Friday, February 27, 2009

Dr. Houston G. Jones

H. G. Jones grew up in a house without books to become one of the most prolific writers and distinguished archivists in North Carolina. He has dedicated his life to forging a vision for the state’s future by collecting and preserving every scrap of its past. For his relentless pursuit of North Carolina history, H.G. Jones receives the 2002 North Carolina Award for Public Service.Jones was born in 1924 on a tenant farm in the Caswell County community of Kill Quick and endured the Great Depression under tough circumstances. Undeterred, he headed to Lees-McRae College; however, with the onset of World War II, he soon moved from the classroom to a U.S. Navy ship.

Following his discharge in 1946, Jones resumed his formal education, graduating magna cum laude from Appalachian State University, which honored him twenty-two years later with its first Distinguished Alumnus Award. He went on to earn advanced degrees from George Peabody College (M.A.) and Duke University (Ph.D.).

In 1956, Jones accepted a position in Raleigh as state archivist with the N.C. Department of Archives and History where he developed the largest and most comprehensive state archival and records management program in the country. This accomplishment was recognized in 1964 when the Society of American Archivists presented its first Distinguished Service Award to the department. Jones was named president of the society in 1968, and became the only person to twice receive the Waldo G. Leland Prize, the organization’s top award for a book on archival history, theory and practice. That same year, he became Director of the Department of Archives and History, a position he held until 1974. During his directorship, Jones vastly expanded the department’s services, obtained funds for a new records center, and developed additional state historic sites.In 1974, Jones joined the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he served as Curator of the North Carolina Collection and Adjunct Professor of History. He retired from those positions in 1993 to become part-time Thomas W. Davis Research Historian, a title he still holds. He also continues to keep an eye on the state’s historical programs as an emeritus member of the N.C. Historical Commission.

The jewel of his career is the North Carolina Collection, a staggering array of published materials pertaining to North Carolina and its inhabitants. The collection is by far the most comprehensive of its kind in the country. While managing the collection and the North Caroliniana Society, a nonprofit organization he founded in 1975, Jones continued his prolific writing, including his award-winning book North Carolina Illustrated, 1524-1984.

In 1971, while on his first vacation, Jones discovered the second great passion in his life – the Arctic and its native people. For the past thirty-one years, he has traveled to the area to study, collect, and write about the culture and art of the Eskimoans, amassing over time an unmatched collection of Inuit art and artifacts.

Today, Dr. Jones continues to live near the UNC campus with his lifetime collection of North Carolina and Arctic literature, art and memorabilia.

Navy Vet Writes Book

By Gerri Hunt
Dec 28, 2010 - 07:57:57 pm CST

Assistant Editor (The Caswell Messenger)

Houston "H.G." Jones grew up in Locust Hill, not far from Kill Quick, a son of Paul and Lemma Fowlkes Jones. "I was fascinated with the printed word, probably because I grew up in a home without a single book," he said. "Going to school was a great thing because there were books there that I could read, so I discovered there were places outside of North Carolina. I was the only person in my family who went on and finished high school. The main thing was, I discovered it was a lot more fun reading and writing than following a mule." Following high school, Jones entered Lees-McRae College, but stayed less than a year at the Banner Elk school. "When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, all of us wanted immediately to go fight the Nazis and the Japanese. I didn't think I'd like to walk all day, or ride a mule in the Army, so I decided to join the Navy," he said. "It just looked like the best way to go. Of course, I'd never seen a ship, so I didn't know what it was going to be like to be seasick."

The 87-year-old Jones, who started keeping a journal when he was 14, has written a book on his experiences in the Navy, "The Sonarman's War: A Memoir of Submarine Chasing and Mine Sweeping in World War II." He recounted his time on the Caswell County farm, when he was ready to enter the military. "While my parents weren't thrilled at seeing me go off to war, they had learned to view me as a good but very strange boy, not at all like my brothers and neighboring males, whose future was tied to the land," he wrote. "My mind was never really on the struggle to eke out a living from the soil; I was always trying to figure out how to get away from the poverty and drudgery of the tenant farm."

