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Joseph P. Kennedy Jr.

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Joseph P. Kennedy Jr.
Kennedy, c. 1942
Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr.

(1915-07-25)July 25, 1915
DiedAugust 12, 1944(1944-08-12) (aged 29)
Over Blythburgh, East Suffolk, England
Cause of deathNaval airplane explosion during Operation Aphrodite
Resting placeRemains never recovered
EducationHarvard University (BA)
London School of Economics
OccupationNaval aviator
Political partyDemocratic
RelativesSee Kennedy family
Military career
Memorial – Wall of the Missing
AllegianceUnited States
Service/branchUnited States Navy
Years of service1941–1944
UnitPatrol Squadron 203
Bombing Squadron 110, Special Air Unit 1
Battles/warsWorld War II
AwardsNavy Cross
Distinguished Flying Cross
Purple Heart
Air Medal

Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr. (July 25, 1915 – August 12, 1944) was a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy. He was a member of the Kennedy family and the eldest of the nine children born to Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. During World War II, Kennedy was killed in action while serving as a land-based patrol bomber pilot, and posthumously awarded the Navy Cross.

Kennedy's father had aspirations for him to become president of the United States. Kennedy was a delegate to the 1940 Democratic National Convention and planned to run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives after his military service as the first stepping stone on the path to the presidency.[1] Kennedy's death while participating in a top-secret mission in 1944 caused his father to transfer his aspirations to his next-oldest son, John F. Kennedy,[1] who followed the path first planned for his older brother by advancing from the House to the U.S. Senate and then to the presidency.[1]

Early life and education[edit]

Kennedy was born on July 25, 1915, in Hull, Massachusetts. He first attended the Dexter School in Brookline, Massachusetts, with his brother John. In 1933, Kennedy graduated from the Choate, a preparatory boarding school in Wallingford, Connecticut.[2] He then entered Harvard College, from which he graduated in 1938 with a Bachelor of Arts degree. Kennedy participated in football, rugby, and crew and served on the student council. He then spent a year studying under the tutelage of Harold Laski at the London School of Economics before enrolling at Harvard Law School.[3][4] He had dated Athalia Ponsell who was murdered in 1974, there were rumors of an engagement between them, but Kennedy died while on active duty during World War II.

Political ambitions and views[edit]

From a very young age, Kennedy was groomed by his father and predicted to be the first Roman Catholic U.S. president.[1] When he was born, Kennedy's maternal grandfather John F. Fitzgerald, the mayor of Boston, told reporters: "This child is the future president of the nation."[5]

Kennedy was a Massachusetts delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1940. He planned to run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives when the war ended.[1]

Kennedy had expressed approval of Adolf Hitler before World War II began. Kennedy's father sent him to visit Nazi Germany in 1934. Kennedy wrote to his father and praised the Nazi sterilization policy as "a great thing" that "will do away with many of the disgusting specimens of men."[6] Kennedy explained, "Hitler is building a spirit in his men that could be envied in any country."[7][8]

U.S. Navy[edit]

Kennedy left before his final year at Harvard Law School to enlist in the U.S. Naval Reserve on June 24, 1941.[9] He entered flight training to be a naval aviator, received his wings, and was commissioned an ensign on May 5, 1942.[9] Kennedy was assigned to Patrol Squadron 203 and then Bombing Squadron 110.[9] In September 1943, he was sent to Britain and became a member of Bomber Squadron 110, Special Air Unit ONE, in 1944. Kennedy piloted land-based Consolidated B-24 Liberator patrol bombers on anti-submarine details during two tours of duty in the winter of 1943–1944.

