JFK’s war hero legacy would never have existed if this top secret mission didn’t go wrong
As far as American presidents go, John F. Kennedy had a lasting legacy for as short-lived as his tenure was. From his heroics in the Pacific during World War II to the Cuban Missile Crisis, from sounding the charge that would eventually lead to the Americans beating the Soviet Union to his untimely assassination, his life would lead to everything from the Kennedy Space Center to the USS John F. Kennedy being named after him.
However, all of this would never have happened had a top secret mission in World War II gone horribly wrong- and given him the window of opportunity to rise above others who had been “chosen” before him.
Known was Operation Aphrodite, the highly-classified mission was unique as far as Allied missions went, particularly due to the fact that it utilized “Kamikaze” suicide attacks that involved slamming aircraft into enemy ships, fortified U-boat repair facilities, and hardened bunkers.
Unlike the Axis (particularly the Japanese), however, the plan was to only turn the explosives-laden aircraft into projectiles after the crew had escaped, using primitive remote control systems to guide the planes to their target.
One such pilot of one of the aircraft used in the project was Naval Reserve Lieutenant Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., John F Kennedy’s older brother.
From the very beginning of Joe Kennedy’s life, he was predestined by his family to become the first Irish-Catholic president of the United States, Kennedy was the “chosen” son of his family when it came to being groomed for political ambitions.
Leaving his final year of law school at Harvard to enlist in the US Naval Reserve in June of 1941, Kennedy was slated to be a pilot and was later assigned to fly the gargantuan PB4Y Liberator, the Navy variant of the US Army’s B-24 Liberator. Instead of bombing cities and other inland military targets, the PB4Ys often hunted submarines and other threats at sea.
Despite having completed his 25 combat missions from 1943 to 1944 and earning his ticket home from his base in England, Kennedy opted to volunteer for Operation Aphrodite.
On August 12, 1944, Kennedy and co-pilot Lieutenant Wilford Willy took off on the first mission of the US Navy’s involvement in Aphrodite, known as Operation Anvil. Before takeoff, Kennedy had a photo taken of him, standing casually in his Navy khakis.
It would be his last.
Loaded with 21,170 lb of Torpex explosives, the BQ-8 (the “drone” variant of the B-24) lumbered into the sky, trailed by a USAAF F-8 Mosquito reconnaissance plane that was to film the action.
Kennedy and Willy set their bearings towards the U-boat pens at Heligoland in the North Sea, and planned to bail out over England once the plane was on its way. From there, the BQ-8 would be remotely flown into the target area and pointed at the U-boat pens.
At some point in the mission, Willy armed the explosives, and Kennedy uttered the code word “Spade Flush,” over the radio to signal that the deed had been done.
Two minutes after his voice was heard over the radio, Kennedy’s BQ-8 (known as “the Baby”) exploded, destroying the aircraft and killing both men instantly. The burning wreckage fell near the village of Blythburgh, causing fires and damage to over 59 buildings.
The trailing Mosquito was hit with shrapnel, and crewman Lieutenant David McCarthy was wounded after being hit in the arm.
“The Baby just exploded in mid-air as we neared it and I was knocked halfway back to the cockpit,” he recounted from a hospital bed not long after the incident. “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 [the pilot] could make a quick emergency landing.”
While the entire incident was filmed, the footage has yet to have been re-discovered and may have been destroyed due to the classified nature of the mission.
Not long after the incident, General Jimmy Doolittle of the famed Tokyo raid would send the following secret telegraph to General Carl Andrew Spaatz:
“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.”
It is believed that the explosives went off prematurely, possibly due to a faulty wiring or timing system.
Kennedy was posthumously awarded the Naval Cross for his efforts in the ill-fated mission, and inadvertently paved the way for his brother, John F. Kennedy, to pursue the White House following a daring survival incident while serving as a Patrol Boat commander in the Pacific Theater.
In 1964, a US destroyer was named after Lieutenant Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. His brother, Robert Kennedy, would serve aboard her and she would participate in multiple operations of John F. Kennedy’s presidency, including the blockade of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and the afloat recovery teams for Gemini 6 and Gemini 7, both 1965 manned spaceflights in NASA’s Gemini program. It is now a floating museum in Battleship Cove, Fall River, Massachusetts.
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