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An Unconquerable Spirit: The Legacy of World War II Veteran Bennie Jones, Sr. and His Family

Veteran Birthday

On April 13, 2024, a local Veteran who has lived a lifetime of service while overcoming numerous challenges was honored on his 102nd birthday at the VA Community Living Center at Midlands Hospital in Papillion, Nebraska, where he was surrounded by family, friends, and lots of love.

The tribute was just a small token of appreciation to a man whose life has served as a testament for both his family and community about the power and importance of service, commitment to family, hard work, and dogged determination in the face of often unfair circumstances.   

It’s a trait still seen today in the hallways of the VA Community Living Center in Papillion, Nebraska, where Bennie Jones, Sr. has resided since March 2024. According to the VA staff members there, Jones has quickly become a fixture in the unit. 

“He immediately became one of the highlights of the unit: always smiling, sharing stories, participating in meals, games, our “Mug Club” coffee group, and going outside with his peers,” said Catherine DeMasi, a recreational therapist at the Papillion VA Community Living Center who has gotten to know Jones over the past few weeks. “He enjoys playing dominos and watching traffic out the window.”

“His family brought lots of pictures and shared stories of his growing up in Alabama, his service in the Navy during World War 2, and the community he has been a part of for more than 70 years,” DeMasi said. “Mr. Bennie truly enjoys being with people and has never met a stranger. All the Veterans look for him and seek his company, and the staff love working with him.”

Bennie Jones, Sr., was the eldest of 11 children born to a family in Alabama in April 1922. When World War II broke out in December 1941, Jones and a brother soon became part of the United States’ response as members of the United States Navy. Due to the needs of the war effort, Jones said he was never saw his brother in uniform because both had to deploy quickly after graduating high school. 

According to Elaine Adams, Jones’ daughter, one of Jones’ assignments was at the Naval Ammunition Depot in Hastings, Nebraska, where he helped refurbish bombs that would be used in the war effort. That depot was the U.S. Navy’s largest inland munitions depot in the United States, and at one point, it produced nearly 40 percent of the ordnance used by the Navy during World War II.

Jones was discharged from the Navy following the war and returned home to Pickens County, Alabama. His homecoming was anything but smooth, however. Back home, Jones faced harsh discrimination. In one harrowing incident, Jones recalled being arrested and nearly lynched simply for demanding correct change from a white store clerk while still in his Navy uniform. 

Jones stayed in Alabama to help his father pay for and break land before relocating to Omaha, Nebraska. Yet, despite promises of preferential hiring for Veterans, Jones struggled to find work matching his skills and qualifications due to his race.

"My dad was the top student at an HVAC training school, and OPPD was recruiting for that position,” Adams said. “However, when my father got there, they said, ‘We don't hire you to do that level of work because of your race.' 

So, Jones took a cleaning job with OPPD to provide for his family. It was not the only time that Jones faced discrimination, however. 

During that time, Adams said, black workers at the organization wanted equal treatment based on their skills compared to their white counterparts. As tensions between the black employees and management increased, Jones’ supervisors at OPPD decided to make an example of him to stop meetings of black employees who sought equal treatment. Jones was fired under the guise of “deserting his job” even though OPPD protocol stated he should leave work 10 minutes early to prepare showers for the other men.

Facing racial blackballing and the need to support his family, Jones took any job he could find, often spending 16 hours a day working two full-time positions. He found work at a county hospital and a nearby potato chip factory.

"He worked eight hours at the Douglas County Veterans Home and then went straight to his other job to work eight more hours at the Kitty Clover potato chip factory. He did that until he was 65 years old, five days a week, said Adams."

Despite the obstacles, Jones instilled a strong legacy of hard work and perseverance in his children. According to Adams, Jones often said, "We didn't play football; we worked," emphasizing the value of an honest day's labor. 

The lessons resonated with his family. Examples include Adams’ brother, who founded a successful risk management firm in Chicago. Meanwhile, one of Jones’ granddaughters became a senior producer at CNBC, and another grandchild is a stockbroker. Adams says the lessons from her parents contributed to her family's successes. 

However, on this special day in April 2024, 102 years in the making, it was time to celebrate Jones’ numerous accomplishments. As Bennie Jones, Sr., blew out the candles on his birthday cake, which included a much younger photo of the former U.S. Navy Seaman in uniform, the assembled crowd clapped and cheered with heartfelt joy. 

As the celebration continued, Adams stood up to address the gathering. With reverence and admiration, she spoke about the challenges her father faced and how his unyielding determination shaped their family's future. She recounted his countless sacrifices, the long hours he worked, and the values he instilled in his family members.

The legacy of this remarkable Veteran and his unwavering spirit touched everyone present. As he looked around at the faces of his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, it was quickly evident that Jones felt a welling sense of pride.

As the festivities ended, Bennie Jones, Sr.'s eyes twinkled with contentment. His journey from a young Seaman in the Navy to a resilient pillar of his community had come full circle. His legacy of grit, hard work, and perseverance would continue to inspire and uplift generations to come, ensuring that his unconquerable spirit would live on.

Check out our video tribute & interview