■ BY SUE ERWIN
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Second Lieutenant Jim Dieffenderfer was a student in the U.S. Army Air Corps Flying Training Program.
Jim is the father of Boca Grande resident Ann Fletcher. He splits his time between here and his home in Orlando.
The U.S. Air Force veteran completed primary training in Illinois and basic training at San Angelo, Texas, which was just a big dirt field then, he said.
Final training was held at Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas. He completed flight training on March 7, 1942. The very next day he was flown to Panama to fly patrol on missions protecting the Panama Canal.
Four months later he was assigned to a B-17 combat crew and was promoted to First Lieutenant.
“I picked up a new B-17 at Hamilton Field near San Francisco and flew it to Australia,” Jim said.
He flew his first combat mission on August 26 – just six months after earning his wings.
“There are stories and photos of him in several war books,” said his daughter, Ann, who wrote a story that was published about “Col. Jimmie Dee” in 2017.
The story was called “Second Lieutenant Jim Dieffenderfer: Early WWII in the South Pacific,” and the book was called “World Wars: Memories and Reflections of Boca Grande Families.” It was published in 2017 and is available for purchase at The Friends of the Boca Grande Community Center.
Jim grew up in Logan County, West Virginia.
He was a junior at Virginia Polytechnic Institute when President Roosevelt started the Civilian Pilot Training Program. Jim paid $15 to enroll in the program and earned his private pilot’s license. His senior year, he volunteered for the Army Air Corps Flying School. The war hadn’t started yet, but he said everyone could see it was coming.
“It was very intense,” Jim said. “We flew planes from California to Hawaii. We’d fly for two days and then have one day off.”
He recalls that for a period of time, the only thing the troops had to eat was bananas.
“We had bananas in every possible way – we mashed them, boiled them, fried them, made banana soup …”
His training consisted of dropping bombs into pickle barrels from 10,000 feet.
“I had nothing but a compass – that’s it – and we were
training to do skip-bombing missions,” Jim said.
Skip bombing had been used by the British against the German submarine berths. Usually bombs were released against ships that were already underway. The bombs were released from altitudes of 2,000 to 10,000 feet. If dropped
correctly, the bombs would skip on the service and bounce into the ship, exploding just after the bomber pulled away. Lt. Jim sank an 8,000-ton ship using the skip-bombing technique.
The crews usually named their planes. Jim’s B-17 was known as “Old Baldy.” The maintenance crew chose the name.
“It was their plane – they took care of it,” he said.
Not long after becoming a pilot, he received a Distinguished Flying Cross. As he was flying through a thunderstorm, a bomb came loose on the rack and had to be replaced by crew members standing on the bomb bay doors. Ten minutes later, they lost an engine, hindering them from reaching their primary target of Rabaul Harbour.
“We went in at about 3,000 feet, and I think they thought we were one of their planes. We strung the bombs, burned up some planes and flew right out the other end. I don’t think a shot was fired at us.”
During the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, an entire Japanese convoy was destroyed by air power alone.
“The Bismarck Sea battle was the greatest naval battle in history that was won without the help of the Navy. It was a coordinated effort from land-based aircraft: The U.S. Army Air Force, the British Royal Air Force, the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Australian Air Force,” Jim said.
Lt. Jim had one very close call in “Old Baldy.” The ball turret gunner reported jammed guns. Leaving the target at 5,000 feet, the bomber was attacked by fighters, forcing Jim to steer his plane into a steep dive to escape them. He couldn’t pull the wheel back under the pressure, but with the help of his co-pilot, they regained control.
“Miraculously, we strong-armed the controls and returned the aircraft home.”
Following WWII he remained in the service and was awarded additional honors, including the Legion of Merit. His positions included chief of the materials laboratory at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio and executive officer-deputy chief of research and development at the Pentagon. He retired on March 1, 1970 as vice-commander of the Office of Aerospace Research and Development in Washington, D.C.
In March 2003, his alma mater honored him by adding his name to the Aviation Wall of Fame at the Blacksburg, Virginia airport.
When he’s not in Boca Grande, he spends time at his home in Orlando near his son, Scott, who works for Lockheed Martin.
Every week or so, Jim comes to the island to spend time with his daughter Ann and son-in-law Robert.
He also schedules two trips each year to Anchorage, Alaska to visit his son John and daughter-in-law Sharon. He’s looking forward to going salmon fishing and sightseeing this summer.
A sharp and handsome man, Jim enjoys a glass of Woodford Reserve double-barrel oaked bourbon whiskey every evening.
His favorite composer is George Gershwin.
Last year he had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with Tom Brokaw on the island.
Jim was married to his first wife, Dee Dee, for 42 years.
After more than 28 years in the Air Force, he moved to Orlando in 1970.
He returned to working as an electrical engineer in shopping malls in the area, and later at Disney’s Epcot Center theme park. There he was responsible for the installation of all animation and sound systems. He retired from Disney in 1986.
Jim was married to his second wife, Audrey, for 26 years.
When visiting Boca Grande, he enjoys attending various island social events.
He goes to all of the Royal Palm Players’ productions and is a sponsor for “All that Jazz,” presented by the Boca Grande Community Center.
He is also a sponsor in the upcoming Pacific Theater WWII Symposium
that will be hosted by the Friends of the Boca Grande Community Center. The two-day event is planned for April 16 through April 18, 2018.
For more information, visit friendsofbocagrande.org.