Tom Brokaw’s book, The Greatest Generation, portrayed the heroism and sacrifice that saved the world from fascism and totalitarianism. The book struck a chord with Americans of my generation.
The soldiers who did this were, in civilian life, the most ordinary of men: merchants and mechanics, teachers and farmers. They seemed especially ordinary to us because they were our fathers. They were also our uncles, our next-door neighbors, our Little League coaches, our Boy Scout leaders, and our Sunday school teachers. By the time we knew them, they had paunchy bellies and receding hairlines.
I must confess that as a boy I didn’t appreciate the extraordinary things that these men accomplished in the years just before I was born. I thought heroes were those muscular men who stood larger than life on the football gridiron, the Silver Screen, or in comic books like Superman and Batman.
The other reason I didn’t appreciate their heroics is that The Greatest Generation never bragged about their accomplishments, never complained about their sacrifice, and never asked for special recognition. They just wanted to get on with their lives.
As these men aged into their 80s and 90s, Brokaw realized that he had to get their stories now or never. We’re very fortunate that he did.
By the time The Greatest Generation was published, my father had already died. As I read the book I realized how short-sighted I had been in not asking him to tell me his stories.
But then it occurred to me that many of his classmates from Apex High School were very much alive and well and might appreciate being asked to talk about The War. So when my brother and I wrote our book about the history of Apex, we decided to include a section about Apex’s Greatest Generation.
As Memorial Day approaches, I’d like you to meet one of these men. Ben Jones grew up in the Fairview community a few miles southeast of Apex. He was an outstanding student and an outstanding athlete, first at Apex High and later at NC State. As a college freshman he once ran for 100 yards against Wake Forest College. This was sweet revenge: the coach at Wake Forest had refused to recruit Ben, saying he was too small for college football.
By the time the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Ben was working in a meat packing plant in San Diego. It was the Great Depression, and jobs were scarce in North Carolina. A few days after the attack, Ben enlisted. He trained to be a fighter pilot and headed overseas in November of 1942. I’ll let him take it from here:
They sent us to Egypt where we were assigned to the British. We chased Rommel across Africa. At that time there was only one road going out from Alexandria, and that’s where most of the war was fought.
I flew a P-40, a single-seat fighter plane with six 50-caliber machine guns. We would dive and strafe targets on the ground, or we might just dive bomb. We also escorted bombers.
One time my plane caught on fire, and I parachuted out in Tunisia. We didn’t have ejection seats at the time, and lots of pilots had been killed as they bailed out—the tail of airplane hit them. So even though the plane was on fire, I pulled it up and rolled it over, hoping to avoid the tail. I’ve never been calmer in my life. I jumped and cleared the tail, but the chute didn’t open. I remember thinking: “I hope I’m not conscious when I hit the ground.” About that time the chute finally opened. A couple of other pilots circled me to see if I was all right. They yelled that they’d be back to get me. When the airplane hit the ground it exploded and set a wheat field on fire. The Arabs had hardly ever seen airplanes before, and when they saw a man floating down from the sky, they thought I was a god.
I wanted to try to put out the fire, but the Frenchman who owned the field was philosophical about the whole thing: “C’est la guerre.” (“Such is war.”) He said the Germans had been there the day before and had done more damage than that. He took me to his house. On the counter was a bowl, almost solid black with flyspecks. He poured wine into that bowl and I drank it—I didn’t want to offend my host. He told me his family was hiding in the mountains.
A group of Frenchmen came to the house and wanted to hand me over to the Germans, but the farmer refused. Instead, he took me into town, and the Arabs had a feast for me. They slaughtered a lamb, and they gave me a quarter of a bottle of crème de menthe. They didn’t drink any themselves because it was so rare and expensive, but they wanted me to have it. Then we went back to his house. When I went to bed I wasn’t sure I’d wake up in the morning alive.
A little after daylight I heard the planes overhead. They were leading a jeep to get me. They brought money to pay the farmer, but he wouldn’t accept it. He gave us a lamb, some bread, and a bucket of butter to take with us. We made it back to camp, and soon I was flying again.
Ben flew an amazing 102 missions over a period of three years, first in Africa and later in Italy. But one of the most amazing war stories he told me was about something that happened on the ground, when he crossed paths with an Apex High School classmate in one of the most remote corners of the world.
One time I was on a runway in Accra, in Ghana, West Africa. I had just returned from testing a new airplane, and I was sitting in the cockpit filling out the paperwork. I looked up and saw this redheaded kid, and of all people it was Roy Cooke from Apex. So I called to him. I was an officer, and he thought I was about to ask him to do something. I had my head turned so he couldn’t see who I was, and he came over there and jumped up on the wing. He saluted, and then I turned my head around and he recognized me. He was so surprised he couldn’t speak. Finally, he managed to make a sound: “B-B-B-Ben Jones! What are you doing here?”
By this time you might be wondering, where are they now?
After the war Roy Cooke returned to Apex and built a house on his father Will’s farm. His wife, Mildred, taught chemistry, biology, and physics at Apex High School. She taught me, my brother, and a few thousand others over a period of several decades. Roy still lives in Apex, in that same house, but now his house is surrounded not by tobacco fields but by dozens of other houses. One of my classmates, Tommy Morgan, grew up in one of those houses, and he told me that the Cooke’s farm was Apex’s first subdivision, built back in the 1960s.
After the war Ben Jones returned to California where he founded his own meat packing company. He enjoyed a successful business career then, upon retirement, moved back home. He now lives on a farm in Chatham County.
Warren Holleman, and his brother Toby, are the authors of “Pluck, Perseverance, and Paint: Apex, North Carolina: Beginnings to 1941.” You can purchase a copy from The Rusty Bucket in historic downtown Apex.