The 2018 Delaware War Memorial Veterans Day keynote speaker and Vietnam War hero left his mark on the First State
Although he arrived at the Veterans Day ceremonies with his oxygen tank and a walker, retired Air Force Colonel Neal Jones’ voice rang out strong and commanded the attention of the hundreds of veterans and many politicians present at the Delaware War Memorial Plaza. TSD reported on the event in November.
There to honor the memory of Lt. Commander JJ Connell, a long-forgotten Delaware hero and fellow Vietnam POW, Jones brought the audience to their feet with the words that he felt captured the essence of service to country.
He told of how proud he felt when he received his pilot’s wings and saluted the flag he would serve under, and how he was sure JJ Connell felt the same pride when he graduated from the Naval Academy and took the same oath to defend that flag. He followed those comments by saying, “And I will never kneel before that flag unless it is draped across the coffin of an American hero like Lt. Commander Connell.”
The applause went on for several minutes and some in the audience wiped away tears. Colonel Jones came to deliver a message about true heroism and love of country, and he was not backing down. He had spent seven birthdays and seven New Year’s in captivity under brutal conditions in various prison camps, including one of the harshest known as “The Zoo.” It was here that he learned about JJ Connell’s defiance of his captors —a defiance so strong that it would cost the Wilmington native his life.
Connell would be awarded the Navy Cross, the highest award for valor received by a Delawarean during the war in Vietnam.
Returning home after release, Neal Jones was a shadow of the former strapping 220-pound center and linebacker who starred for the Tulane University “Green Wave.” He was accompanied back to the campus in 1973 by a Sports Illustrated reporter, who told the story of his ordeal in Vietnam. Author, John Underwood wrote:
The 85-mm. shell smashed into the F105 directly in front of the cockpit, tearing a hole big enough for a man to crawl through. The impact ripped the oxygen mask off Opal Two (Jones’ call sign). Shrapnel tore into his right leg. It was approximately 12:45 p.m. on June 29, 1966, Opal Two’s 43rd mission of the war, the first over Hanoi for American pilots.
At 500 feet Opal Two ejected. He landed on his left side, bounced, and came down again hard. When he got to his feet North Vietnamese militiamen were within 50 yards and running toward him. His left arm was dangling, unresponsive, at his side. Later he would learn he had broken it clean through above the elbow and severed the radial nerve.
…Lying on a rattan mat in his cell at the Hanoi Hilton he was sure he was dying. His right leg, infected by the shrapnel wounds, was now badly swollen and turning black; it looked like an elephant’s leg. The flimsy cast that had been put on his broken arm was already disintegrating and he could feel the bones moving underneath. Finally, he told the prisoner in the next cell of his despair.
A native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Neal Jones and his wife Glenda moved to Delaware in 2017 to be near their family, including their first great-grandchild. After renting briefly in Greenville, they settled in their new home in Magnolia, Delaware, late spring of 2018.
Soon after their move, I received a call from my friend Brigadier General, USAF (ret) Jon Reynolds, himself a seven-year survivor of the deprivations of the North Vietnam prison camps. He told me about Neal and asked that I connect with him. We soon planned a lunch date at Buckley’s Tavern —Neal brought Glenda and I brought along Kevin Reilly to cover football and Don Kirtley, a Vietnam Air Force veteran to cover the military side.
I guess it’s never too late in life to make true friends, just as it never too late to meet a true hero. For gallantry in action, Colonel Jones was awarded the Silver Star, two Purple Hearts, the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star for Valor, two Air Medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross. He was also inducted into the Tulane University Hall of Fame.
I’ve learned over time that the Vietnam POWs are a brotherhood, not unlike the brotherhood that has existed amongst the World War II veterans of the Doolittle Raid and other special units. They meet every year to commemorate their service and renew the deep bond, that perhaps only those who have faced great adversity together can understand. It seemed fitting that during the Veterans Day speech, Neal Jones referred to JJ Connell as a brother and quoted from Shakespeare’s, Henry V, “for whoever sheds his blood with me today shall be my brother.”
Colonel Jones is survived by his beloved wife of more than 60 years, Glenda Blythe Jones, also of Baton Rouge. They were blessed with two children, Murphy Neal Jones, Jr., who preceded him in death, and Darla Jones Murphy. Darla is married to Jim Murphy. The Jones have four grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.
Services for Colonel Jones will be held at Mt. Salem Methodist Church in Rockford Park in Wilmington on Saturday, February 9that 11:00 AM. Visitors are invited to pay respects on Friday, February 8thfrom 4:30 to 8:00 PM at Chandler Funeral Home, 2506 Concord Pike in Wilmington. Burial will be at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors at a later date.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made in Neal Jones’ honor to: Tulane University, Athletics Department, Wounded Warrior Heroes or Ride of the Brotherhood in Lacombe, Louisiana.