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War hero Col. Thomas S. Jones promoted Elvis Presley to sergeant

Col. Thomas S. Jones, second from left, after Allied forces liberated a Japanese prison camp in the Philippines in February 1945. He weighed only 80 pounds after 18 months in captivity.

Photo courtesy of Lynn Johnston Literary

Col. Thomas S. Jones, second from left, after Allied forces liberated a Japanese prison camp in the Philippines in February 1945. He weighed only 80 pounds after 18 months in captivity.

SAFETY HARBOR — Col. Thomas S. Jones might have been beheaded, as were the other members of his unit in the Philippines during World War II. Instead, his Japanese captors deemed Mr. Jones too weak to bother executing and he survived.

His company of guerilla fighters had been surrounded in the jungles of Luzon, unable to rejoin the 26th Cavalry. Rather than surrendering, the men in Company C built a primitive radio station, from which they broadcast information about Japanese troop movements to Allied forces.

After the war, then-Maj. Jones, a mild-mannered man who once studied classics at the University of Oxford, became a colonel and then a civilian adviser to the U.S. Army in Vietnam.

While in Germany, he promoted his Jeep driver — Pvt. Elvis Presley — to sergeant.

"I don't know how good a musician Elvis was," Mr. Jones wrote in a published letter to the St. Petersburg Times in 1977, a week after Presley died, "but as his battalion commander I can testify that he was a top-notch soldier, a credit to his parents, to his outfit, to his country."

For his own role in helping the Allies win in the Philippines, the Army presented Mr. Jones with the Distinguished Service Cross, its second-highest honor (after the Medal of Honor). He also was awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Legion of Merit.

Mr. Jones, a scholar on military history whose own life rivaled those of the heroes he read about, died Tuesday. He was 95 and had lived in Pinellas County since 1973.

U.S. and Philippine troops suffered great losses in Luzon, the main Philippine island, including members of the 26th Cavalry, who in 1942 conducted what would prove to be the last mounted cavalry charge in U.S. history. At the time, Mr. Jones' Company C had been sent to cover Japanese landings on the northern coasts.

After invading Japanese troops cut off their ability to return, Gen. Douglas MacArthur radioed instructions to retreat through mountain trails. Two dozen men remained in the jungles for 20 months until they were captured in August 1943. They spent 18 months in a prison camp, during which time Mr. Jones' weight withered to 80 pounds.

At the time of his scheduled execution, a Japanese doctor told captors that Mr. Jones would not likely survive the trip, according to the book The Intrepid Guerillas of Northern Luzon.

Allied forces liberated the camp in February 1945. A commanding officer presented Mr. Jones with the sword used to behead his colleagues. He kept the sword until he lost it in a burglary about 10 years ago.

He stayed in the Army, serving in France and Germany. In the late 1950s he supervised Presley, who he said had "earned his promotion the old-fashioned way, as a member of a combat unit, not with some sort of army entertainment group."

Mr. Jones retired in 1962 as a full colonel. He served in Vietnam for another decade as an adviser for the Agency for International Development. He married his Vietnamese teacher, Minh. They spoke French, their only common language. They had two daughters and moved to Dunedin in 1973.

He grew up in Albany, N.Y. His father died when Mr. Jones was 3. He remembered the horses that pulled a carriage with his father's body to the cemetery.

By the time his mother died two years later, around 1919, the funeral home had replaced horses with cars — a change for the worse, he thought.

An uncle, the editor-in-chief of the Albany Times-Union, raised Mr. Jones and exposed him to horseback riding. The boy also loved reading, and would study history and classics at Union College in New York and at Oxford.

His Safety Harbor home, where he moved eight years ago, was filled with books.

In the 1990s, he contacted the St. Petersburg Times and asked that the paper review more books about military matters. Times book editor Margo Hammond hired him to do just that.

His reviews showed a thorough grasp of history, weaponry and military intelligence. He often contrasted a book he was reviewing with others he had read, and he could level tough criticism if an author omitted aspects of a character or issue he thought they should have included.

"He wasn't just interested in recent history," Hammond said. "He really was interested in the whole development of military strategies and philosophies."

Though he was an active member of the Democratic Party, Mr. Jones resisted urgings to run for public office. Nor did he write his memoirs, apart from some incomplete beginnings and a novel he never submitted for publication.

As a father, he offered authoritative guidance that stopped short of being forceful. "He didn't see things in black and white," said daughter Lynn Johnston, "but he definitely thought some things were right. Once he sees something a certain way, you couldn't change his mind."

Mr. Jones died of complications from a stroke.

A team of horses will pull a caisson containing his flag-draped casket to his grave at Arlington National Cemetery.

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this story. Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or


Col. Thomas Sylvester Jones (retired)

Born: Nov. 21, 1914

Died: Sept. 21, 2010

Survivors: wife Minh Jones; daughters Lynn Johnston and Anne Jones; two grandchildren.

Service: Arlington National Cemetery, date to be arranged.

War hero Col. Thomas S. Jones promoted Elvis Presley to sergeant 09/24/10 [Last modified: Saturday, September 25, 2010 3:49am]
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