War hero’s grave marked 86 years later
During the construction of Knoxville’s I-640 bypass, Dean Gulley had been working on the clean-up of some demolished houses when he spotted a gravestone laying in a yard. Thinking that the stone deserved more respect than to be taken to the dump with the other materials, he put it into the back of his truck. Running across his friend, Grady Lowe, Gulley handed the stone over to him. Grady would store the stone for 22 years until he had the opportunity to check with his brother, Gary Lowe, over the mysterious gravestone. The inscription on the stone stated: “James Trenton Jones – Tennessee – Corp. 117 Inf. 30 Div. - December 11, 1930 – D.S.C.”
Gary, who had served an exemplary career as a Morristown police officer, where he retired as a major, particularly noticed the marking “D.S.C” at the bottom of the stone. Also an Army vet, he knew that the letters “D.S.C.” meant “Distinguished Service Cross,” which is America’s second highest award for valor, just under the Medal of Honor. Gary knew that he was looking at the marker of a hero of the highest order and gave me a call. From the information on the stone, we quickly deduced that Corporal Jones had belonged to a unit made up mostly of local area men who had seen heavy combat during World War I and were in the same regiment as Hamblen County’s Medal of Honor recipients Edward Talley and Calvin Ward.
Some quick research soon showed that James T. Jones had been born in Sevier County on August 28, 1898, the son of carpenter John D. and Estelle V. Jones. His father and mother had been 19 and 18 years-old at his birth. By 1900, the family had moved to Howell’s Road in Knoxville, where Mr. Jones found work with Southern Railway.
Nineteen year-old James would enlist in the Army on April 24, 1917, shortly after the U.S. had entered World War I. Becoming a member of the 117th Regiment of the 30th Infantry Division, a National Guard outfit, he would be sent to Camp Sevier, near Greeneville, South Carolina. With the U.S. having been caught with a small Regular Army, the men, often still in their civilian clothes, were put to work cutting a pine forest to build the camp, while also participating in close order drill. This hard labor would be a later advantage in hardening and strengthening the men.
Beginning in May, 1918, the 30th would sail to England, where a month later they would cross the Channel to Calais, France. There, they would be one of two U.S. divisions to be placed under foreign control and given mostly British weapons and food. Assigned to the British 2nd Army, they would be sent to the Eperlocques Training area for training in trench warfare.
With some background on Jones, Gary put his old police skills to work and began contacting the right people and finding out more about the hero. While the 30th was being trained, it was decided to send out an American unit to experience real combat and James’ automatic rifle group was chosen. It was his first time under fire when, near Ypres, Belgium, on July 24, 1918, heavy shell fire hit his unit, killing two and leaving James and the others seriously wounded. Despite being wounded, James took action. His D.S.C. citation would read:
“James Trenton Jones, Corporal, Co. C, 117th Infantry. For extraordinary heroism in action near Ypres, Belgium, July 24, 1918. He was in charge of a detached automatic rifle post heavily bombarded by the enemy. Two of his men were killed by shell fire, two others and himself were seriously wounded. Though it was his first experience under fire, he exhibited unhesitating devotion to his duty by remaining at his post. Sending for assistance, he reorganized his position and gave aid and comfort to the wounded.”
After receiving medical treatment, Jones was later sent back into action and would be involved in the same fierce fighting as were Talley and Ward. Following the signing of the Armistice, he would board the USS Pocahontas to return home in March, 1919. Following parades in Knoxville and Chattanooga, he would be discharged on April 17, 1919.
Marrying Lucia Gilmore and living on Knoxville’s Howell Road, he would work as a book company salesman while becoming the father of Gertrude, born in 1923 and William, born in 1926. On Dec. 11, 1930, at age 32, the hero would die, most likely from heart blockage, and would be buried at Knoxville’s Lynnhurst Cemetery in a grave which would go unmarked for 86 years. His family had ordered a headstone from the Veterans Administration, but for reasons unknown the stone was never delivered to his gravesite. Wife Lucia would work as a retail clerk to support her children, and the family would move to Olive Street, where they would live until sometime after 1940, when they would leave Knoxville.
Gary would soon find the right key to the puzzle in Jeff Berry of Berry-Lynhurst Funeral Home and Cemetery. Berry proved to be a strong veterans’ advocate.
“I love our vets,” he would say. “We’ve held services for about 30 homeless vets and have 86 unmarked graves in our cemetery. Donny Darnell has searched the records and located the Mr. Jones’ grave. I’m glad that a veteran had located the tombstone. Some others might have thrown it away. It just lets you know that there is a higher power.”
With the Jones family having left Tennessee, it was difficult to find any remaining relatives. As the search continued, a grandson, 68-year-old Richard Jones was located in Austell, Georgia. Richard’s father, William, was the son of Corporal Jones. A phone call found that Richard was amazed and emotional that his grandfather’s grave had been located.
“My father was young when his dad died and never knew much about him. I’ve always wanted to know about my grandfather, but didn’t know anything until you all called. This is the greatest gift that I could be given. I grew up in Georgia, but my dad would always tell me that it’s hard to beat Tennessee Volunteers.”
CW4 (R) Billy Jack Cunningham was able to provide me with the only photo of Jones that we could locate, which unfortunately was of a poor quality. The East Tennessee Military Affairs Council quickly jumped on board and began the preparations for a public dedication ceremony to finally show Corporal Jones the honor he had earned. Before long, the affair had turned into a first- class event.
The date for the ceremony was set and long-time friend, Quentin Seals and I headed to Knoxville to find a long line of Vietnam vets who had come to pay their respects. While local media filmed the occasion, the East Tennessee Veterans Honor Guard posted a flag before a folded flag was presented to grandson Richard. Jeff Berry would welcome the guests and to tell the story of the search for Jones’ grave.
Gary and Grady Lowe, were then called up to tell their story of finding, maintaining and learning the story of the stone. Gary’s son, Army Lt. Daniel Lowe was also on hand to honor the hero.
Attorney Nick McCall then gave a clear and informative story of the 117th Regiment’s part in the war.
Corporal Jones’ gravestone had taken 86 years to complete its journey.