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Al Jaffe, WWII hero who inspired movie role, dies in South Florida

Al Jaffe was a scrappy, streetwise Jewish kid from the Bronx who climbed into a P-51 Mustang fighter plane in the last year of World War II and flew it into history.

Second Lt. Abraham “Al’’ Jaffe completed 77 reconnaissance missions in Europe, including one that helped turn the tide of the war during the pivotal Battle of the Bulge.

He was also involved in holding the bridge at Remagen, Germany, enabling U.S. troops to cross the Rhine River two months before the war ended.

His exploits inspired Henry Fonda’s character, Lt. Col. Daniel Kiley, in the 1965 feature film Battle of the Bulge — and earned Jaffe 17 medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, the nation’s third highest combat decoration.

Jaffe succumbed to long-term heart disease at home in Weston on Aug. 20, three days after his 88th birthday. He and his wife, Edith, moved there three years ago after 45 years in North Miami Beach’s Skylake neighborhood.

In his last hours, Jaffe was attended by loved ones amid an extraordinary trove of original WWII memorabilia, including his aviator’s log book, his Army uniforms, his decorations and their supporting citations, photos he shot at the just-liberated Nazi death camp Buchenwald, and a replica of the P-51 he named Nankie, his childhood name for sister Charlotte.

Fascinated by airplanes, Jaffe joined an Army Air Force cadet program while attending James Monroe High School. He went on active duty at 18, trained at bases across the Deep South — including Florida’s Punta Gorda Army Airfield — survived a training crash, and several near misses in combat.

He never expected to come home, which, he’d later say, made him both fearless and fatalistic.

“We had hundreds of thousands of people over there, so what did a life mean?’’ Jaffe asked during a videotaped oral history interview in 2003.

To his own amazement, his most serious war wound was a self-inflicted ax gash on one leg during a firewood-chopping mishap.

Settling in South Florida after the war with his young bride, Jaffe got a job as an investigator for the business rating agency Dun & Bradstreet, then transitioned to banking and business.

He served as chief financial officer of Topp Electronics in the 1970s when, said son Arthur Jaffe, a Plantation CPA, “it was bigger than Panasonic.’’ He became president of Pan American Bank of Hialeah in 1975 and retired in 1994 as a vice president of Barclay’s Bank in Miami.

Although his business career had its share of excitement — he was involved with Jacques Mossler, the Key Biscayne tycoon brutally murdered in 1964, allegedly by his wife Candy and her nephew/lover Melvin Lane Powers, both acquitted in a sensational trial — nothing ever rivaled his wartime experience.

Jaffe spoke of it to civic groups and historians — in plain language lightly sprinkled with GI profanity — well into his 80s.

He remained in the Army Reserve until 1957, attended P-51 reunions, and returned in 1995 to the scene of his most dangerous mission, in Belgium.

But for years, Al Jaffe barely mentioned it, not the death he saw, caused or risked.

“Who talked about it?’’ he asked in the oral-history interview. “We didn’t talk; we ‘did.’’’

Jaffe described the rough conditions that his group endured while following Gen. George Patton’s First Army — the decoy force assembled to confuse the Germans about the Allies’ landing plans in France — across the Rhine into Germany.

They took off from and landed in rutted, unlit grassy fields. They slept in floorless tents on the cold ground. And when they flew, they left their dog tags behind so if captured, they couldn’t be identified.

Although his sister sent packages regularly, he said, “my family had no idea what I was doing’’ until a distant relative picked up an issue of Time magazine and read about Jaffe’s role in the Battle of the Bulge.

The war changed him profoundly.

“It made my whole life different because I appreciate my life,’’ said Jaffe, who survived open-heart surgery.

Jaffe was born Aug. 17, 1924, the son of Eastern European immigrants. His father, a Socialist, was so involved with social-welfare groups that his four sons grew up, Jaffe said, “unsupervised in the streets.’’

“He was born with chutzpah,’’ said Edith Berman Jaffe, a Brooklynite who worked for the Army Signal Corps during the war. They met at a post-war veterans’ dance in New York, eloped the following year — because her mother couldn’t stand him — and in 1947, moved to South Florida.

A frail child, Jaffe built himself up in Police Athletic League programs and started winning neighborhood brawls. By 11, he was earning his own money delivering milk before school.

He always wanted to fly, and as a boy built intricate model airplanes. At 15, he got himself appointed air-raid warden in the Bronx, his task being to “enforce blackouts...due to very active German submarine of cargo vessels’’ off the East Coast.

With war looming, Jaffe built models of German aircraft for the Navy and worked the midnight shift at a Brooklyn machine shop that made military-weapon firing pins.

He headed for Europe in September 1944, barely out of his teens, and flew his first combat mission days later with the Ninth Tactical Air Force’s 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Group: Col. George Peck’s “Peck’s Bad Boys.’’

His 29th mission was so perilous that pilots were asked to volunteer. He was one of two, alongside Capt. Richard Cassady, now of Mobile, Ala., who did.

They left the base at Charleroi, Belgium in a dense fog, looking for a German tank column under the command of Field Marshall Karl Rudolf Gerd von Rundstedt that was breaking through Allied lines.

The pilots, who knew they’d take ground fire, had been given old, war-weary — thus expendable — planes with fuel to last two hours and 18 minutes.

Jaffe called the mission “a one-way ticket. You didn’t come back unless you were all shot up.’’

A Stars & Stripes booklet about the Ninth Tactical told how “on the field phone, Gen. [E.R. ”Pete’’] Quesada briefed his two volunteers, Mustang pilots Capt. Richard Cassady...and 2nd Lt. Abraham Jaffe [on] where to go, what to look for. ‘’

On Dec. 18, “the two-man team flew in valleys, sometimes less than 100 feet off the ground,’’ at 350 miles per hour, “in order to see below and still miss the hills. Near Stavelot, they spotted 60 Nazi tanks and armored vehicles moving through the mist.

As Jaffe described it, because of the fog and mountains, the only place he could fly was under Cassady’s plane.

“I could count the rivets in his plane,’’ he recalled. “If he went higher, he’d be in the clouds. If he went lower. he’d push me into the ground...He was going to take pictures to show that the tanks are there.’’

The pilots called for bombers. A Jan. 5, 1945, front-page New York Times article headlined Bronx Flier Proves Hero in Air Blow at Enemy, describes the result.

“A German armored force highballing toward Liege through a gap in the American lines was stopped on the third day of the German counter-offensive by American Thunderbolt planes in a breath-taking battle between air forces on one side and ground forces on the other, it was revealed today.

“The Thunderbolts destroyed 126 enemy armored vehicles and trucks, probably destroyed [another] six, and damaged 34.

“There were many heroes in this battle. The first two were Lt.. Abraham Jaffe of 1365 Rosedale Ave., the Bronx, and Capt. Richard Cassady of Nashville, Tenn. [who] saw through the mist the onrushing Germans and gave the alarm that ended in the German rout.’’

Jaffe and Cassady — neither of who considered themselves heroes —were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for “heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.’’

“Who needs the medals?’’ Jaffe later said. “I was just trying to stay alive.’’

In addition to his wife and son Arthur, Al Jaffe is survived by son Larry, of Weston. A third son, Bernard, died of heart disease in 1977.

Jaffe was buried, with military honors, at Miami’s Mount Sinai Memorial Park.

The family suggests donations to the Deborah Hospital Foundation: