Seventy years ago, on August 12, 1944, Lieutenant Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. perished in one of the first American fatalities associated with a pilotless aircraft, which we usually know today as a drone or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). The older brother of future president, John F. Kennedy, was taking part in an extraordinary secret war being waged across the English Channel with new generations of exotic weapons. Only a week after D-Day, the German Army began launching V-1 “buzz-bombs” from the French coast toward London and was preparing for a barrage of even more fantastical weapons, including the V-2 rocket and a super-cannon – the Hochdruckpumpe that constituted the third of their “V-weapons.”
The Nazi leadership initially believed that V-2s and the Hochdruckpumpe could be made resistant to allied bombers by placing their infrastructure in vast fortified complexes of steel-reinforced concrete located in the Pas de Calais at Siracourt (V-1), Watten (V-2), Wizernes (V-2), and Mimoyecques (V-3). Allied aerial reconnaissance revealed these massive efforts of military engineering for what they were and the Allied Expeditionary Air Force headquarters ordered extensive bombing campaigns against the structures. These raids were highly disruptive to their construction, but they could not guarantee the effective destruction of the bunker complexes. The fortified sites were also surrounded by extremely heavy concentrations of anti-aircraft defenses and by the time of Kennedy’s death, hundreds of Allied aircraft had been lost attacking these and other V-weapon sites.
By the spring of 1944, Lt. Gen. James Doolittle, commander of the Eighth Air Force had ordered development of a joint Army Air Forces and Navy program to use pilotless “war-weary” bombers to carry vast quantities of high explosive that could unseat the foundations of the V-weapon complexes that were impervious to conventional bombs. The Army Air Forces contributed tired B-17s and the Navy offered up some of its own fatigued PB4Y-1s (the Navy version of the B-24D). Once modified with drone equipment, the B-17 drone (designated BQ-7) and the PB4Y-1 (designated BQ-8) were to be flown by remote control to the target using a mother ship, which had an operator who would use a television scope to monitor the controls.
Though run by the Army Air Forces, the Navy was essential to this program as it had far more experience with droning full-scale aircraft. The word “drone” in connection with pilotless aircraft originated with the U.S. Navy when it borrowed the British concept of using full-scale remotely piloted aircraft to teach the increasingly complex task of naval anti-aircraft gunnery. “Drone” was an acknowledgement of the program’s British “Queen Bee” origin. By the start of World War II, the Navy had begun regular training operations with full-scale target drones. The Army also pursued drone technology, but had gone a different route by focusing on small, low-cost types developed by the Hollywood actor, Reginald Denny.
Doolittle’s Project Aphrodite (Army) and Anvil (Navy) represented the marriage of the Navy’s pilotless aircraft experience with RCA’s advances in television. This marriage was an uneasy one with control and autopilot technology sufficiently immature to make the top secret program incredibly risky, but the perceived benefits justified the potential costs. Nonetheless, a human crew had to manually fly the aircraft off the ground to ensure that it did not go out of control on an Allied base or devastate a British population center. The two-man crew would then engage the autopilot, verify its functionality and bail out as the aircraft approached the British coast. It was for this incredibly hazardous undertaking that Kennedy volunteered.
The Aphrodite and Anvil operations against the four major V-weapon complexes began on August 4, 1944. Only the raid against the Wizernes site came even close to a success with the aircraft detonating near the construction. The Germans were suitably mystified as to what caused the aircraft to detonate with such force and why there were no traces of guns or a crew in the remnants. Unfortunately, one pilot was lost when one of the BQ-7s went out of control over the English countryside.
Kennedy, who volunteered for special duty with the newly formed Special Attack Unit One (SAU-1) from his regular anti-submarine patrol squadron, VPB-110 (which also provided the PB4Y-1s), was assigned to make the Navy’s first raid under Anvil. On August 12, Kennedy boarded PB4Y-1 #32771 with his copilot, Lt. Wilford J. Willy, to fly it to the coast where PV-1 mother ships would take over control to guide the drone to its target at Mimoyecques. Once airborne, Kennedy joined what was perhaps the most unusual American combat formation of World War II. It consisted of four P-51 Mustangs to provide top cover, two P-38s and two Mosquitos as weather and observation aircraft, a B-17 to act as a navigational pathfinder, a B-17 to act as a radio relay platform, and two PV-1s, one serving as the mother ship and another in reserve as a spare.
Around 6:20 pm, the formation passed eight miles southeast of Halesworth at an altitude of 610 meters (2,000 feet). Suddenly, 32771 and its nearly 10,000 kilograms (22,000 pounds) of the revolutionary Torpex high explosive detonated nearly destroying other aircraft in the formation. Kennedy and Willy had no chance of survival. Fortunately, their flight path had largely avoided populated areas and there were no casualties on the ground. The engines were the only pieces of the aircraft that survived in a recognizable form. A definitive cause was never found, though speculation has centered on inadequate electrical shielding that allowed premature activation of one of the Torpex detonators.
Navy enthusiasm soon evaporated for the mission and though one droned PB4Y-1 made it to its target, the service’s interest in continuing the program evaporated. The Army Air Forces continued Aphrodite missions with its B-17s until the beginning of 1945. None were successful. By that time, Allied forces had liberated all of the large V-weapon bunker complexes. None had become operational and in fact, the Germans appeared to realize that there was no chance that the sites could become operational once Allied intelligence appreciated their significance, so they used them as decoys and traps to draw bombing raids from the real infrastructure of the V-weapon campaigns. Even if this was not the case, conventional bombing had prevented their completion and a new generation of British heavy bombs – the Tallboys – proved to be capable of doing the damage that the drones could not. Sadly, Tallboys were already in operation a little over a month before Kennedy’s death and the Aphrodite drone program gained a legacy of being a tragic waste of resources.
While Aphrodite and Anvil marked the end of the Eighth Air Force’s drone campaign against German V-weapon complexes and U-boat pens, the Navy did use the technology in the Pacific for its TDR-1 drones – a World War II antecedent to the MQ-1 Predator. The TDR-1s carried television cameras for guidance and carried bombs or torpedoes that were dropped remotely. Unlike the BQ-7 and -8s, human pilots did not need to bail out of them on operational missions. Unfortunately, the results of the TDR-1 operations were less than spectacular and World War II ended with drone technology being used almost exclusively for anti-aircraft training. A few years later, the Army Air Forces and Navy put the technology to the test when they flew B-17s and F6Fs through the radioactive clouds at Bikini during the first postwar nuclear detonations. Germany also used drone airplanes as guided missiles. By the time of the first Aphrodite missions, they had already been in use for over a month against shipping in the English channel that was supporting the Normandy beachhead.
Kennedy’s commanders recommended him for the Medal of Honor, but it was ultimately downgraded to a Navy Cross, which was also awarded to Lt. Willy. The Kennedy family was devastated. Many who knew him had been certain that Joe Kennedy, Jr. was destined for high public office before his tragic death. Such a high-profile loss threw the Aphrodite program into chaos and morale suffered. The program might well have been almost entirely forgotten, but the tragedy helped ensure that records and reminiscences of this pioneering operation were preserved. Kennedy’s death is a potent reminder of the many others who perished in testing or employing new technologies and whose memories were shrouded in the curtain of wartime secrecy.
Roger Connor is a museum specialist in the Aeronautics Department of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.