Journey" came out in hardcover in '03 and both of them have won statewide awards and they've helped me win a national award. And so they have been very well received and I'm real proud because it's my story and it's a story of the community here in the wartime. And, in fact, that's me there when I was nine years old in the middle of the war with an officer who rented a room in our house and this is the shipyard main gate. It's a major shipyard here. So I felt an obligation, both an emotional and nostalgic obligation, and a moral obligation to come back and tell that story because the history was dying and I was able to capture it. One thing has led to another in my getting heavily involved in the preservation of history here and things such as Halliburton Park on South 17th Street, a natural park which I don't mind taking credit for the fact that it's there and named that because of my work. Halliburton was one of our two Medal of Honor recipients of World War II and he was killed in action. The community was willing to go 55-plus years without recognizing him or Colonel Charles Murray [ph?] who received the Medal of Honor. Both these boys are New Hanover High School graduates. Charles Murray still lives in Columbia, South Carolina. In fact, he was here this weekend and we got together a couple of times. We're good friends and he's 86 years old, so this all fell in. I was doing my volunteer work preserving history, leading volunteer organizations and writing at the same time. One thing has led to another. I've written two books on the German side of World War II with two very good friends who fought for the Germans. One was a Hitler Youth and the other one was a German artilleryman, a private for nine years and both of them died within a couple weeks of each other two years ago unfortunately. But those books present the German side. And I write life and culture, human interest, social history. As I indicated, I don't want to write another book about Iwo Jima. There must be 50 of them out there. So this is what I tend to write about social human interest. I'll continue to write. This football book I'm working on now is probably going to be my last. You have to stop sometime. I love to do research. I find it invigorating. I love to write because I like to see my research being put into action and I think I'm a decent writer and I take great pride in my work. But I will tell you this that the marketing side of writing is what I absolutely don't like to do but you have to do it. Marketing is and any writer, fiction, magazine, poetry, ugh, and non-fiction especially marketing is in two areas. First you have to get a publisher and I've never been able. I've tried a couple times to get agents and I just can't get agents interested. I just don't go to the right ones. So I market to publishers on my own. I've had a good publisher, White Main of Pennsylvania, has published most of my books and they're great to work with. But the second part of marketing is selling yourself and selling your books and lecturing and book signings. And White Main does a wonderful job with the book itself. I mean I have great relations with them but I'm not going to back to them on this football book because the football book has movie implications and it's going to be a much bigger national book than my other stuff has so that's why I'm looking for another publisher. But some authors-- you know if you write about Princess Diana, Hillary Clinton, some expose about what a bad guy George Bush is or something, or the war with Iran that we're going to have next month, you can rush that book into print and if you got an agent and the right kind of publisher in New York and all of a sudden you're an instant kitchen table name and you're on Oprah and all this kind of crap. Well that's just never been my thing, not the kind of stuff I work. So I have lectures and book signings and all over the country and you have to continue to call an organization, volunteer to go speak in Brunswick County, Pender County, San Diego and sometimes you get paid an honorarium, sometimes you don't. And if you sell books sometimes you sell a lot, sometimes you don't and I guess I lecture several times a month with signings and it's been going on for years and so you have to market yourself. While I'm out doing that I'm not here writing the football book and my staff is my poodle, Smarty Jones and my wonderful wife who is my best editor.

Diesenhaus: I have a few more questions that I might ask but it's actually coming to the end of the tape. Would you want to keep going a little bit? I want to be respectful of your time or do you think it's--

Jones: How about another 15 minutes and then I have to go to Durham this afternoon to UNC TV wants to interview me about World War II Wilmington in conjunction with that Ken Burns documentary, so I've got to hustle up to Durham.

Diesenhaus: Okay, let me change tapes and then I can just ask two or three more questions.

Jones: All right, good.

(tape change)

Diesenhaus: Essentially there's just one broad idea I wanted to talk about a little more if I have the opportunity.

Jones: Go.

