William Jones was the youngest child of Joseph Jones and Elizabeth Betty Jones Mabrey. After his birth on July 15, 1918 in Tamo, Arkansas, his family relocated to Oklahoma and then Kansas. Jones grew up in Coffeyville, Kansas, and attended the segregated "colored" school there through high school graduation. He enlisted in 1941 in the U.S. Army and became one of the last Buffalo Soldiers. He served in World War II and in 1950 deployed to Korea, where he was captured and taken prisoner. He returned home in 1953, retired from the military in 1961, and went on to become an entrepreneur and to create Tacoma's 9th and 10th Horse Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers Museum.
A Buffalo Soldier
After graduating from high school, Jones searched for a job that would provide for a family. Fond of the idea of marching in a military parade and looking for the support of retirement benefits, Jones applied to the U.S. Army and enlisted on March 5, 1941, at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, at the age of 22. At that time, the Army was segregated. Black people could serve in only two units in 1941, the 9th and 10th Cavalry, whose members were known as "Buffalo Soldiers." The units were hard to get into and had a reputation as the best-trained in the Army. Jones waited for more than a year to hear back before being accepted as one of the 1,500 men in the 10th Cavalry Unit. He earned $21 a month as a Buffalo Soldier stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas.
The Buffalo Soldiers were created as segregated, Black-only peacetime cavalry regiments through an act of Congress on July 28, 1866. These units were used to control Native Americans during the westward expansion of the United States and fought in the Indian Wars. They were also utilized to create and control the systems necessary for westward expansion, including constructing forts, telegraph lines, and roads; protecting settlers, travelers, the mail, wagon trains, and cattle; and developing and protecting national parks.
The role of the Buffalo Soldiers within this expanding landscape put the units in close proximity to indigenous peoples, who provided them with the nickname Buffalo Soldiers. There is some dispute as to whether the tribes picked that because they thought the Black soldiers' curly hair looked like buffalo manes, or because they fought like buffalo, or both. The nickname "Buffalo Soldier" was applied to the 9th and 10th Cavalry units and the 24th and 25th Infantry units, all four of which served valiantly while facing rampant discrimination.
In addition to their vital role in security and support in the west, the Buffalo Soldiers were deployed in U.S. conflicts; fought forest fires; defended railroads, bridges, and the U.S. border; and generally filled in wherever needed before different branches of infrastructure were developed. In 1904 the 9th Cavalry Regiment was ordered to Camp Nisqually in DuPont, Washington, as part of a large military gathering there for training maneuvers. Camp Lewis was established near the site of the maneuvers in 1917 and later became Joint Base Lewis McChord. The maneuvers were also an early prototype for the eventual desegregation of the military by President Harry Truman in 1948.
World War II
During his time in the 19th Cavalry Unit, Jones learned to ride and care for a horse named Little Joe, who he used during his training exercises. During World War II, the 9th and 10th Calvary was absorbed by the Army Air Corps in 1943 -- it was still segregated, but the men no longer rode horses. Jones was part the 15th Army Air Force. In March of 1944 he was stationed in Casablanca, Morocco, and later in Naples, Italy, building airstrips for B-17 bombers. When Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945, his unit was deployed to the Philippines to build more airstrips. When Japan surrendered in August that year, Jones was sent back to the U.S.
Upon his return, Jones was stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia, and soon met his future wife, Hannah Jones (Griffin), who was from Alabama and serving in the Womens Army Corps. He was transferred to Fort Riley in Kansas and later, to Fort Lewis in Washington, and Hannah left the service to follow him. In 1946 Jones's unit was designated the 503rd Field Artillery within the 2nd Infantry Division. Hannah and William were married in 1949 in Tacoma and their son, Willie, was born in October that year. The following year Hannah was pregnant again with their daughter Jackie when Jones was deployed to Korea. He would not return home until 1953.
Captured in Korea
The Korean conflict was the first time Jones saw action during his time in the army. His unit deployed to Pusan, Korea, and after three months of fighting, Jones was captured and held as a prisoner of war. His unit had been moving toward the Yalu River when it ran out of munitions. Only the first rank of the unit carried guns, with the men in the next row retrieving the guns when the leading soldiers fell.
