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On this date in 1898, the U.S. flag was raised over Manila, ending the Philippines theater of the Spanish-American War. The day before, a cease-fire in Santiago had brought independence to Cuba. The fighting between the United States and Spain, which began in April of that year, brought Spain's reign as a colonial power in this hemisphere to an end while signaling the rise of America's international influence.

In a letter to Theodore Roosevelt, Secretary of State John Hay described the 1898 conflict as "a splendid little war." It was, Hay added, "begun with the highest motives, carried on with magnificent intelligence and spirit, favored by that Fortune which loves the brave."

Actually, neither fate nor fortune always favors the brave. This is true in times of peace as well as war -- and during disease pandemics. This week in 1944, that grim reality was visited on the Kennedys of Boston, and not for the last time.

* * *

U.S. Navy aviators Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. and Wilford John Willy were undeniably brave. Uncommonly so, really, although the last mission they volunteered for was so dangerous and ill-considered one wonders why the scientists and officers who conceived of it weren't cashiered or court-martialed.

It was called Operation Aphrodite, which in anodyne military jargon really meant it was untested. One in a short series of futile tests would come when the Navy loaded an aged B-24 Liberator with nearly 22,000 pounds of volatile explosives and dispatched it to take out German V-2 rocket launching sites in France. Completing that mission was a noble goal: V-2 rockets would kill some 2,750 civilians in London alone. But with no rockets of their own, the Allies' only options were desperate measures such as Operation Aphrodite. It consisted of deploying the B-24 as a drone. But since the technology did not exist to get the big plane off the ground without pilots, Lt. Kennedy and Lt. Willy were to get their bomber airborne and then parachute out of the cockpit to safety on England's coast. Two following planes would take control of the Liberator via radio signal and crash it into the Normandy target. That was the plan, anyway. What happened on the evening of Aug. 12, 1944, was that the Kennedy-Willy aircraft exploded minutes after takeoff, incinerating both pilots. The oldest Kennedy scion, as courageous as they come and groomed for greatness, was dead at 29.

John F. Kennedy, a war hero himself in the Pacific, assumed the mantle of oldest Kennedy son. He would wear it well. Regarding his fallen brother, who was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, JFK later wrote that Joe had completed his designated number of missions by May of 1944, had lost his former co-pilot and a number of close friends, and was offered R&R by the Navy.

"Joe refused his proffered leave and persuaded his crew to remain on for D-Day," John F. Kennedy noted. "They flew frequently during June and July, and at the end of July they were given another opportunity to go home. He felt it unfair to ask his crew to stay on longer, and they returned to the United States. He remained. For he had heard of a new and special assignment for which volunteers had been requested which would require another month of the most dangerous type of flying."

In words that simultaneously conveyed a Navy officer's clinical sense of duty and a brother's immense feelings of pride in his kinsman, JFK added:

"It may be felt, perhaps, that Joe should not have pushed his luck so far and should have accepted his leave and come home. But two facts must be borne in mind. First, at the time of his death, he had completed probably more combat missions in heavy bombers than any other pilot of his rank in the Navy and therefore was preeminently qualified, and secondly, as he told a friend early in August, he considered the odds at least fifty-fifty, and Joe never asked for any better odds than that."

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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