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The Secret Drone Mission that Killed Joseph Kennedy Jr

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In 1944, Joseph Kennedy Jr. (older brother of JFK) took off from a British airfield in a B-24 Liberator filled with 20,000 pounds of explosives. He’d volunteered for the mission. It would be his last.

Kennedy was the eldest of nine siblings, and it was assumed he’d eventually take up the family business. However, in 1942 he dropped out of law school to join the U.S. Navy, hoping to become a pilot. In 1943 and 1944 he flew numerous missions in a PB4Y-1 Liberator (the Navy’s designation for the B-24 Liberator), completing two tours of duty. Eligible for stateside duty at that point, he instead volunteered for a secret and incredibly dangerous mission: operating some of the first military drone aircraft.

Drones had been used in World War I, but they were essentially precursors to cruise missiles. They were sent on their way with a target in mind, but there was little or no remote control exerted once the flight began.

Operation Aphrodite was different. The goal was to take B-17 and B-24 bombers that were no longer fit for regular duty, strip out all unnecessary equipment, and load them with several tons of Torpex explosives. The cockpit was fitted with a radio control system and a pair of cameras, one showing the gauges, one the ground below and ahead. Painted yellow or white, the planes would fly at 2,000 feet, controlled by operators in other planes at 20,000 feet. It was hoped that these massive flying bombs could crack the German submarine pens and rocket launch sites that traditional strategic bombing runs were having trouble hitting.

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The control system was rudimentary, however. Azon, or Azimuth Only, was developed to aim bombs directed at narrow railroad bridges. The bombs fell at a steady, uncontrolled rate, but bombardiers could see the flare on the back of the bomb and adjust its flight in two dimensions (hence the name azimuth only). The Azon system adapted for Operation: Aphrodite was not sufficient for take-offs, so a pilot and a navigator were needed to get the planes off the ground (this was considered the smallest crew that could successfully take off in a B-17 until a stunt man did it by himself during the production of the film 12 O’Clock High in 1949). They’d get the flying bomb warehouse up to 2,000 feet, then bail out and parachute into the English Channel, where a boat would pick them up.

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On August 12, 1944, Kennedy and Lieutenant Wilford John Willy took off in a converted B-24 Liberator (the drone versions were designated BQ-8) from Royal Air Force Station Fersfield, near Norwich. Their target was a massive underground military complex called the Fortress of Mimoyecques that had the potential to launch devastating attacks directly at London. Several minutes short of the planned bail out, an electrical fault in the Liberator caused the Torpex to detonate. In a thunderous instant, the plane and both men flying it simply ceased to exist.

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I’d like to tell you that Joseph Kennedy Jr. gave his life helping to develop an amazing superweapon that dealt a crushing blow to the Nazis and accelerated the end of the war in the European theater. Unfortunately, Operation: Aphrodite was a complete disaster. Of more than a dozen missions, only one plane caused damage to the intended target, and that was only because it happened to crash somewhat close to the target purely by chance. More American airmen were killed than Nazis, and more damage was done to the British countryside than to Germany.

While there is no grave for Kennedy that you can visit, he is listed on memorial stones at Cambridgeshire, England, at Mimoyecques, and at Arlington National Cemetery. In addition, a U.S. Navy destroyer, the USS Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. was named for him. It was decommissioned in 1973.

Photos: National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.

Sources:

Persson, Sven. “The Unmanned Plane.” USAAF Forced Landings.

“Joseph P. Kennedy Jr.” JFKLibrary.org.

“The War in Europe: Lt. Jospeh P. Kennedy Jr.” Archives.gov.

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