STANWOOD — It was December 6, 1944, and the plane was starting to burn.
The left engine of the P-38 failed after being hit by enemy fire. Army Air Corps pilot Robert “Bob” Jones needed to bail out. The 20-year-old was flying over enemy territory near Trier, Germany, during World War II.
Jones flew as far as he could toward the French border, hoping to get back over territory then occupied by the Allies. The plane lost altitude. He worried the burning left engine would spark an explosion.
He rolled the plane and jettisoned the center canopy, now below his head. He aimed the nose upward so he could flip out of the plane, but he’d lost too much speed and altitude.
“It didn’t work,” said Jones, now 92 and living in Stanwood. “I had to crawl out and pop my ’chute, but it didn’t fully open. I hit the ground. Hard.”
He later learned that he’d cracked three vertebrae in his back.
His comrades in the sky saw his plane go down. They didn’t see his parachute open. He was reported killed in action.
Jones was captured by German soldiers twice after the crash. He chronicled his experience in one chapter of the book “The 370th Fighter Group in World War II.” The first time he was caught, he escaped by jumping from a train as it slowed while rounding a curve. He landed in a snowbank in the middle of the night and made his getaway.
He was captured a second time by two fresh-faced teenage soldiers guarding the railroad bridge where he attempted to cross the Moselle River. He spent the last months of the war in Stalag Luft 1, a camp for prisoners of war located near Barth, Germany, on the coast of the Baltic Sea.
“Life in the camp was boring, cold, dirty and hungry,” he wrote. He was there until May 1945.
He didn’t have a chance to contact his family after the prisoners in the camp were liberated. The POWs were loaded onto planes that had been emptied of weapons and other cargo. They were flown to a town on the French coast of the English Channel.
“After we’d been processed, we were put on a boat — it was a sorry sort of ship — and went straight back to the States, all the way to New York City,” Jones said during a recent interview at his daughter’s home in Stanwood.
From New York, the soldiers boarded trains bound for military bases nearest their hometowns. For Jones, it was in San Antonio, Texas. His parents lived near Corpus Christi. He was already in Texas when he called to tell them he was alive.
“That was a startling bit of information for them,” he said.
He’s since been back to visit the field in Germany where his plane was shot down. A farmer there remembered the spot.
He never went back to Barth. “That place didn’t have much charm in it,” he said.
He remained in the military as a pilot until the 1970s. He served in Korea and Vietnam. He also flew chase planes to document military flight tests in at Muroc Air Force Base, now Edwards Air Force Base, in California. He flew “quite a mix” of planes during his career, he said, including the F-4, F-100, F-86 and P-80. His favorite was the P-51 Mustang. He flew it in Korea.
After retiring from the military, Jones worked for a while at a security company that contracted with the federal government.
Jones was born in Oklahoma. His family moved to Texas when he was 4. His father was an architect who worked on projects in Dallas, Houston and Austin. Among his jobs was designing homes and yachts for a wealthy oil family.
Jones was the youngest of four kids, each of them almost exactly four years apart in age. He’s the last surviving sibling.
Jones learned to fly in a Stearman biplane when he was 17 or 18 years old. He would fly whenever he had a chance. He had to scrape together money to pay for one hour of flight at a time. He figures he logged between 75 and 100 hours that way. Shortly before he turned 19, he joined the military because “they had airplanes,” he said.
A black-and-white photograph shows young Bob Jones posed in front of a plane not long before he was shot down. He’s wearing a uniform and a charming smile.
He was first stationed in England. The troops had a day off every few weeks. He spent one of his in Brighton. That’s where he met Yvonne, the woman who would become his wife.
“She was the prettiest thing I ever saw in my life,” Jones said. A portrait hanging on the wall of his room shows a regal woman with dark hair and big brown eyes.
They dated while he was in England and he met her parents. She was the only child in a Jewish family. After he was reported killed in action, she joined the English Navy.
Jones got in touch with Yvonne once he was safely home in the States.
“I’d telephone her as frequently as I could,” he said. “I told her I wanted to marry her, but she ought to come to the States first and see where she’d be living.”
He bought her a round-trip ticket so she could return to England if she didn’t like the U.S. She came to visit while he was serving at Muroc, in the California desert.
“Everyone thought she was really special,” Jones said. “She was smart, well-educated and funny.”
They had three children: Stephanie, Christopher and Michele. Stephanie went on to serve in the Air Force and Christopher in the U.S. Public Health Service.
Yvonne died in 2008 in Myrtle Beach, North Carolina. Shortly after, Jones moved to Stanwood to live with his eldest daughter, Stephanie Bower.
His memories are hazy some days. Still, Jones recalls some things with clarity: Bailing out of his plane on that cold December day. Coming home to tell his parents he was alive. Falling in love with his future wife and asking her to come from England to marry him.
“Everything worked out for us,” he said. “She stayed and we lived happily ever after.”
Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org.