Kennedy was appointed a lieutenant on July 1, 1944.[9] He had completed 25 combat missions and was eligible to return home. Kennedy instead volunteered for an Operation Aphrodite mission.[10]

Operations Aphrodite and Anvil[edit]

Operation Aphrodite was the use of Army Air Corps Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and Navy Consolidated PB4Y-1 Liberator bombers that were converted into flying bombs and deliberately crashed into their targets under radio control from an accompanying bomber.[10] They were to be used for precision attacks on well-protected targets. These "drone" aircraft could not take off safely on their own and so a crew of two would take off and fly to 2,000 feet (610 m) altitude before they activated the remote control system, armed the detonators, and parachuted from the aircraft. After trials, the first mission took place on August 4, 1944, against targets including the Fortress of Mimoyecques, an underground military complex under construction in northern France. There was little success[11]

The U.S. Navy also participated in Operation Aphrodite, with its portion referred to as Operation Anvil.[12] Kennedy had been appointed a lieutenant on July 1.[9] After the U.S. Army Air Corps operation missions were drawn up on July 23, lieutenants Wilford John Willy[13] and Kennedy were designated as the Navy's first Anvil flight crew.[14] Willy, who was the executive officer of Special Air Unit 1, had also volunteered for the mission and pulled rank over Ensign James Simpson, who was Kennedy's regular co-pilot.[11][15]

Last known photograph of Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. on day of flight, August 12, 1944

On August 12, Kennedy and his co-pilot Willy flew a BQ-8 "robot" aircraft (a converted B-24 Liberator) for the Navy's first Aphrodite mission. Initially, two Lockheed Ventura mother planes and a Boeing B-17 navigation plane took off from RAF Fersfield, Norfolk, England at 1800 on Saturday, August 12, 1944. Then the BQ-8 aircraft, loaded with 21,170 lb (9,600 kg) of Torpex explosive, took off to be used against the suspected V-2 development site at Mimoyecques.

Following them in a USAAF photo-reconnaissance F-8 Mosquito to film the mission were pilot Lieutenant Robert A. Tunnel and combat cameraman Lieutenant David J. McCarthy, who filmed the event from the perspex nose of the aircraft.[16][page needed] As planned, Kennedy and Willy remained aboard as the BQ-8 completed its first remote-controlled turn at 2,000 ft (610 m) near the North Sea coast. Kennedy and Willy removed the safety pin, arming the explosive package, and Kennedy radioed the agreed code Spade Flush, his last known words. Two minutes later, and well before the planned crew bailout near RAF Manston in Kent, the explosives detonated prematurely, destroying the Liberator and killing Kennedy and Willy instantly. Wreckage landed near the village of Blythburgh in Suffolk, England, causing widespread damage and small fires, but there were no injuries on the ground. According to one report, 59 buildings were damaged in a nearby coastal town.

Attempted first Aphrodite attack Twelve August with robot taking off from Fersfield at One Eight Zero Five Hours. Robot exploded in the air at approximately two thousand feet eight miles southeast of Halesworth at One Eight Two Zero hours. Wilford J. Willy Sr Grade Lieutenant and Joseph P. Kennedy Sr Grade Lieutenant, both USNR, were killed. Commander Smith, in command of this unit, is making full report TO US Naval Operations. A more detailed report will be forwarded to you when interrogation is completed

— Top Secret telegram to General Carl Andrew Spaatz from General Jimmy Doolittle, August 1944[17]

According to USAAF records, the trailing Mosquito "was flying 300 feet above and about 300 yards to the rear of the robot. Engineer photographer on this ship was injured, and the ship was damaged slightly by the explosion."[18] The Mosquito, which made an immediate emergency landing at RAF Halesworth, belonged to the 325th Reconnaissance Wing, a unit under the command of the son of President Franklin Roosevelt, then Colonel Elliott Roosevelt, who years later claimed to have been aboard that trailing aircraft, and his version of the event has gained wide currency.[19][page needed] However, Air Force records cannot substantiate it. Instead, an after-action account by the 8th Combat Camera Unit (CCU) noted:

...the Baby just exploded in mid-air as we neared it and I was knocked halfway back to the cockpit. A few pieces of the Baby came through the plexiglass nose and I got hit in the head and caught a lot of fragments in my right arm. I crawled back to the cockpit and lowered the wheels so that Bob could make a quick emergency landing,...

