Although pilot Col. Arthur Jeffrey died a month before he was to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, his status as a hero and a fearless and colorful American Fighter Ace will forever remain in the record books and in the hearts of those who knew him.
Last week, the living Ace pilots — an elite club of those who score five or more aerial kills in combat — were honored in Washington, D.C., with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor awarded by Congress. Of the 77 Fighter Aces still alive, only 37 were able to attend the ceremony, including retired Navy Cmdr. Clarence “C.A.” Borley, 90, formerly of Yakima, who shot down four Japanese planes in the Formosa Air Battle in October 1944, two days after he downed his first enemy plane.
Jeffrey died in his sleep at his west Yakima home on April 18. Until his death at age 95, he was the second-highest scoring U.S. Fighter Ace, bested only by Richard Bong of the U.S. Army Air Forces. Other famous Aces included Germany’s Manfred von Richthofen, aka the Red Baron — it’s not just Americans on the Aces list — and Eddie Rickenbacker of the United States; both earned the title during World War I.
Attaining Ace status is extremely rare; there have been only 1,447 from the United States since World War I through the Vietnam War.
While Jeffrey did not receive the name recognition of some other Aces — he was a humble man — his achievements were well known among those who attended the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony last week.
Longtime friend Paula Clark, vice president of the Northwest chapter of the Friends of the Aces based at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, said he was missed and his service was duly noted.
“I was crying because I wish Art would have been there to get it,” Clark said in a telephone interview Friday. “He was a wonderful person. Everybody looked up to him.”
And Jeffrey gave them good reason.
Often described as having “movie star” good looks, he flew 83 missions during World War II, recorded 14 confirmed kills, and was the first pilot to shoot down an Me-163 Komet, Germany’s rocket-propelled interceptor. His medals of valor include a Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal and Military Merit medal.
Jeffrey received his most notable citation, the Silver Star, for taking down three enemy aircraft in a single mission on two separate occasions, once on Dec. 5, 1944, and again on Dec. 23 the same year. Earlier that year, he also provided top air cover for the D-Day invasion on June 6.
Next Sunday, Jeffrey will be formally honored by family, friends and fellow service members at a 2 p.m. memorial at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 379 at 118 S. Fifth Ave. in Yakima. Jeffrey will receive full military honors, and the event is open to the public, said Post Commander Rick Beck.
“He was a hero, a true World War II American hero,” Beck said. “Anytime we have a memorial like that, anybody and everybody is welcome.”
Jeffrey was born in Brewer, Ark., but raised in Cardin, Okla., where as a teenager he worked nights in a lead and zinc mine to help his struggling family. After graduating from high school, he joined the Army in 1939 and later was accepted into the aviation cadet program, where he excelled, eventually becoming captain of the 434th Fighter Squadron and retiring as a full colonel in 1968.
Five years ago, Jeffrey moved to Yakima to be close to his sisters, Helen Luke and Bertie DiPietro.
Boasting was never Jeffrey’s style, said his son, 71-year-old Kent Jeffrey.
“I never heard the story about how he got the Silver Star,” Kent said from his San Francisco home. “He graduated salutatorian of his class. I never knew that. He was a humble guy.”
His selflessness was a lifelong trait. When his Yakima caregiver battled cancer, he switched roles and became her biggest advocate, insisting she not give in to the disease.
But humility didn’t interfere with his ability in the cockpit. Kent recalled a time in 1947, when he was just 4 years old, watching his dad fly a B-26 bomber at an air show in Peoria, Ill., maneuvering the aircraft into an acrobatic roll while maintaining a steady altitude.
“I remember seeing this big plane, well it was big to me at the time, slow rolling near the runway — and that was my dad.”
He was also known for occasionally “hotdogging it.” Kent’s mom, Edna, told the most colorful story. When returning from submarine patrols off the California coast before the war, Jeffrey made a habit of “buzzing” their apartment — flying upside down in a P-38 so low that Edna could see the pipe in his mouth. His antics ended after neighbors complained to the War Department.
“Mom — she told that story for years,” Kent said. “I heard that story a lot growing up. I wish I could have gone back in time and seen it.”
Jeffrey was well known among World War II history and fighter pilot buffs as well as aviation enthusiasts, said Linda Baker, who served as his caregiver the last three years of his life.
People would send him postcards or pictures of him asking for his autograph, she said, including $5 to cover the cost of the return postage.
“He’d always get what I’d call fan mail,” Baker said one recent afternoon at Jeffrey’s west Yakima home, pulling out several letters — one from the owner of an aviation bookstore in England, others from history buffs in Australia and Virginia.
Sprawled across a coffee table were pictures of Jeffrey during the war. There he was, standing on the wing of his fighter plane, shaking hands with President Harry Truman. Another is a portrait of a German pilot he shot down, who had written to Jeffrey recounting that day and informing him that one of his own men died in the dogfight. Jeffrey replied politely, lamenting that he, too, had lost one of his men in the battle.
“I was really impressed by the letter my dad wrote back to that pilot,” Kent said. “My dad wrote something back very philosophical. It was a very cordial exchange.”
Another letter from Korean military officials thanked him, in less than perfect English, for helping the Republic of Korea Air Force set up a base in 1960.
“He very smoothly made up difficulties in operational field. He did well done. He increased combat capability of the ROKF to the Communist threat. So, because of so outstanding work, I am going to give this letter of appreciation to you,” the letter said.
Baker is gathering the memorabilia to create a shrine in Jeffrey’s honor for the memorial next Sunday.
She said he supported her during her recent bout with cancer. “He was my hero — he made me fight to stay alive when I was ill,” she said. “He’d tell me to fight.
“He was just the top. He was my hero. He was THE top gun.”