Diesenhaus: And that's I guess I want to talk about your connection to this area and how important it's been to your work and also a little bit about your process of doing interviews or histories. So just essentially early on you talked about your commitment to Wilmington and to North Carolina and I just wanted to talk a little bit, ask a little more about what that means to you and why you've come back to the area and how it's a focus so much of what you do if you could talk a little bit more about that.

Jones: Sure. Well I indicated that I was born here in 1934 in the middle of the depression and raised during World War II where we were deprived of some things in the sacrifice of the war effort. After I graduated from Carolina, I went in the navy, put 28 years in the navy, both on active and inactive duty. But after I retired the second time from the defense department in 1996, my wife had been a realtor for 20 years with a major company in northern Virginia, so we decided to move back to Wilmington because it was my roots. She liked Wilmington as well. She had been down here many times on vacation and visits. And at that time we were raising our only grandchild. We did raise her from the time she was about, oh, that tall, put her through college and now she's a schoolteacher in Raleigh. And we, of course, brought her with us down to Wilmington. And it was a matter of coming back to roots and this was really more her insistence and she thought it would be good for me and it certainly has been and she's been wonderful and supportive of what I've done in the community. And if we had gone-- we considered maybe going back to Los Angeles where her roots were and where she was from and where we used to live or staying in northern Virginia in Alexandria. And we opted to come here for the obvious reasons and she has been able to get involved in her church and went to work for UNCW, still is, in Randall Library and she's been very active in the DAR and other organizations too, so it's been great for us. One of our sons lives in Raleigh and our granddaughter lives in Raleigh so we're close enough there. And, by the way, our son Andrew is a sports writer, sports journalist for the Star News and he's been writing for them for about nine years and he's a freelance guy out of Raleigh, covers the Atlantic Coast Conference. So it's been wonderful for me because it gave me an opportunity to pay back my parents. My parents were wonderful, outstanding citizens. My father was-- they were both very active in the war effort in World War II, very successful honorable people and they raised me right. I wanted to come back and thank them. They've been-- they're buried here. My father died 40 years ago and my mother 34 years ago so it gave me a feeling of coming home. I go out there every once in a while and tell them, "Here's what I've done. I hope you'd be proud of me" because I had a very good working life. I ended up working as an assistant to President Gerald Ford for two years in the White House and as an advance representative for him. I've always fancied myself as an achiever and a goal setter and go after the gold. I don't less grass grow under my feet. I keep my wheels moving and so that's why the connection with coming back to Wilmington was I can guarantee you, and I don't mind telling people this because they can't argue any different, if I hadn't moved back to Wilmington all of the Wilmington World War II history would have been lost, absolutely lost because the old families around here were lazy and lethargic and were not about to pick up the mantle and run with it. And when I came back several things were going on. They said, "You've got to get Billy Halliburton, our Medal of Honor recipient, recognized and Charles Murray and you got to save the USO Building at Second and Orange Street, the _____ USO Building." Now it took nine years but work is now underway to renovate it and restore the lobby to what it looked like in World War II. It's a World War II USO Building for the arts folks. So you got to pride yourself sometimes with self gratification in the fact that I've been able to do that and write books about it and to tell the world that Wilmington was America's unique wartime boom town.

Diesenhaus: When you met these people or when you're doing interviews to get to the stories of the book how do people react to that chance to tell their story, the story of their family members who have been active in the past but may have passed away at this point?