After their supply of ammunition was depleted, Jones's unit unsuccessfully radioed for supplies three times. Without any way to fight the advancing Chinese forces, Jones's commander had the unit split up into small groups and cross enemy lines in order to meet back up with the retreating army forces. This had to be done under the cover of night because Jones's unit, which was still primarily Black, did not blend in with the North Koreans and Chinese it was fighting against. In Jones's three-man group, one soldier was killed and the other likely froze to death. Jones continued on alone for two and a half days, struggling through unfamiliar territory in the dark and collecting injuries along the way. He was captured and made a prisoner of war on December 1, 1950, then transported at night to a mountain cave.
After months of walking, Jones finally reached POW Camp 5 near Pyoktong. The camp was separated into compounds by rank and race. In Jones's compound the men had no beds or blankets and were infested with lice and worms. Each man had one outfit per year. Eventually the Red Cross was allowed access to the camp and supplied the prisoners with rice and thin blankets. While in the camps, roughly 40 percent of the prisoners died, but Jones remained optimistic. He credited his positivity to his religious upbringing, and he was given the nickname "Preacher" by his fellow prisoners. He passed his time by trying to "pep up" his companions and read them passages from an old Bible they were allowed to have. He was able to write letters to his beloved Hannah, with the first one reaching her on July 9, 1951.
Two years later, United Nations forces and North Korea reached a cease-fire agreement. Jones was released in September 1953, having lost 60 pounds. Seventeen days later, after eating himself sick, he got on a ship home and returned to Tacoma in October. Jones had a lot of re-acclimating to do. He had never met his daughter Jackie, who was now 2 years old, and had not seen his 3-year-old son since he was an infant. He would later father two more daughters, Marilee (b. 1954) and Gwendolyn.
Although the military was officially desegregated in 1948, the Buffalo Soldier units were at first reconfigured but largely remained segregated. Jones's unit was not integrated into the broader military until 1953. He thought integration was "a good idea" ("Buffalo Soldier to Speak ..."), but as a noncommissioned officer he had an abundance of studying to do to meet his own standards for educating other soldiers. In 1954 he was integrated into the 546th Field Artillery Battalion back home at Fort Lewis. During his time in the service, Jones held many jobs. He built runways, drove trucks, fixed artillery in the field, organized warehouses, and was proficient with weapons, going from a marksman to a sharpshooter during his enlistment. Jones was a master sergeant at the time of his retirement after 20 years of service. His retirement was marked by a parade at Fort Bliss, Texas on May 1, 1961, attended by Jones and his family.
After his retirement from the military, Jones opened Jones Glass and Recyclables, which was originally located in Tacoma's Hawthorne neighborhood. Racial redlining, restrictive covenants, and rampant racism made it difficult for African Americans to buy homes in the city. Often, that meant that Black people trying to settle in Tacoma at that time had to buy land and build their own homes. People needed materials to build those homes, and Jones Glass provided them.
The Hawthorne neighborhood was condemned and demolished for the construction of the Tacoma Dome in 1984, uprooting the Jones family and the business. Jones Glass, now located on S Wilkerson Street, still (2020) carries materials taken from demolished homes throughout the area. It is maintained by Jones's daughter Gwen Jones, a glass cutter and photographer, and the salvage yard remains a symbol of Black resiliency.
In 2000 Jones began displaying his memorabilia from his service years, and in 2005 he started the 9th & 10th Horse Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers Museum next door to Jones Glass. It is one of only two museums in the country dedicated specifically to Buffalo Soldiers. Jones, affectionately known to the community as Mr. Jones, lost his wife to kidney failure in 1972, and he died at the age of 91 on December 3, 2009. After his death his daughter Jackie Jones-Hook took over as executive director of the 9th and 10th Horse Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers Museum. It is a unique institution in the community and details an often-overlooked history.
William Jones started the museum to educate others, and he was beloved in the community for his open nature. He was a hard worker and valued learning immensely. A little more than a year before his death, he was interviewed by a newspaper: "As for advice for younger people, Jones pointed to his head and said, 'Study hard and get something up there. Most of our kids think the computer just come in. The good Lord gave us a computer from the beginning. In every job I want to be the best man on that job. In order to be the best man, you have to study and prepare yourself ("Buffalo Soldier to Speak ...).'"