Live your History: World War II survivor shares life lessons of resiliency

By Erika Rivera, USAG Benelux Public AffairsMarch 25, 2024

A woman holding a baby in her arms outside.
1 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Helga Jones with her first born, Retired Staff Sgt. Robert Jones, in her hometown of Spöck, Germany, 1955. (Photo courtesy of Helga Jones) (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
A man and woman sitting down at a table.
2 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Helga Jones attending her granddaughter’s wedding at Fort Liberty (previously known as Fort Bragg), North Carolina, Nov. 2009. (Photo by Greg Carpenter) (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

[Editor's Note: The following story is a part of USAG Benelux's "Live your History" series in which we tell personal stories of sacrifice and resilience throughout World War I and World War II that led to the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In this story, Erika Rivera, USAG Public Affairs Specialist in Dülmen, Germany interviews her grandmother, who tells her story of growing up in Germany during World War II.]

DÜLMEN TOWER BARRACKS, Germany – “Come little one - take cover!”

Helga Gretschmann Jones, World War II survivor and former U.S. Army spouse, was just eight years old when she heard those words.

Jones, now 89, recounts a childhood disrupted by war, and the courage and resiliency needed to survive.

“You just keep going, you can’t give up,” said Jones.

Her entire childhood memories, from age five to 11, are centered around World War II in a village in southwestern Germany.

“I would not wish [my childhood experiences] on my worst enemy,” said Jones. “Every evening, I went to bed fully clothed except for my shoes [ready to take cover in the bunker when my town was bombed].”

Born in 1934 in Bad Nassau an der Lahn, Germany, Jones was the youngest daughter of a master baker turned operations manager and homemaker. Her Family later relocated to where her father was born, a village north of Karlsruhe, in Spöck (Stutensee).

She was only five years old when World War II started, having her core childhood memories engulfed by war.

When she was nine years old, her father, Max Gretschmann was taken by the Gestapo as a political prisoner due to anti-Nazi views.

One of the hardest challenges of the war was food shortages, which resulted in rationing as Jones recalls. She stood in line for hours, taking turns with her sister, waiting for bread with their Family’s rations card.

“You couldn’t do anything with money, there was nothing to buy,” said Jones.

She would often return home emptyhanded. Friends of her father and extended Family were farmers and helped feed her Family during her father’s absence from 1940 through 1945. Her mother used different types of grain from the farmers to make various bread and cakes that were not traditionally used.

Jones also remembers frequent bombings of her village and those nearby from the Allies. She distinctly recalls the difference in airplane sounds: one when it was full of ammunition on the flight over versus the empty humming sound of the plane on its way back to Great Britian.

She recalls taping black paper on the windows of her Family’s home, hoping the house would not become a target for bombing. This made it difficult for the British Allies to see light from inside their home from an aerial view.

During her childhood, she described normal holidays such as Fasching, also known as Karneval, as forbidden to be celebrated during the Nazi’s reign, as they took control of many parts of German public life. Christmas was only celebrated in the “smallest Family circles,” said Jones.

“Every night we were in the basement and slept there,” said Jones. “Our basement was built like a bunker [with] a very heavy door. When the landlord closed the door [to the bunker], my heart pounded like crazy. I was so young, I always thought if they [the Allies] come and bomb us, we are never going to get out of here, we are going to be buried alive.”

The Nazis came to her Family’s home frequently to interrogate her mother about her father.

During that time period, authorities investigated parents who did not allow their children to join the Hitlerjugend (a youth organization of the Nazi party). Her brother and sister joined the youth group as a cover up so that the Nazis would stop questioning her family’s alliance.

One thing Jones relied on during the war was faith.

Three children - the left a girl in a dress, the center child a baby sitting in a chair, the right a boy standing.
Helga Jones (center) surrounded by her sister Inge Hohler (left) and brother Edgar Gretschmann (right) in Bad Nassau an der Lahn, Germany, 1935. (Photo courtesy of Helga Jones) (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

Often fearful for her life, she and her siblings would hear a plane coming from far away and hide in the ditch when walking to the neighboring village, Neuthard, for mass.

“We stood out because we had on our white clothes,” said Jones. “I had a flower crown, a Bible in my hand and my communion candle in the other hand. We laid down inside of the ditches until they [the British Allies] flew over us. We then got back up, dusted off our no longer white clothing, and continued walking to the church."

Additionally, sounds of airplanes overhead often interrupted her elementary school day. When this happened, she and her classmates fled to the basement for cover. When the sirens sounded she knew it was safe to leave the bunker and return to class.

“I remember a particular house on the street where I went to school that was bombed. It was completely flattened, and pieces were scattered everywhere,” said Jones.

Towards the end of World War II, French Soldiers settled in her town and made the upstairs of her Family’s home their headquarters. Her Family would continue to sleep in the basement to accommodate the Soldiers. Once the French Allies left her town, American Allies settled in.

Jones recollects American Soldiers using her school as a cafeteria, which resulted in her first-time tasting Americans treats.

