On August 12, 1944, a Navy PB4Y-1 Liberator piloted by Lieutenant Joseph Kennedy Jr. took off from the Fersfield Royal Air Force base on a mission to attack the German fortress of Mimoyecques on the northern coast of France.

The plane was part of Operation Aphrodite/Anvil, a top secret mission to fly radio-controlled, explosive laden bombers into fortified and bomb-resistant enemy targets.

Joseph Kennedy Jr.

Ensign Joseph Kennedy Jr.

Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr. was born on July 25, 1915. He was the eldest of nine children born to Joseph Patrick Kennedy Sr. and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy.

From a young age, Joseph Kennedy Jr. was groomed by his father to become President of the United States. He graduated from Harvard in 1938 and was later tutored by famed economist/politician Harold Laski at the London School of Economics before returning to Harvard to attend law school. He was a delegate at the 1940 Democratic National Convention and planned to run for Massachusetts’s 11th congressional district in 1946.

In June 1941, Kennedy enlisted in the Navy. He was commissioned an Ensign and earned his pilot wings on May 5, 1942. After flying patrol missions in the Caribbean, he was sent to England to fly PB4Y-1 (The Navy’s version of the B-24 Liberator) bombers on anti-submarine missions. After completing his tour of duty, Kennedy passed up two opportunities to return home; instead he volunteered to fly for Special Air Unit 1, as part of Operation Anvil, the Navy equivalent of Operation Aphrodite.

The bombers of Operation Aphrodite/Anvil were stripped of armament and non-essential items to carry as much explosives as possible. Although the planes were radio-controlled, they could not safely take off by themselves. Two pilots were required to fly the plane to 2,000 feet, arm the explosives then bail out once a nearby “mothership” took over the flight controls.

Joseph Kennedy Jr.

A B-17 Flying fortress heavily modified for Operation Aphrodite

Kennedy and his co-pilot, Wilford J. Willy, took off around 6:00 PM on August 12, 1944. They were accompanied by a B-17 navigation plane, two Lockheed Ventura mother planes and a USAAF F-8 Mosquito photo reconnaissance plane. After climbing to 2,000 feet, Kennedy armed the explosives. Two minutes later, the plane unexpectedly exploded in mid-air, killing both Kennedy and Willy.

The cause of the premature explosion was never identified. Both Kennedy and Willy were awarded the Navy Cross, America’s second highest award for bravery.

Joseph Kennedy Jr.’s 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.

Joseph Kennedy Jr.

The cockpit housing of Operation Aphrodite aircraft was removed to allow easy escape for the pilots

The unsuccessful Operation Aphrodite/Anvil was cancelled on January 27, 1945. The operation failed to destroy any of its designated targets.

In 1946, the Navy launched the destroyer USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. in honor of the fallen hero. The ship served with distinction in the post-war navy including during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and on the recovery team for the 1965 Gemini 6 and Gemini 7 manned space missions.

With the death of Joseph Kennedy Jr. the presidential aspiration of the Kennedy family now fell on the shoulders of their second son, Navy Lieutenant John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

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