Sherwood man recalls childhood memories, boating tragedy on Tombigbee River
It’s always this time of year when Don Jones, U.S. Navy retired, of Sherwood, recalls a tragic story from his childhood, 71 years ago in 1942.
While Jones did not witness the event, he heard various versions of the story while he was living with his father and stepmother on the Tombigbee River in Alabama.
When he was 6-years-old, Jones’ divorced mother put him on a train to Mobile, Ala., to stay with his father and stepmother for the summer.
Don Jones and wife- Vernie Garner Jones
It was an exciting summer as his dad was the captain of a Radcliff hydraulic/suction dredge (a machine equipped with a continuous revolving chain of buckets, a scoop, or a suction device for digging out and removing material from under water) on the Tombigbee River and Jones was given a job to help out.
“We lived on a quarterboat moored alongside the noisy dredge as it harvested high quality gravel from the riverbed,” Jones said. “I rode in those old square-enders at the dredge as the boat-boy.” Jones’ job was to keep the boats as clean as possible and stop any leaks.
“A handy-man named ‘Hunter’ helped pull the boats out of the water and turn them upside down then showed me how to stuff a sticky cord called oakum into those leaky cracks.”
No doubt it was an eyeopening experience for the youngster, and there were many tales to hear about the exhilarating life on the river.
Jones shares the following true story he heard of a tragic drowning that shook the town in 1941, before he came to visit. This story was told and retold and has always stuck in his memory, and so, in 1985, after retiring from his Navy career, Jones decided to return to South Alabama to obtain more information about what happened on that dreadful day before Christmas Eve 1941.
“I heard many widely varying accounts of this boating accident that claimed the lives of Roosevelt White, William “Bill” Rocker, Acey Levenson, Fred Bush and Edward Jones,” Jones said.
The following is an actual account, as told by those who survived the mishap.
On Dec. 23, 1941, nine black Radcliff dredge workers crowded into a wooden motorboat on the lower Tombigbee River (a tributary of the Mobile River, approximately 200 miles long, in Mississippi and Alabama). Some of the men had on rubber boots and thick winter clothing. They had just completed a double-shift on the dredge.
The motorboat headed down river toward the confl uence of the Tombigbee and Alabama rivers.
Mobile, Ala., was the men’s destination, but some of them never made it. It was an unusually warm day when the temperature had climbed to 76 degrees, breaking a 40-year-old record for high temperatures on that date in December.
Jones interviewed a survivor of the accident, 70-year-old Bartee Chaney, who fi rst wanted to tell how he had lost a leg [in a separate accident] while working on the Tombigbee.
“Chaney said a tugboat had a towline to the barge he was standing on when a loop of line tightened suddenly around his leg below the knee,” Jones said. “He felt a sharp pain, heard the snap of bone breaking and saw his lower leg cart-wheeling in the air before dropping into the water.”
Then Chaney got to the story about the drowning. He said the outboard motor quit and the over-loaded boat nosed-under suddenly and threw all the men into the water.
But four of them hung onto the overturned boat and were eventually rescued. One of the men drowned quickly because the survivors said he never came back to the surface. That probably caused the other four to panic as they tried to swim to shore, but it was too far and they didn’t make it.
“One of the men, Roosevelt White, weighed 190 pounds. Even if the other eight men weighed less, say 160, that’s a load of almost 1,500 lbs in that boat,” Jones said. “I bet there wasn’t much freeboard clear of the water with all those men aboard. It’s a wonder they made it as far as they did.”
Jones went back to Chaney’s home later for another visit to get more details of the story. His gray-headed wife came slowly to the door and when Jones asked to speak to her husband, she said, ‘Oh, he laid down for the last time.’”
“I was stunned and saddened to hear that the great storyteller, Bartee Chaney, was dead,” Jones said. “He had died less than two weeks after I talked to him.”
The Coast Guard from Mobile searched for the drowned men’s bodies, but White’s body wasn’t recovered until January 1942.
A wealthy landowner found the body on his property when the water went down. Two men were buried in on Jan. 4, 1942.
Jones found out in May 1981 survivor Nathan Moore and his wife Daisy Lou were killed in a terrible automobile accident in Jackson, Ala. Nathan was 75-years-old at the time.”
Jones said lifejackets were usually stuffed under the seats in the boats but were so dirty, wet and oil-stained, that nobody wore them. Most of the workboats at the dredge were powered by 16-hp Johnson outboard motors.
“My stepmother and I couldn’t swim, but dad bought bright yellow kapok-stuffed life jackets for us,” Jones said.
His exciting life on the river was soon cut short. His father suffered from chronic malaria and was advised a year later to leave the best job he ever had, so he returned to Gadsden, Ala., and became a successful welding shop owner. He bought a farm outside Gadsden in 1946 and Jones lived with him and his stepmother until 1953 when he joined the Navy at age 17 and made a career, staying for 32 years.
Jones met his wife, Vernie Garner on a bus at Monteagle when he was 23 years old. It was obviously love at first sight because they were married just two-weeks later.
Vernie retired from Navy employment in 1989 and came home to live the rest of her life in her beloved Sherwood. They were married for 49 years and seven months before she passed in 2009.
The last three years of Jones’ enlisted career, as an E-9/master chief, he worked as an intelligence analyst at the Naval Intelligence Support Center in the Washington, D.C. area.
He retired from active duty in 1985 and returned to Naval Intelligence work in 1986 as a civilian. Jones retired for the second time in late 2003, after working for the Navy for 49 years and six months. During that time, he served in or visited 18 different countries. Five of the countries had been in the former Soviet Union, prior to its collapse in 1991.
After a full, exciting life filled with many adventures, Jones certainly has many stories he could share, but for now he enjoys reminiscing and leading the quiet life in Sherwood with his three cats, Oreo, Camo, and Tulip. He will celebrate his 78th birthday on Jan. 26.