Shelbina resident Ken Jones: ‘I was in the right place at the right time’
NOTE: Corrects information regarding Germany’s surrender in World War II reported in print edition.
By Troy Treasure
This report begins with a child who grew up the 1920s and 1930s.
Due to curiosity, imagination and ingenuity, the boy grew up to be an active participant in some of the most monumental events in United States history.
What follows is just part of his story.
Kenneth Jones was born May 6, 1921 on a farm east of Bethel in the northeast corner of Shelby County.
Jones attended the one-room Whitelock School No. 2, located about 1.25 miles from the farm. Before ever setting a foot in school, Ken had taught himself numbers and his ABCs by studying old license plates.
Ken’s first teacher at Whitelock was Miss Frankie Allen.
“She was a nice lady,” Ken said. “She seemed to take a special interest in me. She’d always check to see if I had my gloves on, my cap and my coat was buttoned up in the winter when I would go home. She came from around Bethel. There were quite a few Allens around Bethel at that time.”
In grade school, Jones had access to encyclopedias and read all he could about electronics.
“I got a hold of a Popular Science magazine and it had a wiring schematic and told a little about the radio,” he said. “I was fascinated with radios because they were just coming in the twenties. I salvaged an old radio, got a few parts out of it.”
Jones made his own soldering iron from a rod, heated it in the kitchen wood stove then went to work on his first big project. Keep in mind, Ken was an elementary-schooler.
“I built this battery radio, that was before the country (people) had thought about electricity,” he recalled. “I soldered it up, made part of the parts and it worked.
“It was a three-tube battery radio. You could hear the Grand Old Opry and hear down in Del Rio, Texas; a lot of places at night.”
Ken was intrigued by other machines. He recalled the time his father purchased a 1927 Fordson tractor. The problem was Mr. Jones had difficulty cranking the Fordson. Ken indicated his dad got disgusted, parked the tractor in the barn and there it sat.
“When I got a little older, I was fascinated with that tractor so I wanted to use it. This was in the early thirties,” Ken said. “He said, ‘I’ll make a deal. When you can crank it, you can use it.’
“Well, I was pretty young and when I would come home from school, I’d crank it and plow until dark,” Jones continued. “He’d come out with a team of mules and plant right up to where I’d plowed.”
The Fordson also led to Ken becoming somewhat of a celebrity in his part of the county.
“Well, I got the idea of putting a light on that tractor. Nobody had ever heard of a light on a tractor at that time, down there anyway,” he said.
Jones obtained a headlight from a Model-T Ford, wired it to the Fordson and was good to go after sundown.
“The neighbors, they couldn’t get over that I had put a light on that tractor.”
Ken’s first year of high school was at Steffenville; Newark his second. Once river gravel was put down on Route J, he and three other students were picked up by car and attended high school in Bethel. According to Jones, the school was a brick building located where the village office is today. He was still attending that school while its replacement was constructed.
“They built that with WPA workers back in the Depression times,” he said. “I used to sit in the study hall upstairs and look over to the north and watch them work over there, building what is now the community building.”
Following high school graduation, Ken headed off to Washington University in St. Louis to study electrical engineering. He quickly gained employment at the Curtiss-Wright Corporation while a student.
According to its website, “In 1929, Curtiss-Wright was formed by the merger of companies founded by Glenn Curtiss, the father of naval aviation and the Wright Brothers, renowned for history’s first flight.”
“I worked on the C-46 airplane for 50 cents an hour,” Jones said. “A month later, I got a 15-cent raise. They had some good programs and I took advantage of everything I could. A lot of the time I went to school on company time and they paid for it.”
He was just beginning a unique journey.
In a nutshell, the Manhattan Project was the code name for a United States-led project begun in 1939. The purpose was weaponization of nuclear energy. American World War II allies Canada and the United Kingdom assisted the effort.
The Manhattan Project resulted in one of the most critical events in world history.
Germany surrendered in May 1945. However, in July, fighting in the Pacific was still fierce. President Truman, who had been in office for three months, faced a horrible decision: order an atomic attack on Japan which would kill thousands of Japanese civilians, or issue the command for an American-led invasion of the Japanese islands.
On July 26 at the Potsdam (Germany) Conference headed by Truman, U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Union Premier Joseph Stalin, the United States informed Japan it had two options: surrender or incur “prompt and utter destruction.”
Japan failed to respond to American satisfaction and on August 6, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima. On August 9, a second bomb fell on Nagasaki. The next day, Japan announced it would surrender and did so on August 14.
Jones stated he worked on the Manhattan Project in St. Louis, but declined to discuss his responsibilities. To this day, the information is classified for reasons of national security, he said.
“I had a top-secret clearance but there were thousands of people that worked on that program,” Ken emphasized. “I was just one little spoke in the wheel.”
Ken did confirm one fact: the love of his life also worked on the top-secret project.
Frances Margaret Magruder was from Shelbina. Though Ken and Margaret were both from Shelby County, they did not meet until becoming colleagues. According to Margaret’s February 2006 Herald obituary, the couple married on September 17, 1944 in Corning, Arkansas. They had no children.
