This is an excerpt from a blog post written by Petty Officer 2nd Class Renee Aiello, public affairs specialist. To read the entire story, click here
It was the morning of March 30, 1981, and Jacqueline Jones could just feel that something just wasn’t quite right.
“I just felt like something had happened to Lonnie. I had cooked Lonnie some breakfast, and it was sitting on the table waiting for him, and he never showed,” said Jones.
Unfortunately, Jones’ intuition was correct, something had happened to her husband of six years. In the early morning hours of March 30, 1981, Petty Officer 3rd Class Lonnie Jones, a machinery technician at Coast Guard Station Destin, had lost his life doing what he had been trained to do: save lives.
Almost 30 years later, on Nov. 19, 2010, Jones was honored posthumously in a ceremony at Coast Guard Station Destin. The ceremony, complete with taps and a flyover from Coast Guard Air Station New Orleans, was held under a crisp fall sky and attended by local dignitaries and Coast Guardsmen from units as far away as Mobile, Ala.
In an effort “near and dear to his heart,” local Destin businessman and retired Coast Guard warrant officer, Ken Wright, donated an Italian-made marble lighthouse statue, now a permanent tribute at Station Destin to Petty Officer Lonnie Jones. The lighthouse, as described by Wright, is a fitting way to memorialize Jones.
“The goal of the memorial is to recognize what the Coast Guard does and the sacrifice made by Lonnie Jones. The late Petty Officer Jones will continue to save lives through his sacrifice,” said Wright.
The tragic chain of events that occurred in 1981 unfolded in a matter of three hours. On that morning, lives were forever changed, a son would never meet his father, a wife would be left raising three children on her own, and the Coast Guard would be void of a dedicated shipmate.
On that early Florida March morning the weather was an ominous and a chilly 60 degrees. Reports from the National Weather Service logged the day as overcast with dense fog. After all passengers on a capsized boat were reported safely on shore, the 41-foot utility boat crew began to make its way back to Station Panama City when it was struck broadside by a wave in seas greater than 15 feet. A second wave struck the UTB eventually causing the boat to lose power and rudder control, and capsize with three Coast Guard crewmembers aboard. The three crewmembers were swept forward into the passenger’s compartment of the UTB and found relief in an air pocket.
As the crewmembers stood in rising water in the forward compartment they sighted the jetties approximately 200 yards away. Fearing imminent death, the three broke a side window and attempted to swim to the jetties in 58 degree water and 15-foot waves crashing over their heads. Two of the crewmembers successfully made the swim, but Petty Officer Lonnie Jones tragically succumbed to hypothermia.
Jones left behind a grieving wife, two young daughters – Michelle and Latesha, and one child on-the-way who would later be named Lonnie Jr.
“Lonnie never knew that I was pregnant with our son,” said Jones.
It has been almost 30 years since Lonnie’s death, and Jones still misses him very much.
“For me that was the day my life stopped. I lived for my husband. I have never remarried. My husband was a gentleman and they just don’t make men like him anymore,” said Jones.
Jones may be gone, but he is not forgotten. The lighthouse at Station Destin will be a constant reminder for the Guardians who follow that the sea is not forgiving. Etched on that memorial are the words “be the lighthouse.” Though gone for eternity, Jones will continue to “be the light,” allowing his legacy to shine, lighting the way for Coasties making their way back home.