“I had never tasted peanut butter before. I sat on the steps outside of the local grocery and ate an entire half pound and once I started eating it, I couldn’t stop,” said Jones.

Jones remembers being scolded by her mother for not sharing the rationed good with her siblings.

“The American Soldiers were so nice to me; they always brought me something to eat,” said Jones. “Things like that I don’t forget.”

Post War

A month before Germany’s liberation, Jones’ father escaped a camp in the Elsass region of France where he was forced to work after being released from a political prison in Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany. He showed up at his Family’s front door, five years after leaving home for work. She would not know of his fate until years later, when research was conducted in 2023, which put the missing pieces together to tell her Family’s entire story.

“My mother passed out when she saw my dad at the door with his friend Franz from the camp. We couldn’t even believe they were in captivity,” said Jones.

Jones distinctly recalls when the war was over when her village was notified by radio and the streets filled with a party-like atmosphere.

An extended family gathered around a dining room table with children sitting throughout on their laps.
Helga Jones, (second to the right) sitting at parents’ table with her Family enjoying a piece of Linzertorte, in Spöck (Stutensee), Germany, 1961. (Photo courtesy of Helga Jones). (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

Although conditions had immensely improved post-war, psychological effects of war were evident in the community. Jones recalls the community’s response to hearing a loud noise and still having the instinct to take cover in the bunker, which improved with time.

Ration cards were still being issued and items were not readily available after the Germans were liberated. They were issued based on household size.

“Only on Saturdays could you buy a little meat and sausage and then you had to wait for the next week,” said Jones.

After the war, she described slowly being able to travel again. She recalls her first vacation after the war, which was to visit family along the Rhine river.

“We could finally sit outside and have a piece of cake [without worries],” said Jones.

Marriage and Army Spouse Life

As fate would have it, she met 1st Sgt. Jim Jones, a U.S. Soldier stationed at Neureut Kaserne, Germany (near Karlsruhe) after his first tour to Korea in 1953.

After the war she took a job working for Herr Lauterwasser “a nice Jewish man” doing secretarial work, where she first learned English interacting with U.S. Soldiers. She was responsible for handing out tickets to Soldiers for uniform pick up after their Army patches were changed.

“One day 1st Sgt. Jones came inside and somehow [since then on] he was my soulmate,” said Jones. “It was love at first sight. When he came back to pick up his uniform, he asked me to go to the city with him to buy civilian clothes to help him blend in. We shopped for his clothes and then he took me to a nice restaurant. After that, he didn’t let me go. We married in my hometown in 1954.”

A bride and groom walking outside with her arm looped into his arm.
The wedding of Helga Gretschmann Jones and Jim Jones in Spöck (Stutensee), Germany, 1954. (Photo courtesy of Helga Jones) (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

After marriage, the Family received orders to move to the U.S. She vividly remembers the first time she traveled by ship for seven days with her infant son in 1956, which made her very seasick.

She arrived in New York and took a bus to Kinston, North Carolina to meet her mother-in-law and her husband’s 13 siblings. Jones remembers the hot and humid climate, much different from what she was used to in Germany.

During 1st Sgt. Jones’ second tour to Korea, Jones stayed with her mother-in-law in North Carolina, where she learned English with a Southern twang as well as Southern cooking. While living in the U.S. she obtained her driver’s license and eventually American citizenship.

“It is not easy being an Army spouse,” said Jones. “There is a lot of loneliness because you never know when your Soldier is coming home. It's especially difficult when you have children. My husband was always deployed or in the field.”

But military life did have its perks.

Jones and her Family moved back and forth from the U.S. to Germany throughout her husband’s military career. They were stationed twice in Oklahoma, where she had a daughter. In Germany, they were stationed in Aschaffenburg, Hanau, Kitizigen, and Bamberg.

“[Living in Europe] we saw a lot and traveled a lot, so it [military Family life] balances itself out,” said Jones.

Jones volunteered to help with translation services for Soldiers and their Families. She was active in spouse organizations and social clubs, where she found a sense of community and long-lasting friendships.

Jones and her husband were married for 60 years. In their time together they volunteered with local veteran organizations, spent time with their Family, and enjoyed traveling.

Today, Jones is approaching her 90th birthday and is not slowing down. She has four grandchildren and six great grandchildren. You can find her baking, cooking, or gardening in her free time. Additionally, she visits friends in the local nursing home with homemade baked goods and a smile on her face. She does not miss a Sunday at church and likes to go out for lunch and shopping trips with her German friend Else. Friendships and Family are her top priorities in life.

A woman on the left carrying a baby girl and another woman on the right standing outdoors.
Jones, with her granddaughter, Erika Rivera, and great-granddaughter, Raziella Rivera, in Bamberg, Germany in 2014. (Photo by Maj. Roberto Rivera) (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

There are still remnants of the effects of war on her everyday life, even though most signs are tucked away or have faded overtime.

“Life takes a toll on you,” said Jones. “We lost a lot of those we loved. It’s an empty thing sometimes, but you got to get a grip on yourself. Life has got to go on - with good days and bad days. We try to make the best out of it. You just keep going, you can’t give up.”