Jones: Well, most of the interviews that I've done over the years, most of them have been World War II related. I did a lot of Civil War interviews but the nice thing about doing World War II is like Ken Burns says some of them are still around. The Civil War was too late. They were gone. But I've interviewed thousands of World War II veterans and home front workers and an interview can be a casual conversation while you're both riding the subway somewhere or it can be an appointment where you go to their house and do what you and I are doing. I take a notepad. I do not record because I found early on in trying to-- sitting down with some World War II marines with a tape recorder and one would say it was black. The other one would say it was white. And there's no way of telling what voice it is and when you go to transcribe and you're trying to pick up their jargon and you don't know whether it was Billy or Bob or Joe that said that and if it's such a good quote you want to use it. You don't know who to attribute it to. So I take notes and I write real quickly and I don't have shorthand. I just make sure that-- and I ask specific questions and most of the people that I've interviewed and I found this because I'm a retired navy captain and a historian I was the third party to the World War II boys. See I didn't fight in the war but I was on the home front. I understood that. I'm the bridge between the baby boomers and their generation. My wife and I are the bridge generation born in the depression. So they respected what I was trying to do and I was able to figure out the veracity of their statements. Some embellish and some don't and you go to a reunion of marines, for example and you might be talking to Johnny and he's filling you full of a lot of really good stuff and then five minutes later a couple of guys grab you and pull you over and say, "I see you were spending some time with Johnny. Well he hasn't changed a bit since 1944. He was a BS artist and he still is but we can tell you what really happened." So you have to know what's more accurate and what isn't. But I try to get their feelings. A whole chapter in my book, the Gyrene, about the marines was field sanitation. It buffaloed me how in the world the guys go to the bathroom when they're out in the field and you wonder that today. You see these boys going on patrol in Baghdad and everything. When do they stop with all their equipment on to go to the bathroom? There has to be some way, so I spent a whole chapter on that. So those kinds of questions they will tell you, "Well no one's ever asked that before." And I have also found, and this is one thing that when you interview people if you're a historian and you're writing non-fiction that if you interview a marine he will give you his view from his foxhole only. You could be 15 yards away in another foxhole and see an entirely different war. This is why I've always-- I get uncomfortable with documentaries that feature too much of the first person, "I was there. Here's what I saw." And I can see that the Ken Burns documentary is headed that way and so I'm trying to give him time and these interviewees are better than what you see on most of the History Channel interviews but you have to be very careful because Eisenhower and Patton and Churchill are no longer around. They can't tell you the big picture so a marine you're interviewing today was probably a private first class. He had no idea what was happening over the hill at Iwo Jima but he can tell you that he shot a Japanese soldier 15 feet away. And I have also found that they tend to get their facts mixed up sometimes and they generalize. "Well I was on this ship" and this is in the Burns documentary, I saw the preview the other night in Raleigh. A sailor was on a ship, was on a cruiser and it was Tarawa, the invasion of Tarawa. He was on a cruiser and the bombardment had stopped and the marines were hitting the beach. He's probably four or five or six miles offshore but he's telling the viewer that he was able to stand on deck and see the fighting going on, on Tarawa, and he could see dead marines lying in the water. Now I also know that Tarawa, the highest point on Tarawa above sea level was about ten feet. How are you going to be able to see all that? The palm trees had all been knocked down. So this guy is only giving you the view from his fox hole. And Burns decided not to use historians to give you the big picture of how this is fitting in but what he has done very well and I don't mean to get off on Burns but he interviewed. He's got his technique and I've got mine and he's been a lot more successful at it than I am. But he does have the narrator giving the overall picture of what's happening which I think saves a bit of just being thrust into a bunch of people. You have to be very careful but usually I try to limit interviews to 45 minutes or so regardless. You could do telephone interviews and they will start talking fast. They'll even talk faster on the phone than they will face-to-face and you got to say, "Please stop. Slow down. I'm writing this longhand and my old hand is just-- I can't write as fast as you can speak. And what did you say now? What was the name of that so and so," go back and don't be afraid to ask them a question about what they just told you. And they tell you X and you say, "What does that mean and why?" And then always ask "Is there anybody else that I can talk to, another guy from your unit? Is there another person that worked at the shipyard with you in Wilmington I can go talk to about the shipyard?" That was how I got a lot of the connections to these six boys buried in Italy by asking for referrals and such. And before I began my interviews when the Star News and I hooked up for this as an example, I sent out-- I went over to Italy for the cruise in June and around the first of May we made the agreement to do this. I sent out a letter, about 30 letters to people, old timers, people that I knew, some of them kids I'd grown up with in the area who might have known these six boys and I told them what I was looking for and what I wanted to do and it brought back some positive response. Some I never heard from. Some came back and said, "I don't know any of these boys." And then a couple of them came back with jewels, "Oh, yeah, I'm related to him" or "I know somebody who is. Call Joe Blow." So it takes a lot of foot work.

