The privately-owned Holton Mill, near Halesworth, stands within leafy trees as the longer days make Summer feel well under way.

Witness to the First Kennedy Tragedy

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Witness to the First Kennedy Tragedy

Witness to the First Kennedy Tragedy by Mick Muttitt

The early evening of 12th August 1944 was typical of late summer, calm and warm after a very hot day. The air was filled with pleasant smells of harvest, and fields swaying with golden corn or with regimented rows of already cut sheaves. The sky hazy blue but cloudless. In the stillness, staccato sounds of Packard Merlin engines being ground-run on Mustang fighters of the 357th Fighter Group USAAF at nearby Leiston airfield could just be heard. As I played with my elder brother Peter in the garden of our house at Dresser’s Cottage, Darsham, we heard a deeper drone approaching from the south. Although not yet ten, I was already fascinated by aircraft. I had amassed a collection of recognition material from the local Royal Observer Corps. As the noise grew louder I was very excited to see a loose formation of aircraft led by a Liberator bomber passing close to the east, on a northerly heading.

I immediately attempted to identify the accompanying types and listed two Hudsons (actually their larger brother - Venturas), two Lightnings, two Flying Fortresses, and a Mosquito. Several local Mustangs flew at a discreet distance. As this unique assembly passed by at about 1,500 ft, a thin trail of smoke was discernible coming from the rear of the Liberator’s weapons bay. Then I watched in horror as the lead aircraft exploded in a huge fireball. I vividly remember seeing burning wreckage falling earthwards while engines with propellers still turning, and leaving comet-like trails of smoke, continued along the direction of flight before plummeting down. A Ventura broke high to starboard and a Lightning spun away to port eventually to regain control at tree–top height over Blythburgh Hospital. While I watched spellbound, a terrific explosion reached Dresser's Cottage in the form of a loud double thunderclap. Then all was quiet except for the drone of the circling Venturas' engines, as they remained for a few more minutes in the vicinity. The fireball changed to an enormous black pall of smoke resembling a huge octopus, the tentacles below indicating the earthward paths of burning fragments.

The explosion had occurred directly above my grandparents' house near New Delight Covert, Blythburgh Fen, and wreckage was strewn over a wide area. There were no casualties on the ground but damage to property was widespread. Grandfather listed ‘roof tiles dislodged, all ceilings down, walls cracked, glass blown out of windows’. Similar damage occurred at a second cottage nearby and at Aunt Ada Westgate’s Shepherd’s Cottage one mile north–east of the datum point. A visit to the crash site next morning showed that most of the lighter wreckage had fallen directly below the point of detonation, where a fierce fire had burnt a large area of heathland. The heavier engines, propellers, and main undercarriage assemblies were found over a mile to the north. A poignant reminder that lives had been lost was provided by the tattered fragments of parachute silk and cord entwined amongst brambles bordering the B1125 Westleton to Blythburgh road.

Then, I had no idea what caused the disaster or the number of crew members involved. I assumed that it had been carrying the ten persons usual for USAAF Liberators, unaware that the doomed aircraft belonged to the US Navy, although the colour schemes of both it and the Venturas were new to me. Sixteen years passed before the reading of a newspaper article began the process of piecing together the story recounted in History Note 12 (here). On that summer’s day, Joe Kennedy Jnr, elder brother of a future United States President, had died.

Mick Muttitt, Blythburgh, April 1995
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