He also noted, “I vividly remember seeing burning wreckage falling earthward while engines with propellers still turning, and leaving comet-like trails of smoke, continued along the direction of flight before plummeting down. A Ventura broke high to starboard and a Lightning spun away to port, eventually to regain control at tree-top height over Blythburgh Hospital.
“While I watched spellbound, a terrific explosion reached Dresser’s Cottage in the form of a loud double thunderclap. Then all was quiet except for the drone of the circling Venturas’ engines, as they remained for a few more minutes in the vicinity. The fireball changed to an enormous black pall of smoke resembling a huge octopus, the tentacles below indicating the earthward paths of burning fragments.”
Although the cause of the disaster was never conclusively established, suspicion centered on the lack of electrical shielding material on the television camera. This is thought to have allowed electromagnetic emissions to open a relay solenoid, which in turn set off a detonator and thus the explosives.
After the Kennedy disaster, a dozen more flights ended in failure and General Carl “Tooey” Spaatz, commander of the Strategic Air Force in Europe, cancelled all further Operation Aphrodite missions.
Wilford Willy and Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., were both posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, Distinguished Flying Cross, and Air Medal. The citation for Kennedy’s Navy Cross reads: “For extraordinary heroism and courage in aerial flight as pilot of a United States Liberator bomber on August 12, 1944. Well knowing the extreme dangers involved and totally unconcerned for his own safety, Kennedy unhesitatingly volunteered to conduct an exceptionally hazardous and special operational mission.
“Intrepid and daring in his tactics and with unwavering confidence in the vital importance of his task, he willingly risked his life in the supreme measure of service and, by his great personal valor and fortitude in carrying out a perilous undertaking, sustained and enhanced the finest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”
The Kennedy family, of course, was devastated by the loss of their eldest son—a son they had been grooming for great things after the war, including the hope that he would become the first Irish-Catholic president of the United States. That honor would have to wait another 16 years when John Fitzgerald Kennedy, himself a Navy war hero, attained that lofty goal.
This article by Mason B. Webb originally appeared on Warfare History Network.