Francis Kennedy, War Hero and Restless Inventor, Dies at 95


This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

From time to time over the decades, Francis A. Kennedy would rub a patch of stubble on his face and then find a tiny wooden splinter in his palm.

On Sept. 25, 1951, Mr. Kennedy, a 27-year-old officer serving as a forward artillery observer, was on patrol on the Korean Peninsula when his unit was ambushed by Chinese soldiers. They quickly picked off three of his men. Mr. Kennedy, his Rosary prayers mingling with the whine of bullets, pulled all three to safety, but not before an enemy round smashed into a tree nearby, embedding fragments of it into his face and body.

For his heroism, Mr. Kennedy was awarded the Silver Star; for his wounds, the first of two Purple Hearts. And for the rest of his life he bore the splinters, which would rise, unpredictably, out of his skin like memories.

His children — 10 boys and three girls raised in a house near Buffalo with a single bathroom — remembered him as a puckish storyteller and a restlessly creative inventor huddled over his work at a tarp-draped pool table in their garage. He came close to hitting it big in the 1970s, when he invented an early form of caller-ID. He had more success a few years later designing an energy-efficient concrete block. Early on, he tended bar, worked in a steel mill and sold liquor wholesale to put food on the table.

He adored John and Robert Kennedy, thought (though never proved) that he and the more famous Kennedy family were relatives, and even bought Lady Bird Johnson’s former limousine as a gift to his wife, whose name was Jacqueline Kennedy and, yes, known as Jackie.

Mr. Kennedy was born on June 21, 1924, in Pittston, Pa., to Francis P. and Loretta Kennedy. Frank was 16 when he ran away from home in 1942 to enlist during wartime but was sent back after his mother had demanded it.

When he came of age, Mr. Kennedy joined an Army aerial branch and excelled as a mechanic, though he never made it into combat. By the time the Korean War broke out, he had re-enlisted and chose one of the most dangerous combat assignments possible, finding the coordinates for enemy targets from close range on the ground or in the air.

He also flew on 154 sorties, many as an air spotter, and was shot down three times. Once, after crash-landing behind enemy lines, he leapt off a 40-foot-high cliff to evade the enemy and made it back to camp, six miles away, with a broken foot, his son Tim said.

Mr. Kennedy is also survived by 11 other children (one son died before him, as did his wife), 38 grandchildren, 38 great-grandchildren and a great-great-grandchild, his family said.

Mr. Kennedy was proud of his service, and of all the medals, but he felt compelled to make up for his role in the war by leaving a positive mark on the world through his inventions, his daughter in-law Lynn Kennedy said.

His son Thom recalled: “He believed he would never be able to get into heaven because of all the deaths he caused by calling in artillery strikes. I’d say, ‘Dad, think of how many lives you saved.’ But to his last days he carried that with him.”

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