Diesenhaus: And as a second to last question, do you see your role as a historian and I think you do as bringing awareness to these stories and keeping alive stories that might otherwise not be told for whatever reasons?

Jones: You said it better than I could say it. Again, going back to Wilmington if I hadn't come back here and I've had World War II veterans and others tell me that if I hadn't come back here all this history would have been lost and it gives me a great deal of self satisfaction and pride to see stuff like that in print because it's recognition for these guys and we've got-- young people are not being educated in the history of this country and our traditions and our legacy and that's very disturbing, very disturbing. And whatever I can do to help preserve it is worth it to me. And coming down to financially some of these books are easier financially to write than others. The World War II Wilmington books I could write them by not going really out of Wilmington area. The Gyrene book took me all over the country, took me all over the Pacific to the battlefields. The football history book I can pretty much write from here with a few other things. So it all depends on what it's going to cost you and I can guarantee you that at my level I make some money selling books, but I have to be the stock man and the inventory control and place the invoice and all that and somebody orders a book. I sign it. I put it in a package. I take it to the post office. I do everything. But I did want to say one other thing. Some books take longer to write than others. One book-- right before I retired from the defense department in 1996, our commandant came to me and asked me on short notice to write a history of the university and it was-- we were celebrating our 25th anniversary. I had four months to do it so they let me stop, I taught, and concentrated on it for four months and we came up with a masterpiece. I don't know how in the world I did it. Several years later in 2001, when the 60th anniversary of Pearl Harbor was coming up and that big blockbuster movie "Pearl Harbor" was coming out, my publisher came to me and asked Carol, who was there at Pearl Harbor and saw the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, to write a book on what it was like for her to be there, see it, and then the aftermath. What was life like on Oahu? And her father was on one of the ships that blew up and what was it like to be a child of a naval officer who was gone the entire war and then was badly wounded at Iwo Jima? So we had I think about five months to put that book together and we did and it's still selling and it's very well received. And what was sort of funny was she would use her computer in there and I'd be using my computer in here. We'd send each other emails back and forth. And this was a real labor of love for her because she had not talked much about her experiences, wartime experiences, some of them very bad but anyway it came out. So it took me seven years to write that military history of the United States called "Arming the Eagle." It took us four to five months to do "Hawaii goes to war." Most of them take-- it all depends on how long it takes you to get a publisher and then to get it on the street but most of them take about I'd say an average of about three years.

Diesenhaus: Perhaps just as a last question do you have any advice for young non-fiction writers or journalists or magazine writers of any sort?

Jones: There's an old adage that aspiring writers are supposed to write about something they know. I didn't know a thing about Civil War Indiana and that was my first commercial book. You have to have an interest in it. I would bet right now, Doug, that you could go write a book on any subject because if you're a good researcher you can become an expert on it within six months or 18 months while you're doing your work. You have to be very patient. It's very difficult to market yourself. It's very time consuming. The average wage is extremely poor I mean when you consider all the factors of cost out of your pocket and then from sales for the average writer. You have to want to tell a story. My life because it's at the tail end of my life these 20 years I have three government pensions so that I'm able to at least live comfortably but for somebody young and aspiring and you have to write about something that no one else has written about. You have to do groundwork. But it takes patience. It takes diligence, hard work, and never sacrifice speed for accuracy or accuracy for speed, never because if you get a reputation, if you screw up and get a reputation for writing _____ then it's going to be very difficult for you.

Diesenhaus: Thank you very much.

Jones: Okay, I enjoyed it. Thanks.

Repository:
UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database
Found in:
Randall Library | UNCW Archives and Special Collections | Online Database | Contact Us | Admin Login
Powered by Archon Version 3.21 rev-1
Copyright ©2012 The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign