we can’t take no chances. When we run into

This story is a combination of personal column and historical narrative, the details of which have all either been verified or come from firsthand accounts. I hope you enjoy this feature and I’m thankful that these family memories will not be lost to history.

Haguenau, France (1944)
After a day of clearing war-torn buildings and working patrol, U.S. Army Pfc. Elmo Jones and the rest of B Company bedded down for the night after coming to the small French village near the Siegfried Line into Germany.

Jones saw some of his most intense combat in and around Haguenau, with German counterattacks coming two and three times a day. But after a day of work on the front lines, the young soldier stretched out in his sleeping bag to catch some rest at the foot of a staircase before doing his best to survive another uncertain day in the war.

At some point during the night, however, Jones and a buddy were both stirred awake by a loud noise upstairs in their building. Civilians had long since been ordered to evacuate the city or were otherwise cleared out before the fighting broke out, so the two young men set out to investigate.

“I said ‘boy grab your gun, let’s go,’” he would later recall. “About the third door we opened, a woman screams ‘Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! Don’t hurt us!’ She wasn’t an old woman. I asked her what she was doing there and told her ‘you’re not supposed to be here, it’s too dangerous.’ She could speak enough and I knew enough French to talk together. Her and her little boy hadn’t had nothing to eat for seven days. It’s pitiful. So, we went down and raided the mess hall. Now, I mean it just like I said … we raided the mess hall. We got them something to eat, come back, fixed it for them.”

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They made sure the starved woman ate slowly, unaware that her husband had been taken captive some time before when the Germans moved through Haguenau.

“We stay there two or three days and we kept them fed ’til we left,” Jones said. “When we started to leave, this lady told us the Germans had come by and made him go with them to fight. We started to leave and she said ‘I hope you don’t have to shoot him,’ but I said ‘I hope we don’t either. But lady,  a fire fight, we ain’t got time to ask questions.’”

As he would do on many of his stops throughout Europe during the war, Jones snapped a photo of the mother and her son, left them what food they could, and set out with his company for Germany.

Tuscaloosa, Alabama — present day
I freely admit I haven’t used a cassette player since the 1990s. But after some fiddling around with a 8-in-1 Victrola — the only known cassette player in Tuscaloosa County I could procure from my grandparents (on my Mama’s side) — the old tape was finally sucked in, sending a sharp pop and crackle through the speakers.

With the volume all the way up, a voice I’ve not heard in almost 20 years then filled the room and began to tell stories I’ve waited my entire life to hear. The old man on the tape was my Papa Jones — my great-grandfather and father to my grandmother (On my Dad’s side). I’ve written extensively about both of them, but as far as family history is concerned, I never thought this day would come.

Able-bodied until the day he died at his home in Berry in 2004 at the age of 83, Elmo Jones was a legendary figure in our family and known fixture among older folks in northern Tuscaloosa County. He was a typical member of “The Greatest Generation,” who was drafted into service and willingly left home to fight for his country in Europe during World War II. He would return to my Granny Virgie and Grandmother, before fathering two more children — Howard and Debbie — and living out a quiet life just over the Fayette County line from us.

Ryan Phillips family photo
A photo of Elmo Jones (left) and his wife Virgie, with their oldest daughter, Dot.
Like many who fought in that literal war of good versus evil, he was never keen on sharing his memories from it, which included being wounded in combat and seeing a Nazi concentration camp with his own eyes. He would attend Veteran’s Day programs at my elementary school and family members always told their own versions of the few stories he had been willing to share. But only on a couple of occasions do I remember him throwing out a tidbit of a memory. While it never stopped me from asking, I was always met with reluctance when I wanted to know more.
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Knowing what I know now, I don’t blame him in the least.

He has been gone now for years, but never once during that time did I not have a desire to know more about his service. Then, as luck would have it, we were cleaning last weekend when we stumbled upon a cassette tape long thought to have been lost to history. It features a candid interview with my Papa Jones giving firsthand accounts of his time in Europe — an absolutely priceless family artifact.

My heart was pounding and my hands trembled as I scribbled down notes from stories I was hearing in his voice for the first time. While the tape was recorded years ago, it remains in pristine condition and provides a lasting account of my family’s contributions during one of the most pivotal events in human history.

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