Everybody knows how John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, was assassinated that unfateful Friday of November 22, 1963, while he was in a presidential motorcade through Dealey Plaza. Not many of us know about his brother’s death in the Navy, a story that’s not much told in what was labeled the “Kennedy curse,” with the series of premature deaths, accidents, assassinations, and other unfortunate events that happened in the Kennedy family.

Here’s his story:

Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Jr. was the eldest of the nine children of Joseph Kennedy Sr. and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, born on July 25, 1915. Together with his brother John, he attended the Dexter School in Brookline and then the Choate School in Wallingford, Connecticut, where he graduated in 1933. He then got his degree in government from Harvard College, where he also actively participated in football, rugby, and crew (boat racing). He was also a member of the student council. After that, he spent a year at the London School of Economics before enrolling at Harvard Law School. His career path was clear as far as his father was concerned— he would become the first Roman Catholic US president, something that the family groomed and instilled in him the moment that he was born into his family’s actively political family. Like his grandfather, John Fitzgerald, mayor of Boston, told the press, “This child is the future president of the nation.”

Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr. in the Harvard College Class of 1938 yearbook. (Harvard CollegeCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Fate, however, had a different plan for him.

Entering the Navy

When World War II began, Joseph Kennedy expressed his approval of Adolf Hitler’s actions and programs. He was 18-years old when his father sent him to visit Nazi Germany in 1934, where he saw the Nazis in action. He commented that the sterilization program was a means of “doing away with many of the disgusting specimens of men” and that the Germans’ “dislike of the Jews was well-founded.”

Before his final year at Harvard Law School, Kennedy decided to leave and instead enlist in the US Naval Reserve on June 24, 1941. He successfully entered flight training, earned his wings, became a naval aviator, and commissioned an ensign on May 5, 1942, where he was assigned to Patrol Squadron 203 and then Bombing Squadron 110. He piloted PB4Y Liberator patrol bombers on anti-submarine details during his two tours of duty in the winter of 1943 to 1944 in Britain. All in all, he completed a total of 25 combat missions before he became eligible to return home, but he didn’t.

Aphrodite Mission

Here’s the Aphrodite plan: the Navy would make use of bomb-loaded Army Air Corps Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and Navy Consolidated PB4Y-1 Liberator bombers and then crash them into the enemy targets through the use of radio control.

B-17 Flying Fortress, the Bertie Lee. (US government/DoD/USAF, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The problem: Such technology had not existed yet at that time, and these aircraft could not take off safely on their own, so a crew’s help was needed to fly the aircraft to 2,000 feet, activate the remote control system, arm the detonators, and then parachute from the bomber down to safety.

Operation Aphrodite was a combat-tested program, which means the development of the weapon relied on simply trying to make it work during an actual combat scenario.

Kennedy volunteered on the test program and boarded the B-24 Liberator along with the others, carrying 20,000 pounds of explosives on August 12, 1944. The aircraft unexpectedly detonated over the English Channel, midflight, killing its passengers. The operation was deemed a huge failure, as it killed more American soldiers than Nazis.

The then-classified telegraph narrates the unfortunate event:

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]

Joseph Kennedy was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, the Air Medal, and the Purple Heart Medal while the program was effectively ceased on January 27, 1945. As for his father’s aspiration, it fell into JFK, who, as we know, successfully became the president of the United States.

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