Twentynine Palms -- Flames flickered across the surface of the frigid waters as plumes of smoke climbed upward, bleeding seamlessly into the night sky. A lone swimmer, heaving line in tow, made his way toward a stranded man through the wreckage of the Soviet oceanographic vessel. Raising himself onto the flotsam, the U.S. sailor assured the wounded Russian, and they began their arduous swim back to the USS Permit.
According to Sidney B. Jones, our narrative’s fearless swimmer, this story was never meant to be told, having been declassified in the 1970s. Now 96 years old, the retired chief petty officer’s career with the U.S. Navy spanned 38 years and two major wars.
“My grandfather came across from Wales in 1881,” Jones said as he reminisced about his life during an interview at his home in Twentynine Palms, Calif. “He settled in Pennsylvania and joined the reserves; that was the beginning of this Jones-clan fighting wars.”
Jones’ father, “Casey” Jones, served in the U.S. Army during the Spanish-American War. More than 28 years later, when Jones was 6 years old, his father, then working as a Pennsylvania Railroad conductor, died after being hit by unscheduled freight train on the day Jones’ older brother turned 14.
“My mother got a little bit of a pittance of three and a half dollars a month for his service when he died,” Jones said. “Growing up, I had a paper route for five years to help my mother get by. Back then, there were no school buses. If it was six miles away you walked; that was OK, we didn’t know any different.”
Jones attended Connelley Vocation High School, where he studied mechanical drawing. There, he felt captivated by the pool and became a Pittsburgh champion swimmer and diver, claiming that he “just couldn’t stay out of the water.” It was during his high school years that he was introduced to the rigors of military life.
“My first experience with anything military was before the war,” Jones said. “Franklin Delano Roosevelt decided he would have volunteers from my high school attend a military boot camp called the Citizens Military Training Corps.”
The training camps were held to train additional potential Army reserve officers and upon four years of attendance, citizens were commissioned as second lieutenants. According to Jones, he learned many valuable skills such as how to fire a rifle and to be a marksman.
“It was there that I decided if I joined the military, I was going to go into the Navy,” he said.
In 1939, the USS Squalus, a Sargo-class submarine, sank during a test dive due to a mechanical failure. Lt. Cmdr. Charles B. “Swede” Momsen, a salvage and rescue expert, led rescue operations of the remaining crew trapped within the ship. Upon hearing this news, 19-year-old Jones felt inspired to enlist and soon found himself aboard the USS New York, a New York-class battleship utilizing a five-turret layout and coal for fuel.
“When we went aboard they lined us up. The taller guys and heavier guys were chosen to go into the engine room,” Jones recalled. “I had last choice and I ended up in the 7th Division as a gunner’s mate. Next thing I knew, I was with a motor boat crew, tight roping a boom in the black of night.”
In anticipation of World War II, Jones put in a request to attend submarine school. His request was approved and found himself mulling through blueprints, memorizing every part and system of the USS Permit, a Porpoise-class submarine.
“I was just transferred to the USS Permit after she just came back from being beat up by the Japanese after they hit Pearl [Harbor],” Jones said. “I just wanted to get in the war and do my part. If we are going to fight a war, I wanted to get on something that was going to fight it.”
With his experience as a gunner’s mate, Jones was used to working with ordnance. Every sailor aboard the submarine held important responsibilities and was required to learn each station, regardless of rate. Jones began as a helmsman and lookout while at battle stations where he discovered his sensitivity to the movement of the ship as well as an ability to “feel the submarine move before it moved.” The captain noticed as well, quickly assigning him to manning the bow planes, control surfaces that allowed the vessel to pitch its stern up and down. This put the responsibility of keeping the ship leveled off at the appropriate depth in the gunner’s mate’s hands.
“When firing a torpedo and the torpedo leaves, that’s a heavy, heavy thing, so you put full dive on the planes and immediately start pulling full rise to level it off,” Jones said. “The captain would say, ‘I want no more than one and a half foot,’ and that’s what he got. He didn’t want to lose the scope by going under, so he could fire; one, two, three, four and get them over with.”
Life on a submarine certainly wasn’t smooth sailing, Jones explained. The Permit would go on patrols that could last anywhere from 30 to 60 days and would travel primarily submerged with the exception of nights; for submariners, these nights became their days. Jones recalls the uncertainty and silence of one instance in which the Permit had difficulty eluding three destroyers.
“We would get depth charged to the world’s end; its nerve-wracking and very quiet,” Jones said. “You could take your shoes off and walk around in your stockings as to not make any noise. We would often be down there for a few days before we were able to sneak out of it.”
In 1944 as WWII began to wind down, Jones left the Navy and made his way back from California to Pennsylvania by railroad. Reluctant to cut ties, he joined the Navy reserves and traveled to a naval yard in New Jersey and enrolled in a program for men getting out after the end of the war, where he applied for a job removing asbestos from pipes. Eventually, Jones transferred to Long Island, New York, to work as a plumber. As the Vietnam conflict escalated, he was recalled to active duty as a Navy recruiter.
“When Vietnam started, someone broke into the offices at the recruiter stations and threw blood on all the files,” Jones said. “So, [the Navy] was looking for volunteers to go active duty recruiting, and I did. They interviewed me, sent me to school, and gave me a quota of five a month.”
Jones went on to spend 12 years recruiting earning numerous awards for service, including multiple years of Top Recruiter in New York.
“I’d fall asleep sometimes driving home at night,” Jones said. “It was a tough job but I always made my quota; I knew I was doing something for my Navy.”
Jones retired from the Navy in his 60s. After many years of faithful service, including an extension past age 60 that required the approval of an admiral, it was time for Jones to focus on serving his family. Jones has seven daughters, 10 grandchildren, 10 great grandchildren, and currently lives in Twentynine Palms, Calif. Despite his many achievements, the old gunner’s mate remains humble.
“I’m no hero,” Jones said. “I have a lot of memories, not all of them good. When we’d surface at night for a look around or when my recruits would graduate; those moments stick with you.”