Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. (1915-1944) was the oldest of nine children born to Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. (1888-1969) and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy (1890-1995). A talented student and athlete, Kennedy graduated from Harvard College in 1938. He attended Harvard Law School but left before graduation to join the U.S. Navy during World War II (1939-1945). In August 1944, Kennedy, a naval pilot, was killed at age 29 during a secret bombing mission off the coast of Normandy, France. After Kennedy’s death, his brother John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) pursued a political career and took office as the nation’s first Irish Catholic president in January 1961.

Joseph Kennedy Jr.’s Childhood and Education

Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr. was born on July 25, 1915, at his parents’ rented summer house in Hull, Massachusetts, near Boston. His father and namesake was the son of a Boston saloon owner and the grandson of Irish immigrants. Joseph Kennedy Sr. made a large fortune in the stock market and through investments in a variety of industries, including real estate and film production. In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) appointed Kennedy the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and from 1938 to 1940 he served as the American ambassador to Great Britain. His wife, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, a devout Catholic, was the daughter of Massachusetts politician John Francis “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald (1863-1950), who served as mayor of Boston and in the U.S. House of Representatives. Joseph and Rose Kennedy raised their family in Brookline, Massachusetts, before moving to the suburbs of New York City in the mid-1920s.

Did you know? In 1946, Joseph Kennedy Jr.’s family created a foundation in his honor. Under the direction of Kennedy’s sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver (1921-2009), the foundation focused on aiding people with developmental challenges and helped plan and fund the first Special Olympics in 1968.

In 1933, Joseph Kennedy Jr. graduated from Choate (now known as Choate Rosemary Hall), a boarding school in Wallingford, Connecticut, where he was a talented athlete and popular student. He went on to attend Harvard College, where he continued to excel in academics and sports. After graduating in 1938, he studied at the London School of Economics and later entered Harvard Law School. However, he left law school early to enlist in the U.S. Navy in June 1941.

Joseph Kennedy Jr.’s Military Career and Death in Plane Crash

Joseph Kennedy Jr. attended flight training school and in the spring of 1942 became a naval aviator. After flying patrols in the Caribbean, he went to Europe in the fall of 1943 to fly with the British Naval Command. He completed enough combat missions to become eligible to return home to the United States but opted to remain in the military and volunteer for a dangerous, top-secret bombing campaign over Normandy, France, codenamed Operation Aphrodite. Kennedy’s mission was to direct an explosives-packed, radio-controlled drone Liberator bomber into a German V-2 rocket launching site. However, on the evening of August 12, 1944, the explosives in Kennedy’s plane detonated prematurely in flight, and he died at age 29.

Kennedy’s younger brother John also served in the Navy during the war, and was hailed for his heroics following an August 1943 incident in which he led his crew to safety after their PT boat was rammed by a Japanese destroyer in the Solomon Islands. He was honorably discharged from the Navy in March 1945. When he returned home, his father, who had dreamed of a political career for his first-born son, focused his energy on his second-born. John Kennedy was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1946 and served as a congressman from Massachusetts for six years. From 1953 to 1960, he was a U.S. senator, and on January 20, 1961, he was sworn in as America’s 35th president.

Joseph Kennedy Jr.’s Posthumous Honors

After his death, Joseph Kennedy was posthumously awarded the Air Medal and Navy Cross for heroism. In December 1945, the Navy commissioned a Gearing-class destroyer named for Kennedy. In 1946, Kennedy’s younger brother Robert (1925-1968) briefly served as an apprentice seaman on the warship. In its 27 years in service, the USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. DD850 saw action in the Korean War (1950-1953) and participated in the U.S. naval blockade of Cuba during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Also during the 1960s, the ship took part in recovery operations for various U.S. space missions.

The USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. was decommissioned in 1973. Today, the vessel is part of the Battleship Cove maritime museum in Fall River, Massachusetts.