LCDR Ralph M. Jones
Commanding Officer, Composite Squadron 65, USS St. Lô
Missing In Action October 25, 1944 in the Battle Off Samar
Memorialized Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego
-- Ralph N. Jones --
Ralph Meldrim Jones was born in Savannah, Georgia in 1914 and the concept of war entered his consciousness early on: his elder siblings report that at age four he had some
confusion in his mind between "German" and "Sherman."
His father decided that Ralph should be an aeronautical engineer, and sent him off to Georgia Tech to study that. Ralph, however, was determined to be an architect and that
is how he registered as a freshman. As soon as the first grade report arrived, a blistering letter from Savannah caused his major to be unceremoniously changed to Aeronautical
Engineering. He quickly adapted to that, and acquired a permanent fascination with flying. He also took Naval ROTC there, and graduated with a commission in the Navy in 1936.
He then went to Pensacola, Florida to train as a Naval Aviator. While there, he attended a dance put on for the aviator students by the Florida State College for Women (now
Florida State U). He found himself in a line of students being matched up with a line of young FSCW ladies, and craftily adjusted his position to ensure he would dance with
one who had caught his eye: Alice Margaret Reedy of Miami, who would become my mother five years later.
His first operational assignment was as a torpedo pilot on the carrier Enterprise, and he participated in the big fleet war games held off Hawaii in 1940. Then he was informed
that the Navy wanted to post him to Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia) to train Dutch pilots as an exchange officer. If that arrangement had not fallen through, I would have spent
my first four birthdays (if I had that many) in a Japanese internment camp. As it was, he got an instructing assignment in Miami where he and my mother could live with her mother
and produce me.
The Miami assignment gave him time to finish a sailboat he had started building in college. One Sunday, my parents were sailing it on Biscayne Bay when they noticed the larger
boats hightailing it for shore. They followed suit, and received the news of Pearl Harbor at the dock. The boat went up on its cradle in the back yard and Ralph began to pack.
He participated in the invasion of North Africa aboard the carrier Sangamon, receiving the Navy Cross for an attack on a German antiaircraft position in the Kasbah. Then he was
assigned to organize, train and command a new unit to be called Composite Squadron 65.
The attack carriers in those days had three squadrons - one of fighters, one of dive bombers, and one of torpedo bombers - and the squadron commanders reported to the Commander,
Air Group (CAG). But a new class of "escort carriers" was coming into service; they would be too small to support that many aircraft, and so would have one "composite" squadron
with a smaller number of all three aircraft types. The 65th would be one of these, and Ralph would be the ship's CAG.
When the 65th was ready, it was assigned to the newly-delivered USS Midway, an escort carrier of the Casablanca class. The photo at the head of this narrative shows Ralph preparing
to make the first takeoff from that ship, having just made its first landing.
The Midway participated in the invasion of the Marianas in June 1944, and later proceeded to the Philippines to support MacArthur's invasion of Leyte. Meanwhile, the Navy decided
it had a public relations problem. It had named this ship after the Battle of Midway at a time when it was simply regarded as a large battle that came off well; by 1944, events had
shown that Midway was in fact the turning point of the naval war, and the Navy had named a second-line ship after it. So the name was summarily taken away and given to a big attack
carrier under construction, and Ralph's ship was renamed USS St. Lô to commemorate the Army's breakout from Normandy at the eponymous town in France. It would serve under that name
for scarcely over two weeks.
The St. Lô and five other escort carriers, plus seven destroyers, formed a small unit called Taffy Three to supply close air support to the landings on Leyte, operating from a
position off the island of Samar. On October 25, Taffy Three was surprised when a heavily-armed Japanese attack force, centered on the giant battleship Yamato, debouched from the
San Bernardino Strait and began driving for the Leyte beaches as one of three prongs of a massive counterattack.
Only Taffy Three stood between the enormous guns of the Japanese force and the troops landing on Leyte - and it held. A combination of ferocious air attacks and suicidal charges
by the destroyers, with their pitiful little guns and torpedoes, forced the Japanese commander, Takeo Kurita, to withdraw in spite of orders to fight to the death.
Ralph was last seen attacking the Yamato in his TBM torpedo bomber. Toward the end of the battle, the St. Lô became the first vessel sunk by Kamikaze attack. It was the 529th
anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, the 90th anniversary of the Charge of the Light Brigade, and my mother's 29th birthday.
My mother got her ghastly yellow telegram in December. When the Western Union man appeared, her mother and aunts simply ran upstairs and hid, leaving her to sign for the telegram
with me, aged three, hanging onto her skirts. Her penmanship was excellent, but her signature on items like mortgages and my college application is illegible; for the rest of her
life, her hand trembled uncontrollably whenever she signed an important document.
In 1946, my mother took me to see a parade of returning soldiers. Apart from a sniffle at my wedding, it was the only time I ever saw her cry. Shortly later a stone was erected for
my father in the historic Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah (if you saw the film Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, you've seen Bonaventure). My only memory of that is
wonderment at the man in white playing the bugle.
By 1950 the boat in the back yard had grown shabby, and my mother realized it had no future as a monument. So she read a book on woodworking, rented a sander, and refinished it
herself; then she sold it at a bargain price to a young man, asking only that he take her for a sail on the bay in it. I was quite indignant that I wasn't permitted to go along -
it was a long time before I understood.