Kennedy tragedy is Jon's inspiration
Author Jon George's tales blend the future with the past. His new book recalls an intriguing wartime tragedy over East Anglia that killed a young member of the Kennedy clan.
Author Jon George's tales blend the future with the past. His new book recalls an intriguing wartime tragedy over East Anglia that killed a young member of the Kennedy clan. STEVEN RUSSELL hears about it
IT was an exhibit at an airfield museum - probably Parham, near Framlingham, he thinks - that planted the seed. The remains of a doomed plane aroused Jon George's curiosity.
The engine was from a Liberator bomber that erupted in a massive explosion over Blythburgh in the early evening of August 12, 1944. The plane had been packed with more than 20,000 lb of high explosive, and wreckage was strewn across a wide area.
On board was Navy pilot Joseph P. Kennedy - eldest son of the former American ambassador to Britain, a man apparently being groomed as presidential material, and brother to a man who would shape a generation before his own life was cut short: President John F Kennedy.
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The Suffolk wartime incident became part of the Kennedy legend - mixed up in the intrigue, rumour, tragedy and misinformation that has dogged the family. All the ingredients were there, admittedly: Joseph Jnr was killed during a secret mission designed to strike at the heart of the Nazis' military force. And the authorities in the United States officially kept the specifics under wraps for decades. Details were declassified in the mid-1960s, though the identity of the crew was not confirmed until 1970.
Of course, JPK's story was innocuous enough, though top-secret at the time. An experienced patrol plane commander, he was involved in an ongoing campaign - Operation Anvil - that aimed to crash a remote-controlled Liberator into a V-3 supergun launching site at Mimoyecques, between Calais and Boulogne.
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A pilot and fellow officer were needed to get the plane airborne and make sure it was on the right course before they bailed out. Kennedy's PB4Y-1 took off from Fersfield, near Diss and joined a formation of aircraft over Halesworth that included a Ventura plane responsible for the remote control.
The Liberator switched to radio control. Kennedy and co-pilot Lieutenant Wilford John Willy were now effectively passengers in a drone being flown from the Ventura. The flight seemed to be going well and Kennedy transmitted the code phrase “zoot suit” to signify that all was OK. The TV camera in the Liberator's nose was activated - it would be used to guide the flying bomb to its target - but two minutes later the plane blew up over New Delight Wood near Blythburgh.
Trevor Jermy, from Norfolk And Suffolk Aviation Museum, has spent a long time researching the incident. He says on the web site www.aviationmuseum.net: “The wreckage was scattered over an area three miles long and about two miles wide. Three square miles of heath land was set on fire, 147 properties - some up to 16 miles away - were damaged, and hundreds of trees in New Delight Wood were felled as a result of the blast.
“Despite all this, no civilians were killed. However, no remains of the crew were ever found. The cause of the explosion is believed to be a lack of electrical shielding on 'Block' (codename for the TV camera) which caused electromagnetic emissions to open up a relay solenoid that should have been closed. When the solenoid opened it set off one of the MK9 detonators, which in turn set off the load of Torpex.”
Tattered pieces of parachute silk were reportedly found in brambles alongside the Westleton to Blythburgh road.
Ipswich author Jon George says: “The thing about Kennedy that got me was that he was quite an ardent supporter of the fascists. His dad was; so was he. When he was at, I think, Harvard he was certainly in the appeasement camp and certainly thought that the Americans shouldn't get into the European war. Whatever changed his mind I don't know - whether it was political ambition that he wanted to do something - but he switched. And that fascinated me. What was the driving force?”
That central question - to what lengths would you go to fight evil, and what would be the consequences of your decision - is a recurring theme in Jon's novel Zootsuit Black.
“I think part of the reason he was doing this was that his brother, John, had been awarded for doing something, and I think he wanted to come back with a medal or a citation. By the sounds of it, their characters were quite different. He was the 'political son' and being groomed for it.”
The novel is about the countdown to Armageddon, with the world in panic and just days away from the universe altering reality. Biologist Dr Jake Crux and Scott Anderson, a contestant in a TV reality show, are thrust into strange challenges: one fighting dragons and the other tackling Nazis during the Second World War.
Much of the action is set in the near future in Suffolk. “There's a fictitious institute near Woodbridge, on the Deben. That image there” - Jon points to a helmet on the book's cover - “is supposed to represent the Sutton Hoo figures. Bawdsey and Felixstowe are there; Orford” - there's a chesspiece-style castle on the cover - “and, quite prominently, Dunwich.
“I wanted to get across something else I felt about what people were feeling 60-odd years ago. The treasures at Sutton Hoo, as you're probably aware, were found just prior to the beginning of war. I just like this idea that you've got this hot, balmy summer, and this fabulous treasure with all its inferences, with war sitting on its shoulder.”
One of his main characters is involved in the assassination of Reinhardt Heidrich, the Butcher of Prague. “It's back to this question about 'What would you do to defeat evil?' and what are the consequences?
“I'm cautious about saying this, because I don't want people to go 'Oh, god, it's one of these message books!' but the story is really an allegory for what the world is like at the moment.
