Capt. Jack M. “Happy Jack” Ilfrey

Houston, Texas

Serial Number: O-431223
Enlisted: 26 April, 1941 - Houston, Texas
Assigned to Squadron: 20 April, 1944

Promoted to Capt.: 5 April, 1943
Sqdn. Operations Officer: 14 June - 27 September, 1944
Sqdn. Commanding Officer: 27 September - 9 December, 1944
Total Combat Hours: 548:05 (228:05 - MTO / 320:00 - ETO)
Claims: 2 Me-109s in ETO (air) / 5 ½ planes in MTO (air)
Decorations: Air Medal with 12 Clusters, Distinguished Flying Cross with 5 clusters, Silver Star (Received in MTO)
Returned To U.S.: 9 December, 1944


31 July, 1920 - 15 October, 2004

    Jack Milton Ilfrey was born 31 July, 1920 in Houston, Texas. His father was a fighter pilot during World War I and later became the cashier of the First National Bank. Ilfrey graduated from High School and went on to Texas A&M College for two years. While in college he learned to fly in the first Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) in 1939. He continued with the CPTP at the University of Houston during the day while employed by The Hughes Tool Co. during the evenings.

    Ilfrey entered the US Army Air Corps as an Aviation Cadet in April of 1941. He graduated with the first wartime class of pilots at Luke Field, Arizona, on 12 December, 1941, (Class 41-I) and was assigned to the famed 94th Pursuit "Hat In The Ring" Squadron, 1st Pursuit Group. His first assignment found him flying P-38D and E's in defense of the California coastline.

    In the spring of 1942, the 1st Fighter Group (as they were now designated,) were equipped with new P-38Fs and were ordered to Dow Field, Maine to prepare for the "Bolero Mission," the first mass flight of fighter planes and bombers to England. "We called it the 'Guinea Pig Mission', cause that is what we were," Ilfrey once stated. On 4 July, 1942 the 94th squadron took off on the first leg of the mission from Presque Isle, Maine. On 26 July, most of the squadron landed at Kirton, in Lindsey, Lincolnshire, England. They were stationed there with the Polish 303rd Koscuisko Squadron, who taught them many of the tricks of the trade. On 1 September the 1st Fighter Group made the first all American fighter sweep over northern France from Beurnmouth, along the coastline of the English Channel.

    On 15 November the group took off from Chivenor, in the Lands End area of England, on "Operation Torch," the invasion of North Africa. It was during this mission that the first of many noteworthy happenings in Ilfrey's career occurred. Shortly after take off, Ilfrey lost a belly tank, which meant he would not have enough fuel to complete the mission. He calculated that he had enough to make an emergency landing in Gibraltar, but his calculations proved incorrect and he was forced to land in Lisbon, Portugal.

    Immediately upon landing he was informed that, as the country was officially neutral, all pilots and aircraft from outside countries that landed there would be interned. Ilfrey agreed with the Portuguese authorities when they asked him to show a pilot the controls of his P-38 and, as the pilot sat on the wing, he started up the engines. As a second P-38 came in for an emergency landing he saw his chance, shoved the throttles forward and the propwash blew the Portuguese pilot off of the plane. An international incident flared before he had even taxied the Lightning down the runway. He finally made it to Gibraltar, where he later was informed that the US State Department was demanding for him to return to Lisbon, but the Commander of American Operations at Gibraltar cabled Washington that Ilfrey had already left for North Africa before the cable had arrived.

    Jack soon put all of his training into action over North Africa. On 29 November he shared credit for downing a Messerschmitt Me-110 near Gabes Airdrome, in Tunisia. On 2 December he downed two Messerschmitt Me-109s over Gabes Airdrome, Tunisia, and on 26 December he shot down two Focke Wulf Fw 190s five miles west of Bizerte. On 11 January, 1943 he damaged a Me-109 five miles north of Gabes Airdrome and on 3 March he downed another Me-109 near El Aounia, Tunisia, making him one of the first aces (many believe he was the first) who flew P-38s. The action continued when, on the following day, he damaged another Me-109 over Bizerte Harbor.

    He received a commendation for his actions from the Chief of Staff, US Army, on 3 February, 1943. After a total of five and a half air to air victories and two confirmed damaged enemy aircraft, 208 combat hours and 72 missions, Jack was relieved of combat duty and reassigned to the states as a flight instructor in P-38s and P-47 Thunderbolts at the replacement training unit at Santa Ana, California.

    Ilfrey returned to the E.T.O. in April of 1944, as the Operations Officer of the 79th Fighter Squadron, 20th Fighter Group, based out of King's Cliffe, Northamptonshire, England. This group was also equipped with P-38's. On 27 September he became the Squadron's Commander.

    Soon after his arrival he was back in action. On 24 May, during a mission to Berlin, he was credited with downing two Messerschmitt Me-109s, one of which had actually collided with Ilfrey's Lightning and had sheared off nearly four and a half to five feet of Ilfrey's right wing. The enemy pilot did not recover from the subsequent spin, but Ilfrey's skill kept him from joining in the fate of his foe. Jack managed to bring the P-38 back home only to discover many of his squadronmates had given up on him making it back.

