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Destroyer USS Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Pulled Highly Visible Duty During the Cuban Missile Crisis

When the U.S. Navy implemented President John F. Kennedy‘s quarantine of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis, one warship in action on the high seas was the USS Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. (DD 850). The Gearing-class destroyer, called the “Joey P” by one generation of sailors and the “JPK” by the next, was named for the older brother of the U.S. president.

The destroyer, or “tin can,” was commissioned in 1945 and narrowly missed seeing action in World War II. It was named after the oldest Kennedy brother, who died on Aug. 12, 1944, during a program called Aphrodite that used bombers as explosives-laden cruise missiles. This was an Army Air Forces program in which the Navy participated.

When DD 850 was named in honor of the naval aviator, his sister Jean Kennedy Smith served as ship’s sponsor. The ship was launched July 26, 1945 and commissioned on Dec. 15, 1945.

Human pilots were required to get the aircraft off the ground and guide them through the first part of their remote controlled voyage. Once the aircraft reached 2,000 feet, the human crew was supposed to activate the remote control system, arm detonators and parachute from the aircraft, leaving it to be guided to its target from afar. The Torpex warhead aboard Kennedy’s PB4Y-1 Liberator, also called a BQ-8, exploded prematurely in the skies of England before the aircraft could begin its flight path to its target in France. Kennedy and co-pilot Lt. Wilford J. Willy were killed.

When DD 850 was named in honor of the naval aviator, his sister Jean Kennedy Smith served as ship’s sponsor. The ship was launched July 26, 1945 and commissioned on Dec. 15, 1945. The family maintained a connection with the destroyer bearing their surname: Brother Robert F. Kennedy served aboard as an apprentice seaman during the ship’s shakedown cruise in 1946.

President and First Lady watching Americas Cup, 1962

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and President John F. Kennedy watch an America’s Cup race off Newport, R.I., aboard the USS Joseph P. Kennedy (DD 850), Sept. 15, 1962. National Archives photo by Robert Knudsen

During the Korean War, the Kennedy spent two periods with Task Force 77 on the gun line facing North Korean shores and screening aircraft carriers. The destroyer later served in the Mediterranean and participated in the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959.

The Cuban Missile Crisis of Oct. 16-28, 1962, unfolded after U-2 reconnaissance photography uncovered Soviet missiles on the Caribbean island. Kennedy and his administration demanded that the missiles be withdrawn. Kennedy also announced a naval blockade of Cuba – for legal purposes, called a quarantine – on Oct. 21. The following day Kennedy delivered a speech that some interpreted as an ultimatum to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.


Warships to the Fore

Naval forces under the U.S. Atlantic Command, headed by Adm. Robert L. Dennison, steamed out to intercept not only freighters en route to Cuba, but Soviet submarines in the area as well. The Kennedy sailed on Oct. 22 to join naval forces near Cuba. Like other destroyers, the Kennedy pulled screening duty and served as a plane guard for aircraft carriers like the USS Essex (CV 9).

On Oct. 24, the U.S. press reported what was widely perceived as a confrontation on the high seas, in which U.S. warships engaged Soviet cargo vessels.

The Soviet vessels were reported to be within a few miles of the blockade line when the Navy forced them to turn around. This prompted a celebrated quote from Secretary of State Dean Rusk: “We’ve been eyeball-to-eyeball and the other fellow just blinked.” Some press reports had the destroyer Kennedy leading the way during the confrontation.

According to research by former Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs that is supported by other sources, the confrontation on the high seas between missile-carrying cargo ships and U.S. Navy warships – although widely reported at the time, with the name of the destroyer Kennedy prominent in the news – is a myth. Fully 30 hours earlier, according to Dobbs, Khrushchev had ordered freighters carrying additional missiles to Cuba to turn around. Dobbs learned that the lead Soviet ship, which he contends was the Kimovsk, [other sources say the ship was actually the Komiles] was 750 miles from the blockade line, heading back toward the Soviet Union. There never was an eyeball-to-eyeball showdown with Soviet ships carrying missiles.

Not all ships bound for the Caribbean island turned around, however. The Soviet ship Alexandrovsk, with at least 24 nuclear warheads aboard meant for SS-5 missiles on the Soviet freighters, had already passed through the quarantine line and dropped anchor at the nearest Cuban port, La Isabela.The Soviet freighter Bucharest ran the blockade early on Oct. 25, 1962, but two U.S. destroyers, fairly sure the tanker could not be carrying missiles, allowed it to continue to Cuba. The East German-flagged Vokkerfreundschaff, believed to be carrying Soviet and Czech workmen, was also allowed to pass through.

Later on Oct. 25, the destroyers Kennedy and USS John R. Pierce (DD 753) steamed toward the first intercept of the blockade. On Oct. 26, the two destroyers stopped and sent a boarding party to inspect the Marucla, a dry-cargo ship of Lebanese registry and British ownership operating under Soviet charter to Cuba. The executive officer of the Kennedy, who was in charge of the boarding party, obtained a copy of the merchantman’s cargo manifest and checked it against bills of lading. General cargo included sulphur, asbestos, newsprint, emery paper, lathes, and automotive parts. On the weather decks were 12 trucks. After inspecting a cargo hold and determining the ship held no missiles or missile-related parts, the boarding party cleared the ship and its cargo to continue to Cuba.

The Cuban Missile crisis ended Oct. 28, 1962 when Kennedy and Khrushchev reached an agreement that included the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba. Within the United States, the perception was that a vigorous young U.S. president had faced down the Soviets and won. In reality, the deal was actually more complicated and included U.S. concessions.

USS Joseph P. Kennedy (DD 850)

The destroyer USS Joseph P. Kennedy (DD 850), sends a boarding party over to the freighter Marucla during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Oct. 26, 1962. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

Was it just coincidence that the first warship to enforce the blockade bore the Kennedy name? According to naval analyst Norman Polmar, when Kennedy learned that the destroyer Kennedy was in the region he said something like, “That’s my brother. Let’s use that ship.” The destroyer was already at a port near the disputed region. There is no evidence that the commander-in-chief exerted any undue influence to decide the destroyer’s duties. In fact, another source told Defense Media Network that while Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara knew the destroyer Kennedy was at the forefront of the naval force, the occupant of the White House did not.


JPK’s Post-Crisis Service

The destroyer Kennedy served for another decade after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Later in the 1960s, the Kennedy supported the Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile program and the Gemini space program. One of her last actions was to support the at-sea recovery of astronauts James Lovell and Edwin Aldrin after the Nov. 15, 1966 splashdown of the Gemini XII orbital space capsule. The destroyer Kennedy was decommissioned in 1974 and in 1974 moved to Battleship Cove in Fall River, Mass., where it is now a floating museum. It is open to the public.

The destroyer Kennedy served for another decade after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In 2000, the destroyer was towed into Rhode Island Sound for filming of the movie Thirteen Days, about the Cuban Missile Crisis, portraying both herself and the Pierce.

Former crewmembers of the Kennedy were scheduled to hold a reunion Oct. 26. Sailors aboard the Kennedy, regardless of when they served, feel pride in the warship’s role in the Cuba crisis. About a dozen other “tin cans” were also part of the naval blockade force, including the namesake of the 98-ship class to which Kennedy belonged, the USS Gearing  (DD 710). Typical of other ships in the class, the Kennedy is 390 feet in length, has a beam of 41 feet at its widest point, and displaces 2,616 tons.


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...