After World War II, Ken’s work included a significant amount of involvement with experimental aircraft. He made trips to Muroc Airfield in southern California’s Mojave Desert where testing took place. Muroc’s name was changed to Edwards Air Force Base in 1949.
When asked, Jones said he never did meet the legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager but saw him. Yeager and early test piloting were highlighted in the 1983 film “The Right Stuff.”
Ken indicated he began work with the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation in the 1950s.
“J.S. (James) McDonnell said all he had when he came to St. Louis was a briefcase full of ideas,” he said. “He said you didn’t have to be smart to run a big company if you were smart enough to hire people smarter than you.”
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the world’s first orbital satellite. Sputnik 1 caused Americans to fear the Soviets had gained Cold War military superiority.
“When the Russians put that Sputnik up, I was working in Canada on a project. In Saskatchewan,” Ken said. “I heard it on the car radio.”
The United States lifted Explorer 1 on January 31, 1958. By July, the U.S. Congress passed, and President Eisenhower signed, the National Aeronautics and Space Act. NASA was created in October.
The Space Race was on.
McDonnell Aircraft was a huge part of it.
America trailed for a while. It is often not understood the first persons to fly in space (Yuri Gagarin in 1961) and perform a spacewalk (Alexi Leonov in 1965) were Russians.
This country’s first foray into manned orbital flight was Project Mercury. McDonnell built the one-man spacecraft.
Jones worked on it.
President Kennedy raised the stakes of the Space Race considerably during a May 25, 1961 speech before Congress.
“I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” Kennedy said in a transcript provided by NASA.
“No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind; or more important for the long-range exploration of space and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”
Later in his speech, Kennedy further stated, “ … Explorations which are particularly important for one purpose which this nation will never overlook: the survival of the man who first makes this daring flight.
“But in a real sense, it will not be one man going to the Moon – if we make this judgment affirmatively; it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.”
Kennedy’s challenge spurred Project Gemini. McDonnell Aircraft also received the contract to produce the two-man spacecraft.
Jones worked on Gemini, too, but later reassigned to a classified project in Colorado. Gemini ultimately propelled the U.S. past the Soviets in the Space Race and led to Project Apollo.
On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 touched down on the Moon. Two human beings, in the form of American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, walked on the lunar surface.
Ken and Margaret Jones were at home in St. Louis and, like millions of people worldwide, watched the history happen on live television.
Ken was asked recently what he was thinking when Armstrong first stepped on the Moon. Ken said he could not recall anything specifically … then paused and was silent for a while.
His facial expression seemed to reveal satisfaction.
Apollo 11 splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969, thus fulfilling a national call-to-action by the then-deceased 35th president of the United States.
But, there were other tragedies along the way.
February 28, 1966 is a day Jones remembers well. Ken was working at the McDonnell facility at Lambert Field and recalled the weather that morning.
“It was kind of cloudy and misty and cold,” he said.
According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, astronauts Elliott See and Charles Bassett were killed when the T-38 jet See was piloting clipped the roof of the building that housed the Gemini IX spacecraft they were scheduled to fly in May.
The jet bounced twice across the roof, careened into a construction yard and exploded. See and Bassett had been flying from Houston to St. Louis for simulator training. No one on the ground died.
“I was in another building at that time. I was probably from here (Shelbina Senior Center) to the fairgrounds or a little further. I didn’t hear about it until later,” Jones said.
Less than a year afterward, Apollo 1 astronauts Virgil (Gus) Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were killed on January 27, 1967 when a flash fire swept through their capsule during a ground test at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Ken indicated he had seen Grissom at McDonnell Aircraft, likely while Grissom was flying during Mercury and Gemini.
During the course of his career, Ken made several international trips. He cited one to North Africa and the Sahara Desert. In July and August, Jones recalled the temperature reaching 130 to 140 degrees.
One classified trip to the Middle East could have turned out terribly for Ken, but did not. In November 1979, the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran was over-run by Iranian college students who supported that country’s revolution.
Just days before, Jones had departed Iran. He stayed at the Tehran Sheraton Hotel.
Fifty-two Americans were held hostage for 444 days before their release in January 1981.
Ken retired from then McDonnell-Douglas in 1987. He and Margaret moved to Shelbina.
The Shelbina Senior Center’s July newsletter features Jones in its “Senior Spotlight.”
Taylor Neely wrote, “Most everyone knows Ken Jones. Ken comes into the Senior Center daily to enjoy lunch with us. He has served on the board as president before and he helps when he can at the Center.
“Ken is 99 years old and has had such an amazing life filled with lots of experiences. He enjoys talking about history and telling people stories about his life, playing cards and fixing things. I absolutely love to hear his stories about the Good Old Days and it is so neat to hear about everything Mr. Jones has experienced.
“We are so thankful he comes into the Senior Center to eat with us.”
Ken doesn’t boast about his experiences. He said more than once, “I was in the right place at the right time.”
However, Jones is not reticent to share his knowledge with someone willing to listen, especially the love he still has for the aircraft of his day.
Ken is certainly approachable. If you ask about machines that fly, pull up a chair and be prepared to visit a while.