— Lieutenant McCarthy reporting from his hospital bed.[20]

The 8th CCU film of the event, as far as is known, has not been found.[21]

The 20th Fighter Group out of RAF Kings Cliffe, Northamptonshire had provided an escort of four North American P-51 Mustang fighters (two each from the 55th and 79th Fighter Squadrons). VIII FC, Field Order 509 stated "20 GP (P-51's, 4 A/C) will proceed to Fersfield and land coordinating with operations where to provide close escort support to one B-34 special Operation."

Lieutenant John E. Klink noted in his mission summary report: "Took off to excort BXXX, 1 B24, 1 B17, 2 B34s, and 3 photo Recons (2 Mosq. -1 P38). When specially loaded B24 was at approx. 2000 ft. NE of Ipswich it exploded and crashed near small lake. No one got out of the plane. Rest of ships OK in spite of terrific concussion from explosion. All returned to base." [sic][22]

Accident investigation[edit]

Drone operations were paused for a month while equipment was re-evaluated and modified,[11] and there would be no further Navy missions. The Navy's informal board of review, discussing a number of theories, discounted the possibility of the crew making a mistake. It suspected jamming or a stray signal could have armed and detonated the explosives. An electronics officer, Earl Olsen, who believed the wiring harness had a design defect, had warned Kennedy of that possibility the day before the mission but was ignored.[17]

Later reports that Kennedy's final mission was kept top secret until many years later[23][page needed] are negated by a detailed public account of the operation and Kennedy's death released in 1945.[24]

Recognition and commemoration[edit]

Kennedy and Willy were both posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, the Air Medal, and the Purple Heart Medal. The names of both men are listed on the Tablets of the Missing at the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial, a cemetery and chapel near the village of Madingley, Cambridgeshire, that commemorates Americans who died in World War II.[25][26]

A commemorative headstone cenotaph for Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. was later erected at Arlington National Cemetery. A further memorial to him stands inside the fortress of Mimoyecques, France.

Military awards[edit]

Kennedy's military decorations and awards include the following:

Bronze star
Bronze star

Joseph P. Kennedy Jr.'s Navy Cross citation reads:

The President of the United States of America takes pride in presenting the Navy Cross (Posthumously) to Lieutenant Joseph Patrick Kennedy, United States Navy, for extraordinary heroism in operations against the enemy while serving as Commander of a Navy Liberator Patrol Plane in Bombing Squadron ONE HUNDRED TEN (VB-110), Special Air Unit ONE (Europe), during a special air mission directed at Mimoyecques, France, on August 12, 1944. Well knowing the extreme dangers involved and totally unconcerned for his own safety, Lieutenant 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.[27]


In 1946, the Navy named a destroyer after Kennedy, the USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. aboard which his younger brother, the future U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, briefly served. Among the highlights of its service are the blockade of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and the afloat recovery teams for Gemini 6 and Gemini 7, both 1965 crewed spaceflights in NASA's Gemini program. It was decommissioned in 1973 and is now a floating museum in Battleship Cove, Fall River, Massachusetts.

In 1947, the Kennedys established the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation and funded the construction of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Memorial Hall at Boston College, which is now a part of Campion Hall and home to the college's Lynch School of Education. The foundation was led by his youngest brother, U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy until his death in August 2009. In 1957, the Lieutenant Joseph Patrick Kennedy Junior Memorial Skating Rink was opened in Hyannis, Massachusetts, with funds from the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation.