On Sept. 18, 1942, his enlistment in the Navy was notarized by Attorney R.T. Wilson in Yanceyville. He spent several evenings with curious relatives and neighbors at Crossroads, Robert Smith's store at the junction of U.S. 158 and Park Springs Road. Jones headed to Florida for training as a sonarman, a new field in the Navy. Then he moved on to Norfolk, Va., and then to New York City, where he eventually headed out to sea from Pier 92. He said he's not sure how he ended up as an expert at listening for underwater sounds. "They told me I had a musical ear, which scared me to death... I couldn't carry a tune. You may have lived near a railroad, and couldn't you always tell whether a train was coming toward you or going away?" he asked. "If it's coming toward you, it's up Doppler, it's slightly higher in tone than going away. It's relatively easy once you realize that's the way it is."

Jones said he worked out of North Africa until they "went to invade Italy. We went through the invasions there, that's the most gory part of it. Then we had to invade southern France." He was aboard the submarine chaser SC-525, a 100-foot wooden vessel - the Navy's smallest commissioned boat. "We were on duty for four hours, with eight hours off, and you rotate each day," he said. "But during invasions, of course, everybody can be on general alert - or general quarters, as they call it. So you'd be on full-time. And if you got to sleep, it might have to be where your station was." The gigantic sonar gear looked like an old computer. "It had a wheeled handle with a compass. You would turn five degrees and send out a ping that would go out from under the ship. It would go through the water and if it hit something, it will bounce an echo back. That's what you had to be able to read," said Jones. "It had a recorder on it that would tell you the distance in yards, but the sound is what would tell you whether or not it was a whale or a school of fish or the wake of another ship or something solid like a submarine. You'd get a very sharp echo, or a soggy one like wood. But you develop that by listening for hours and hours to different sounds."

Although they frequently determined there was a submarine, it wasn't often that it could be confirmed. "It was pretty dangerous because the submarine was going to try to get you first," said Jones. "They had listening devices too, so they could tell if I was pinging on them. They of course had torpedoes they could shoot. Fortunately, as far as we know, we didn't get fired upon." But during invasions, with several hundred ships around, the sonar was no good. "We would throw up our sonar gear and we would become leaders who would take troops onto the shore. Our ship drew only about 6.5 feet of water, which means we could go very close to shore," said Jones. "The landing craft with soldiers aboard didn't have compasses, so we'd have to lead them in as far as we could go. Then we'd turn and they'd hit the beach. We'd go back and lead in another group. So we were within range of the German guns on the shore. And fortunately we never got hit... they were firing on everything."

By fall of 1944, "We'd just about cleared all the German submarines from the Mediterranean, so they really didn't need the subchasers anymore," he said. The United States gave about 50 of its subchasers to the French navy, and Jones boarded a troop ship and headed back to the states. He traveled through Caswell County on a 30-day leave, before taking a minesweeper to Okinawa by way of Hawaii and various Pacific islands, in preparation of an invasion of Japan. "We operated around Okinawa while the Americans were finishing up the Japanese there," said Jones. "There were hundreds and hundreds of ships that were gathering for the invasion that was to come in November of 1945, and fortunately with the atomic bomb, the president ended the war." But the boats had to stay put for a while. "We couldn't come back because there were thousands and thousands of mines across the waters. Americans couldn't get the troop ships to land in Japan until we cleared the channels of the mines," said Jones. "So we stayed on another several months' operation around China and Japan. And finally in early 1946 we came back."

Jones spent a couple weeks in California before being shipped back east for discharge. He then enrolled in Appalachian State University on the GI bill. He did some newspaper editing, and headed to West Georgia College to teach for a year. He then became state archivist for North Carolina for 12 years. He was elected as director of the State Department of Archives and History, serving for six years. He received his doctorate from Duke University, and now is curator of the North Carolina Collection at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. "I still come in every day, and I have an office in Wilson library," said Jones. "I plan to retire at 100. I've got 13 years to go. I'd be bored to death if I retired. I want to be where young people are moving around." For the whole story of Jones' military experience, "The Sonarman's War" can be purchased from publisher McFarland and Company, at 800-253-2187 or

The book also is available at a discounted price at