Wilbur Jones keeps the city’s WWII history alive
Wilbur Jones is shown inside the Hannah Block Historic USO building in downtown Wilmington. (Photo by Madeline Gray)
Wilbur Jones moved back to his hometown of Wilmington after retiring from an illustrious career with the Navy and Department of Defense, but he’s never quite gotten the hang of retirement. In fact, Jones accomplished one of his most cherished goals: seeing Wilmington named America’s first World War II Heritage City.
Now, Jones is helping Wilmington capitalize on its status as a heritage city, and he plans to pursue this and other endeavors to commemorate the area’s military history for as long as he is able.
“I’m 89 and continue to work 24/7, 365 days a year to preserve the history of my hometown and native state,” Jones said. “As long as I have the mental capacity, energy and motivation, I will continue to do that. That energizes me every day.”
Jones’s lifelong passion for the military and preservation began when he was 7 years old. He remembers watching Wilmington’s wartime efforts, following the war news and playing war games.
The experience left such a deep impression on Jones that national defense and military preservation became his passion, vocation and avocation.
After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a history degree, Jones joined the Department of Defense.
He served nearly 41 years as a Navy officer, retiring as a captain, and then served as a civilian professor and associate dean of information at the Defense Acquisition University. Jones also worked with Republican administrations from Los Angeles to the White House, where he was an assistant and advance representative to President Gerald Ford.
Jones has also authored or co-authored more than 20 books on military history.
When Jones moved back to Wilmington in 1997, he continued to write but also put his considerable talents to work preserving the city’s contributions to World War ll.
One of his first projects was preserving and renovating the Hannah Block Historic USO/Community Arts Center.
Jones then created a tour of Wilmington’s World War II military sites.
In 2008, Jones came up with the idea of making Wilmington a World War II Heritage City and embarked on a 12-and-a-half-year odyssey to make his vision a reality. It was a journey that took the skill of a general planning a complex campaign, the patience of the proverbial saint, and the persuasion of a diplomat. Fortunately, Jones has all those qualities in abundance.
One of Jones’s first objectives was getting politicians on board. He won the support of New Hanover County representatives and then the state representatives. Jones’s next step was to enlist the help of the area’s Congressional bipartisan delegation. He worked closely with U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre, who drafted legislation for a Heritage City bill, and Sen. Richard Burr, as well as Sen. Thom Tillis and Rep. David Rouzer, who took up the torch when McIntyre left office. Jones added his voice to that of the politicians by testifying before Congress.
Jones also garnered support for the legislation from influential national organizations and the media.
“I wasn’t asking for money,” Jones said. “I was only asking for plugs or a letter to a congressman. I never asked to attend a meeting. Just for support. That’s easier to do.”
Though the bill had numerous supporters among Republicans and Democrats alike, it floundered in Congress. The project was on track, then it backslid; sometimes it went sideways, Jones said,
But Jones persevered. As he said, quitting just isn’t in his nature.
“I stayed on course and never let the storms deter me, and the people I was able to influence stayed with me and stayed with the project,” Jones said.
Finally, in 2018, the bill picked up steam. With Southeastern North Carolina’s entire Congressional delegation, two North Carolina governors and politicians on both sides of the aisle supporting it, it was passed, and President Donald Trump signed it into law in 2019.
However, the question of which city should be named America’s first World War II Heritage City was still under debate. Senators from various states questioned why Wilmington should be so honored.
Jones quelled all objections. Wilmington met both criteria for the designation: a city that had significantly contributed to the war effort and preserved that legacy. Last but not least, though not a criterion for the first World War II Heritage City designation, the fact remained that the idea for the program originated in Wilmington.
On Sept. 2, 2020, Jones saw his dream come true. Trump named Wilmington America’s first World War II Heritage City at a ceremony at the Battleship North Carolina.
The moment took on even greater meaning for Jones when Trump recognized him for his extensive work on the program. Jones, the ex-military man, responded with a snappy salute to the Commander in Chief. Then, Trump returned the salute.
“It was the proudest moment of my life,” Jones said.
Since then, 18 additional cities have received the designation, and Jones expects more to be named.