    As D-Day approached, and Invasion stripes were added to their aircraft, the 79th Fighter Squadron readied itself for some intense action. Ilfrey flew three patrols over Normandy on 6 June (D-Day), as the largest invasion force to ever cross the English Channel fought below him on the beaches of Normandy. The Luftwaffe did not make an appearance in the skies over Normandy that day so the men of the 20th Fighter Group had the chance to watch the invasion unfold beneath them.

    On 12 June, after successfully dive bombing a railway bridge over the Loire River, near Angers, France, Jack was shot down while strafing a nearby train. He was over 200 miles behind the front lines, but with the help of the French civilians he managed to evade capture dressed as a French farmer Jacques Robert' and was back in England within six days. Despite the official doctrine which sent all pilots who evaded back to the United States he somehow managed to side-step the rules and continued flying in combat.

    In late July, the 20th Fighter Group converted to the P-51D Mustang and within months were involved in "Operation Frantic VI", a shuttle mission to Russia, Italy and back to England. It was around this time that Ilfrey was promoted to Major, however the celebration that followed said promotion led to his being busted back to 2nd. Lt. for multiple infractions. He remained in command of the squadron, however, and his claim to fame...or infamy... (as he was fond of saying) is he was the only 2nd. Lt. to ever lead a Combat Squadron during the war. He soon returned to the rank of Capt. however, as Gen. Doolittle, now in command of the 8th Air Force, was once again persuaded to overlook the infractions by 20th Fighter Group C.O., Col.Cy Wilson.

    The remainder of Ilfrey's second tour of duty in the E.T.O. remained fairly uneventful until 20 November, when he landed behind enemy lines, in Maastrick, Holland and successfully retrieved his downed wingman, Lt. Duane Kelso. Ilfrey and his wingman squeezed into the cockpit of the P-51 (designed for only one person,) and flew a short trip to Brussels where they landed safely.

    On 9 December, 1944, after a total of 70 missions, 320 hours of combat flying and 2 enemy aircraft downed, Ilfrey was reassigned to the US, where he became a Troop Commander at McChord Air Force Base. He left the USAAF with the final rank of Major in December of 1945. In two tours of duty Ilfrey completed a total of 142 missions, flew 528 combat hours, downed an officially confirmed seven and a half enemy aircraft (all air victories), damaged two more and destroyed two enemy trains on the ground. In December, 1945 he left the service, purchased a Beechcraft Model 18 commercial light transport and became a pilot for a Dallas, Texas-based construction firm. From 1949 through 1951 Ilfrey also trained foreign pilots in Hondo, Texas but, as his eyesight began fading, he began to seek out work that would keep him closer to the ground.

    Ilfrey retired after 30 years as a bank officer at Alamo National Bank, in San Antonio, Texas. In addition to being the Historian, and a past President, of The 20th Fighter Group Association he was the Editor of the group's newsletter, Kings Cliffe Remembered, throughout it's entire run of over fifty issues. He was active in the 8th Air Force Historical Society, The 1st Fighter Group Association, The American Fighter Aces Association, The Commemorative Air Force and the P-38 National Association. On 6 October, 1998 he was inducted into the Commemorative Air Force's American Combat Airman Hall of Fame. He was also an invaluable resource to aviation enthusiasts, researchers, historians and model-builders alike and was widely known for his generosity to those interested in preserving aviation history.

    In 1946, he penned his acclaimed autobiography, Happy Jack's Go Buggy. The foreward to this book was written by none other than aviation legend Gen. Eddie Rickenbacker. It is considered by many one of the best glimpses into the life of an USAAF pilot ever written and received praise from the likes of Gen. James Doolittle, Gen. William H. Simpson, Senator Barry Goldwater and Gen. Ira Eaker, in addition to noted aviation authors Roger Freeman and Len Deighton. It was finally published in 1979 and reprinted in an expanded edition in 1998.

    Ilfrey resided in San Antonio, Texas during the final years of his life. He passed away on 15 October, 2004, at Nix Hospital, after several months of declining health. He was buried next to his parents in Forest Park Lawndale Cemetery, Houston, Texas on 19 October. He was, sadly, the last surviving ace of both the 79th Fighter Squadron and 20th Fighter Group.

(Photograph courtesy of Jack Ilfrey)

S/Sgt. Ralph Englehart
T/Sgt. Richard E. Burgess
29 November, 1942
.5x Me 110
2 December, 1942
2x Me 109
26 December, 1942
2x Fw 190
3 March, 1943
1x Me 109
24 May, 1944
2x Me 109
Capt. Ilfrey's Known Assigned Aircraft:
P-38J #43-28431 (MC-O) "Happy Jack's Go Buggy" (Lost 12 June, 1944 - Ilfrey evaded) · P-51D # 44-13761 (MC-I) "Happy Jack's Go Buggy"

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