Exactly 70 years on, a new book re-opens the events of August 1944 when US Navy pilot Joe Kennedy Jr, older brother of future US President John F. Kennedy, was killed over the Suffolk countryside in a top secret mission pioneering drone aircraft for the first time. In this new short book, Kennedy-era researcher Paul Elgood, who uncovered the long forgotten story of JFK’s visit to Birch Grove shortly before his 1963 assassination, recounts these wartime events and journeys to the site of the tragedy, finding the last scattered remains of the long lost plane.
High expectations were placed on the first born son of Joseph and Rose Kennedy. In the wake of his support for the pre-war policy of appeasement, Joseph P. Kennedy knew he would never be President. He seamlessly transferred his ambition to his children, anointing the oldest, Joe Jr, as his proxy for the White House. Joe Jr was living the Ivy League life of the east coast social elite until the call to England interrupted his idyllic lifestyle as President Roosevelt appointed the elder Kennedy to be his ambassador to England. Joseph Sr placed huge pressure on Joe Jr, instilling his Irish American insecurities on his son to always compete and win. In peace and war, Joe Jr’s pursuit of excellence propelled him forward. War hero was the next expectation place on him.
After two tours of duty in war-weary England, Joe Jr had flown enough combat missions to make him eligible to return home, his war over. Instead, Joe volunteered to stay in England, taking on even greater risks piloting dangerous missions to target Hitler’s devastating V-bombing campaign. By August 1944, he stepped forward to co-pilot the launch of a top secret, perhaps near suicidal drone bombing mission. Departing from RAF Fersfield in Suffolk, the flight went badly wrong and the plane exploded shortly after take-off. The crew’s bodies were never found. Eyewitnesses described two explosions and a huge ball of fire with debris scattered for at least a mile.
However, mystery surrounded the mission Joe Jr gave his life for and it took decades for details to be declassified. Even the official letters to his powerful father gave little detail away. Writing years later, his brother Senator Ted Kennedy recalled: “After completing his required twenty-five combat missions and earning his right to return home, Joe had volunteered for a mission so dangerous that some of his ground crew pleaded with him not to go. Along with a co-pilot, he was to take off in an experimental drone loaded with high explosives and pilot it on a trajectory toward a target…Whatever the cause, the drone had exploded into a fireball just minutes before the pilots were due to bail out.”
The word hero is often overused, but in Joe Jr’s case it is entirely justified. The Commander of the US Navy wrote to Joseph Sr to console the distraught parents, telling them “…to be very proud of your son for his courage, his devotion to duty, and the magnificent example he has set for the rest of us”. The Navy Cross, Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal were awarded for “extraordinary heroism”, but were in reality little consolation to the father for losing his first son. Joe Jr’s likely place in Congress and the Senate were taken by his brother, John F. Kennedy, who went onto fulfil their father’s dream in 1960 to see a Kennedy win the White House. A thousand days later he too was killed in the line of duty, and by 1968 Bobby, the third brother had fallen. About Joe, JFK himself wrote “I’m only trying to fill his shoes…If anything happened to me tomorrow, Bobby would run for my seat in the Senate. And if Bobby died, our younger brother Teddy would take over.”
It is now seventy years since the events of August 1944. Sightings of the wreckage of the plane were last recorded in the late seventies. Yet during the intervening years the remains of the drone aircraft have been relatively undisturbed as they lay scattered across remote woodland in the Suffolk countryside, remaining a well-kept local secret. No full survey of the site, has since been undertaken.
“It is hard to believe it all happened seventy years ago now”, said one crew member stationed at the same airbase as Joe Jr. Senator Ted Kennedy recalled the tragedy as “a wound that does not heal”. Today, except to those in his family and the few surviving veterans, the sacrifice of what took place in August 1944 is near forgotten.
Crisis Hunter: The Last flight of Joe Kennedy Jr by Paul Elgood is published by Columbia Point and out now.