In 1969, Hank Searls wrote a biography of Joseph Jr., The Lost Prince: Young Joe, the Forgotten Kennedy. A television movie based on Searls' book won a primetime Emmy in 1977. Peter Strauss played Kennedy as an adult and Lance Kerwin played him as a teenager in the film.[28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e MacIntyre, Ben (August 2, 2014). "How Joseph Kennedy's death changed US history". The Australian. Surry Hills, New South Wales, Australia.
  2. ^ "Joseph Kennedy Jr". History.com. August 21, 2018. Retrieved February 17, 2024.
  3. ^ "Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr. : A Dream Unfulfilled". National Park Service. Retrieved February 17, 2024.
  4. ^ "Joseph P. Kennedy Jr". John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum. Retrieved February 17, 2024.
  5. ^ Sarmiento, Kimberly (2017). People That Changed the Course of History: The Story of John F. Kennedy 100 Years After His Birth. Atlantic Publishing Company. ISBN 9781620231555.
  6. ^ Gordon, Meryl (October 6, 2015). "'Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter,' by Kate Clifford Larson". The New York Times. Retrieved October 13, 2015.
  7. ^ Honig, Sarah (February 28, 2015). "Another Tack:Movie Musings". The Jerusalem Post. Retrieved October 13, 2015.
  8. ^ Beauchamp, Cari (December 2004). "Two Sons, One Destiny". Vanity Fair. Retrieved October 13, 2015.
  9. ^ a b c d e "Destroyer Photo Index DD-850 USS Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr". Navsource.org. Retrieved October 2, 2017.
  10. ^ a b Sorensen, Theodore (1966) [1965]. Kennedy (paperback). New York: Bantam. p. 37. OCLC 2746832.
  11. ^ a b c Freeman, Roger A. (1970). The Mighty Eighth, A History of the U.S. 8th Army Air Force (Hardback). London: Macdonald. p. 173. ISBN 0-385-01168-7.
  12. ^ Yenne, Bill; Yenne, William (2005). Secret Gear, Gadgets, and Gizmos. Saint Paul, MN: Zenith Press. p. 27. ISBN 978-1-6106-0744-5.
  13. ^ "Wilford John Willy". Hall of Valor Project. Retrieved September 12, 2018.
  14. ^ Monroe, Alexander G. (November–December 1984). "Drone Bombers of WW II". Naval Aviation News. Washington, DC: US Navy Air Systems Command. pp. 13–14.
  15. ^ "US Navy and US Marine Corps Bureau Numbers, Third Series (30147 to 839998)". Joseph F. Baugher. Archived from the original on September 8, 2009. Retrieved April 10, 2007.
  16. ^ Hansen, Chris (2012) [2012]. Enfant Terrible: The Times and Schemes of General Elliott Roosevelt. Tucson: Able Baker. ISBN 978-0-615-66892-5.
  17. ^ a b Renehan, Edward J. Jr. (2002). The Kennedys at War, 1937–1945. New York: Doubleday. p. 304. ISBN 978-0-385-50165-1.
  18. ^ Telegram to AWW, cipher, Top Secret, August 17, 1944, Project Aphrodite box, Air Force Historical Research Agency.
  19. ^ Searls, Hank (1977) [1969]. Young Joe, the Forgotten Kennedy (paperback). New York: Ballantine. ISBN 0-345-27395-8.
  20. ^ 8th AAF CCU unit history for August 1944, 25-GP-HI (Recon), AFHRA
  21. ^ NARA College Park MD 20 FG Mission Reports.
  22. ^ NARA College Park MD 20 FG Mission Reports.
  23. ^ Olsen, Jack (2004) [1970]. Aphrodite: Desperate Mission. Ibooks. ISBN 978-0-7434-8670-5.
  24. ^ New York Times, August 15 and 17 , 1944 (announcement of Kennedy's death) and "KENNEDY JR. DIED IN AIR EXPLOSION; Former Ambassador's Son and Lieut. Willy Were on Secret Bombing Mission Later Drone Flights Succeeded Plans for Fliers to Jump". The New York Times. October 25, 1945. p. 9.
  25. ^ Fold3 entry for Wilford J Willy
  26. ^ American Battle Monuments Commission
  27. ^ "Valor awards for Joseph Patrick Kennedy". Valor.militarytimes.com. Retrieved October 2, 2017.
  28. ^ "Young Joe, the Forgotten Kennedy". IMDb. September 18, 1977. Retrieved October 2, 2017.

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