Published May 26. 2009 4:00AM Updated September 11. 2009 1:59PM
The first time George Jones was scared during World War II was on a patrol near the Pacific island of Tarawa.
It was October 1942 and his submarine, USS S-38 (SS-143), had been ordered to scout the island, which was occupied by the Japanese, and sketch the coastline. The information would be given to the U.S. Marines, who were planning an invasion.
"There were two ships in there, there was a destroyer and a tanker. Well, evidently they'd seen us messing around out there but we didn't know this. The tanker picked up anchor like if he were leaving harbor, so we'd go in and get in position. ... The skipper fired three torpedoes at him. The torpedoes hit an underwater reef before they got to the tanker and exploded. And the whole Japanese Air Force, I think, was sitting up there waiting for us. So when we fired three torpedoes, on those S boats you could fire two and hold the trim, but if you fired a third one you'd lose your balance. And so half a periscope came out of the water, and when it did they laid 22 aerobombs on us within 22 seconds. They were counted by a couple of people who were very much calmer than I was."
"Take her down to 150 feet!" the commanding officer ordered.
Jones was at the controls for the stern planes, which control the submarine's angle. An instrument that measures the ship's angle burst, spraying water in his face.
"At that time, being in a very bad state of shock, I would've swore that pressure hull opened up and let a shot of water through and then closed. But that couldn't have happened naturally. But anyway we finally got her submerged again and headed down ... We finally got her down to 150 feet. The skipper was pretty smart. He knew everybody was very, very tense in that control room, so he says, when we reached 150 feet he hollered out, 'Relieve battle stations!' That meant other people came in and took over the stations. So I got up to walk back to the engine room, my regular station. I was a throttleman in the engine room. And my legs were so weak I had to hold on. ... At that time I didn't think I was religious, but I said, 'God let me live till I get back to the States and I'll go to church.' And so anyway on my way back to the engine room there was a fireman sitting on the purifier motor just inside the door. He saw me walking through the after battery, he hollered out, 'Ha, ha, ha, you can't walk can you?' And I hollered at him, I said, 'Did you check for leaks?' And he says, 'No, I can't get up.' So I walked through the engine room door and I could hear water running very loudly."
Jones lifted the deck plates, the metal plates on the floor, and found a valve that had loosened. Water shot up above his head. He grabbed a wrench and started tightening.
As he was putting the plate back in place, a depth charge went off.
He dropped the plate, slicing his shin almost to the bone.
He heard something else running. He found another leaky valve.
"I tightened that down and got the leaks stopped."
Meanwhile, the submarine was moving out of harm's way.
"We kept creeping out and thank God it was getting dark, the sun went down, it was getting dark so we did get away from them. By then the destroyer that had been in the harbor was looking all over for us but we did get away from them all right."
The S-38 returned to the States for repairs, which is when Jones joined the crew of the USS Pogy (SS-266).
"My biggest moment in my life as far as being scared was at Tarawa ... for years I'd get cramps in my stomach, but I didn't stop doing my duty. Sailors in those days were trained no matter how scared you got, you carried out your duty. And that's all you had on your mind."
Jones, who joined the Navy in 1937 at the age of 17, had previously served on the USS S-45 (SS-156), which was in Bermuda at the start of the war and sped to the Panama Canal after the attack on Pearl Harbor in case the Japanese fleet traveled that way.
On the Pogy, Jones had another scary encounter with the Japanese fleet. The Pogy was chasing a convoy of nine Japanese ships near Taiwan in February 1944, and fired three torpedoes at two ships.
"He (the skipper) fired at the destroyer. There was one fish (torpedo) leading the other one, this fish blew him out of the way and this one went on through and hit another ship. We hit the destroyer and blew him sky high. Everything aboard must have exploded, all of his ammunition and what have you. But anyway these merchant ships started chasing us, and they're chasing us toward land. We had to go full speed ahead and they're shooting at us. Now I'm on watch between two engines, throttle watch between two engines, and every time one of those shells would hit, the deck plates would go like that. And so anyway we finally got out of that one. We outran the end vessel and got around but we were afraid we were going to run aground there because we had to go in so close to land to do it."
Jones did a final war patrol on the Pogy in April 1944, his seventh war patrol on the three submarines. He then left the Pogy and was teaching at the Naval Submarine School in Groton when the war ended. He served in the Navy for 20 years, retiring as a chief engineman.
"I served where I was needed. I did my job. I wasn't looking for any medals, but I did my job. We were trained to do it. I had quite a bit of time in the service before the war even started and we were trained to do our job, regardless of whether we were scared or not. You didn't get scared normally until you got through doing your job.