Original' Mister Roberts was
Osceola's Alfred Jones
Serving in the Navy in World War II, Alfred
Jones never could have imagined that his experiences would be
immortalized in "Mister Roberts."
The popular comedy about a sour ship captain and his
rebellious crew was a successful novel, then a smash Broadway
play and a hit movie.
The original author of "Mister Roberts" was Tom
Heggen, a Fort Dodge native and a shipmate of Jones.
Jones later said he had to persuade Heggen to roll a sheet of
paper into his portable typewriter and write down some of
their Navy stories, including the incident where the fed-up
sailors (including Jones himself), tossed the captain's prized
palm tree overboard.
Alfred Eugene Jones was born Jan. 20, 1920, in
Osceola, the only child of Floyd Arden Jones and Elizabeth
Tice Jones, and spent his boyhood on a farm south of the town.
As a student, he was called "Scrappy" - "a
nickname he got from his participation in athletics," his
son, Fred, says today. "He was an outstanding football
and basketball player and was relentless in competitive
After graduating from Osceola High School, Jones attended
Osceola Junior College, and then enrolled at the University of
Iowa, graduating in 1941 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in
economics, with a minor in political science.
Serving in the war, Jones, a lieutenant who
enjoyed painting in watercolors in his spare time, spent three
years in the Pacific Theater, taking part in nine amphibious
Heggen "shared a stateroom with Alfred Jones, a fellow
officer from Osceola, Iowa, and liked him at once for his
honesty and spirited independence. Jones had some advanced
political ideas, and a photograph of Norman Thomas shared a
frame with that of his wife, Kay. ..."
"Mister Roberts" was a fictionalized account of
wartime exploits aboard ship, yet Jones told columnist Walter
Shotwell in June 1983 that every incident was true.
Jones said that the tyrannical captain's hated
palm tree was an object of his ego and jealousy.
The real palm tree episode began, he said, when the ship was
in Leyte Gulf in the Philippines, loading up before an attack
in Okinawa, when a sister ship pulled in and the captain
visited it. He returned and said that the other captain had a
flock of chickens outside his cabin, so he himself wanted
something prestigious - hence the palm tree.
So, Shotwell reported, "the captain ordered a working
party to go ashore and get one in a five-gallon paint can.
This so disgusted the crew that Jones and Heggen threw it
overboard during the night.
" 'The Old Man went berserk,' Jones
In the novel, the action takes place on the fictional USS
Reluctant rather than the real-life USS Virgo (AKA-20). In the
novel, Heggen becomes "Billings" and Jones is his
In one episode, the roommates have fought, but ease into a
reconciliation while discussing Carney's latest painting.
"The work in progress was that of a red stone building,
of an architecture possible only for a courthouse or a
schoolhouse, set in the center of a public square.
" 'Where is that,' Billings asked
"Carney looked up and smiled. 'That's Osceola,' he said.
'The courthouse at Osceola, the county seat of Clarke County.'
"'I think it's my best work,' Carney said. 'What do you
" 'I think it is,' Billings agreed. He turned his head
this way and that. 'You're getting good on sidewalks,' he
Jones continued his watercolor hobby for the rest of his life,
Fred Jones says of his dad, "and he was pretty good for
someone without training."
After the war, Jones returned to Osceola and
opened a popular restaurant on the southeast corner of the
town square that he called Jones Cafe.
At the age of 30, he was elected to the Iowa House of
Representatives, serving for two terms, following in the
footsteps of his dad, who had served as a state senator.
A successful businessman, Jones also ran the Osceola A&W
drive-in for many years, and Fred Jones says his father also
operated the first Christmas tree farm in the state, making
such a success of the venture that Iowa State University
Extension officials visited the farm to gain insight into the
In the 1950s, a roadshow version of
"Mister Roberts" was presented at Des Moines' KRNT
Theater, and Jones and his wife had the opportunity to dine
with the star, Henry Fonda, who had created the role of Lt.
j.g. Douglas A. "Doug" Roberts on Broadway.
In 1983, when the Des Moines Community Playhouse presented its
second production of "Mister Roberts" - the initial
offering was in 1957 - Jones attended the play and said that
the performance left him "drained emotionally."
"It was like reliving two years of my
life in two and half hours," he explained.
Fred Jones says that before his father died, he was able to
attend a reunion of those who had served aboard the Virgo.
"Scrappy was suffering from cancer and it appeared the
trip to Nashville for the reunion was going to be a disaster.
... Dad was exhausted and looked awful, but when we walked
into the lobby, a chorus welcoming Scrappy to the reunion
broke out and old shipmates crowded around him. The
transformation was immediate and miraculous. It was one of the
last really great days in our father's life."