“It starts off with everyone around the world experiencing, simultaneously, their own particular nightmare. What I'm equating it to is 9/11 and how things are being polarised in religion and politics itself.
“This thing about Reinhardt Heidrich is about people being so beyond the pale - just so far-right - that there's no moral ambiguity about them. They're just horrible people. But if we remove them, what are the consequences? The immediate consequence of removing Heidrich was, I think, 3,000-odd people killed (in reprisal). But, then, he was the architect of the Holocaust. What would have happened if he hadn't been assassinated?
“My character Scott Anderson has basically been experiencing, for want of a better word, ghosts. One of the things he sees is this explosion” - at Blythburgh - “as it unfolds. The Kennedy incident is a running theme. He's wrapped up in what is motivating him, and what is motivating Kennedy.”
Zootsuit Black is the second novel in Jon's two-book deal with Pan Macmillan imprint Tor UK, following 2004's Faces of Mist and Flame. His debut novel featured a love story that joined a war reporter embedded with the U.S. Marines trying to retake the Pacific island of Guam towards the end of the Second World War and a modern-day Cambridge-based professor who invented a time machine.
Jon's a former BT employee who went on to study for an electronics degree and then left a conventional career path to develop his creative leanings: painting and writing. A number of jobs, including pizza delivery, paid the bills.
He's pleased with the way Faces of Mist and Flame was received, and laughs about how he's recently got some money from the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society. It aims to ensure writers are fairly compensated for works that are copied, broadcast or recorded.
“Apparently someone had made copies of part of my novel in Sweden. It makes you think 'Why?!'”
The 47-year-old is still doing driving shifts for the local on-call doctors' service, transporting medics on out-of-hours emergencies, but is more or less at the stage where he could give up what's been a 12-year part-time job if he wanted to.
Jon's just polishing what he hopes will be his third book. Again, the past and the future come together.
“It has someone from the future trying to get into Monte Cassino before it gets bombed.” (The eventual capture of the strategic hilltop position in Italy in June, 1944, allowed the British and American divisions to begin their advance on Rome.) “There's quite a Machiavellian element to it.”
(blob) Zootsuit Black is published by Tor (Pan Macmillan) on April 24, at £10.99. ISBN 1405033983
Web link: www.jongeorge.co.uk
CHARISMATIC American president John F Kennedy paid tribute to his late brother's courage before he himself lost his life.
A section on the web site for the charitable Joseph P. Kennedy Jr Foundation, based in Washington DC,
explains how Joseph left Harvard Law School before his final year to volunteer as a Navy flier. In the autumn of 1943 he went to England to fly B-24s.
His brother, JFK, said later: “His squadron, flying in the bitter winter over the Bay of Biscay, suffered heavy casualties, and by the time Joe had completed his designated number of missions in May, he had lost his former co-pilot and a number of close friends.
“Joe refused his proffered leave and persuaded his crew to remain on for D-day. They flew frequently during June and July, and at the end of July they were given another opportunity to go home.
“He felt it unfair to ask his crew to stay on longer, and they returned to the United States. He remained. For he had heard of a new and special assignment for which volunteers had been requested which would require another month of the most dangerous type of flying.
“It may be felt, perhaps, that Joe should not have pushed his luck so far and should have accepted his leave and come home. But two facts must be borne in mind. First, at the time of his death, he had completed probably more combat missions in heavy bombers than any other pilot of his rank in the Navy and therefore was pre-eminently qualified, and secondly, as he told a friend early in August, he considered the odds at least fifty-fifty, and Joe never asked for any better odds than that.”
THE remnants of the Liberator Jon George saw at Parham were cylinders from one of the engines. “These are badly melted by the force of the explosion: some 10,000 pounds of Ametol, I believe,” says Tom Perkins, Parham Airfield Museum secretary. “We have quite a few other pieces of wreckage from the B-24 Liberator flown by Joe Kennedy.”
At Mimoyecques, the V3 site now about half an hour's drive from the French end of the Channel Tunnel, there are memorials in French and English, and a description of the bombing missions by the U.S. and RAF.
“Their detail is somewhat wrong in that they only mention B-17 Flying Fortresses (Kennedy was flying a B-24), and they say he should have baled out over the Channel. The B-24 took off from Fersfield (near Diss) and was escorted by an odd formation of B-17, P-51, P-47 and Mosquito. They flew down to the intersection of the Framlingham to Campsey Ashe and Lowestoft to Woodbridge railways, then back towards Southwold. The explosion occurred over Blythburgh Common.
“Ironically, the V3 site had been destroyed by an RAF Lancaster before Kennedy's mission. By pure luck, a Tallboy bomb had gone down an airshaft to the bottom of the site, killing over 300 slave workers and their German guards.
“Had it been finished, the weapon would have had 25 barrels, and would have been capable of firing 200 missiles per hour, covering the whole of Greater London. The site goes some 2,000 yards into the mountain, and the bottom was 250 feet below the surface; it is unlikely that Kennedy's explosive would have had much effect.”