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ROCKY MOUNT — Gregory Ohree never had a chance to meet his uncle, a local soldier in the Korean War who died almost 70 years ago and was returned home just last month, but stories of his easygoing, jovial personality and determination to make a better life for himself have become part of his family’s legacy.
“He was a very outgoing type of person,” Ohree said. “He would go around hugging people all the time. It seemed like he never had an enemy. He loved to be around people.”
“In my growing up, I always said I want to be like Uncle Hoover — how he was and how he treated people.”
The remains of Pfc. William Hoover Jones were recently recovered through joint efforts between the U.S. Defense Department, North Korean Army officials and Pentagon scientists. Remains of as many as 5,000 American soldiers killed in the Korean War still have not been identified.
Jones, born in 1931, enlisted at age 18 as an infantryman in one of America’s last segregated units in May 1950 right after he graduated from Swift Creek High School. A native of Red Oak, Jones was a member of Company E, 2nd Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division during the Korean War. He was reported missing in action in North Korea on Nov. 26, 1950 and declared dead by the Army on Dec. 31, 1953.
Ohree said the lack of closure usually brought by the return of a loved one’s remains brought a heaviness over the family that remained until just a few months ago.
“Over the years, when we would reflect about him, we would always hope that he would come home, that they would find out where he was,” said Ohree. “I remember seeing the flags on TV and the military people wearing these POW/MIA shirts, and I would say that I hope one day he would come home. We just never gave up hope about his return, and now we’re in the process to finally get some closure.”
The call the Jones family had waited for the better part of a century to receive came just as eastern North Carolina was bracing for Hurricane Matthew.
“We couldn’t respond to it because we had to get out of the house and seek shelter. I had to take my sister and my mom to a hotel, because they’re in an area that’s close to a flood zone,” Ohree said. “It was an emotional time. We really didn’t have time to think about it. All we could think about is ‘Here comes the hurricane.’ When we got back, then we made some phone calls.”
Ohree said he believes Jones was ill-prepared for battle, citing his lack of training, being outnumbered and the donning of a summer uniform during the late fall mountainside battle, a theory echoed by U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield during his June 24 remarks about Jones on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.
“History reveals that most black soldiers of that era were poorly trained,” Butterfield said. “President Truman had ordered that unit integrated in 1948, but as of 1950, integration in that unit had not occurred.”
Butterfield also noted that the only black officer serving in Jones’ unit, Lt. Leon Gilbert, was court-martialed and sentenced to death for his refusal to take his soldiers to battle under such conditions in September of 1950. Truman ultimately commuted Gilbert’s sentence to 20 years in prison, and Gilbert served five years. During this time, Butterfield said, the unit was disbanded, brought back together and placed on the front line.
“To go through all that, knowing that he’s going to a foreign country and coming back to a country that does not honor him because of the color of his skin...at times, it gets the best of you,” Ohree said. “I think he would have been a phenomenal person. When he pursued his career by going to the Army, he wanted to advance himself as far as education through the military. He was a sanitation worker, and he wanted to advance himself. He had a fiancée he wrote letters to. He thought he was going to come home during the Thanksgiving holiday, but he never did.”
Jones was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Korean Service Medal, the United Nations Service Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Korean Presidential Unit Citation and the Republic of Korea War Service Medal.
Ohree’s mother, Elizabeth Jones Ohree, and his aunts, Ida Dickens and Thelma Jones Hilliard, have kept Jones’ memory alive for nearly seven decades, mostly through the telling and retelling of their stories. The family has very few, if any, pictures from Jones’ childhood.
“My mom always said that he could make a dog laugh,” said Ohree. “He always liked to wear a tie, and he would like to have a comb to comb his hair. He enjoyed combing his hair. In fact, in his last letter he wrote, he asked for a comb.”
“My mom is 95 years of age. I’m so glad she’s able to be a witness to this, and also her two sisters. They were relieved. They wanted to get closure. When they saw the remains, the casket, Aunt Ida was a little overwhelmed. It was an emotional time to see his body come off the plane.”
Ohree said not only has he been influenced by Jones’ legacy, but his children have as well.
“My daughter is ordering a charm bracelet, and she’s got some little charms that she’s going to have in remembrance of my Uncle Hoover. She thinks a lot of him, even though she never got a chance to meet him,” Ohree said.
Last year, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea turned over 55 boxes containing remains of U.S. service members killed during the Korean War to the United States. Scientists from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency laboratory at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii later individually identified Jones among them.
The public paid respects to Jones as he lay in honor June 21 in the old state Capitol and Gov. Roy Cooper laid a wreath in his memory and presented Jones’ family with United States and North Carolina flags flown over the Capitol building. A community memorial service was held June 23 at Word Tabernacle Church in Rocky Mount.
Memorial rooms paying tribute to Jones are in the works at Word Tabernacle and H.D. Pope Funeral Home. Jones will be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery on Aug. 22.