Navy Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. — the older brother of the 35th president of the United States — died 70 years ago Tuesday testing the United States military’s first drone program during WWII.
On Aug. 12 1944, the eldest Kennedy brother, a Naval aviator, was conducting a combat test program known as “Operation Aphrodite,” which Business Insider described as a “kamikaze-style” attack using radio-controlled B-17 and B-24 bombers filled with explosives to crash into targets and explode.
The explosive-laden bombers, which the Navy dubbed “robots” or “drones,” had to be manned and piloted to execute takeoff and rise to a crusing altitude, after which crews would parachute out of the planes and leave their radio-steering to pilots riding in trailing aircraft.
Airman Kennedy, who was 29-years-old at the time he volunteered for the dangerous mission, was piloting one of these B-24 Liberators carrying 21,170 pounds of explosives to a target in France when it suddenly detonated in midair over the English Channel, killing Kennedy and his flight engineer.
“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,” Mick Muttitt, an Englishman who saw Kennedy’s plane explode, recalled in 1995.
“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.”
A formerly classified telegraph published on HistoricWings.com Tuesday reported the accident:
TOP SECRET[DECLASSIFIED]:: ATTEMPTED FIRST APHRODITE ATTACK TWELVE AUGUST WITH ROBOT TAKING OFF FROM FERSFIELD AT ONE EIGHT ZERO FIVE HOURS PD ROBOT EXPLODED IN THE AIR AT APPROXIMATELY TWO THOUSAND FEET EIGHT MILES SOUTHEAST OF HALESWORTH AT ONE EIGHT TWO ZERO HOURS PD WILFORD J. WILLY CMA SR GRADE LIEUTENANT AND JOSEPH P. KENNEDY SR GRADE LIEUTENANT CMA BOTH USNR CMA WERE KILLED PD COMMANDER SMITH CMA IN COMMAND OF THIS UNIT CMA IS MAKING FULL REPORT TO US NAVAL OPERATIONS PD A MORE DETAILED REPORT WILL BE FORWARDED TO YOU WHEN INTERROGATION IS COMPLETED :: TOP SECRET[DECLASSIFIED]
Kennedy was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, and Kennedy’s little brother John Fitzgerald went on to establish the political legacy intended for Joseph.
Kennedy’s medal citation says it was awarded, “For extraordinary heroism and courage in aerial flight as pilot of a United States Liberator bomber on August 12, 1944. Well knowing the extreme dangers involved and totally unconcerned for his own safety, Kennedy unhesitatingly volunteered to conduct an exceptionally hazardous and special operational mission. Intrepid and daring in his tactics and with unwavering confidence in the vital importance of his task, he willingly risked his life in the supreme measure of service and, by his great personal valor and fortitude in carrying out a perilous undertaking, sustained and enhanced the finest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”
The cause of Kennedy’s accident remains unknown, and Operation Aphrodite was later deemed a failure.