An old sailor’s salute to his World War II skipper after 71 years footnotes the long story of H.G. Jones, the son of a North Carolina sharecropper who became an honored historian, author and nationally noted archivist.
Now 91 and living in Galloway Ridge, H.G. – the initials stand for Houston Gwynne – tells of the reunion in an interview in his living room with two other Navy veterans who now are neighbors and friends. One of them is a military historian who was the bridge between H.G. and Hugh P. McCormick of Baltimore. Hugh was a Navy lieutenant junior grade when he was executive officer of the wooden submarine chaser on which H.G. served as a sonarman in the Mediterranean.
Before this summer’s reunion, they’d last seen each other on Sept. 21, 1944. They’d been closer, literally, than most Naval officers and enlisted men because their subchaser USS SC 525 was only 110 feet long and less than 18 feet wide. On it, they pursued German submarines, spotting them for destroyers and other warships that attacked them.
H.G. and Hugh, now 94, met again at Galloway to share fading photographs and memories of their service together off North Africa, which included supporting the Anzio southern France invasions, where SC 525 led landing craft toward the beachhead.
Their meeting came about through a series of contacts and coincidences.
H.G.’s friend and Galloway neighbor, George Hecker, 92, a World War II and Cold War submarine officer, arranged a meeting with Ken Samuelson of Fearrington Village, a Navy veteran and military oral historian. Ken has conducted more than 100 oral history interviews of veterans. His work is at the Military Section of the North Carolina State Archives in Raleigh.
That led him to read H.G.’s book, A Sonarman’s War, where he found the name of Hugh, a friend years earlier in Baltimore. So it all came together, and he arranged Hugh’s August visit.
As with many others of their generation, H.G. and George enlisted as teenagers after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. George, a Naval Academy graduate, made his career in the Navy. H.G. served throughout the war. After his service in the Mediterranean, he was sent to the Pacific aboard a minesweeper.
His ship was clearing the channel for a planned U.S. invasion of Japan when the second atomic bomb struck Nagasaki 105 miles away, and the Japanese surrendered. Years later, H.G. met former President Harry S. Truman at his presidential library and thanked Truman for the decision to use the atom bomb and spare the invasion. “He put his arm around my shoulder and said, ‘You don’t know how good that makes me feel,’” H.G. recalls.
A Public Servant
After the war, H.G. resumed the interrupted education he’d begun before the war at a small college near his family home in Caswell County, near the Virginia border. “I got tired of following a mule in a tobacco field,” he says of his initial decision to enter college. On the GI Bill, he went back to school, graduating from Appalachian State University in 1949, then earning graduate degrees, including a doctorate. He was a college history professor, became state archivist in 1956, then served as director of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History. In 1974, he became a professor and curator of the North Carolina Collection at UNC, where he is credited with organizing the nation’s most comprehensive array of documents on state history.
H.G. received the North Carolina Award for Public Service in 2002. One of his eight books was influential in the handling of the Richard Nixon Watergate tapes and the movement for independence at the National Archives.
Perhaps his most popular was Scoundrels, Rogues and Heroes of the Old North State. His latest, published this year, is Miss Mary’s Money, an account of the heiress from a plantation family whose philanthropy supported schools and helped modernize the facilities – notably the plumbing – on the UNC campus.
That book testifies to his unfailing curiosity about history. H.G. saw an unusual gravestone cross in a family cemetery in Chatham County and began researching the family. Eight years later, that led to the book, written with researcher David Southern of Durham.