Over There: James J. Joffe

A series profiling American Jewish service in the First World War

Lieutenant James J. Joffe

Wounded Bird

Somewhere in faded ink on a large piece of canvas from the fuselage of an ancient World War I aircraft is inscribed the name of James Joffe. His family arrived in New York City, United States, near the turn of the century from Baku, an administrative region of the Russian Empire on the Caspian Sea to avoid the persecution of Jews.

On August 19, 1917, he entered the United States Army and joined the Signal Corps, part of which was later organized into the Army Air Service.  In 1917 Gen. John J. Pershing invited the Royal Flying Corps to select airfields to train American and Canadian pilots.  One of the Air Corps bases was a complex of three fields called Camp Taliaferro. The three fields in the complex were Hicks#1, Barron#2, and Benbrook#3 with the headquarters at Benbrook .

Lt. Joffe was one of the first American trainees at the camp when cadets arrived in 1917.  Conditions were primitive, and Joffe and the other aviators survived the horrible winter of 1917-18 including a blizzard and freezing temperatures in crude tents with little protection against the elements.   Canadian pilots who already had combat experience initially trained the original cadets in Curtis JN-4 Jennys.  Later they transferred to the bombers they would use on the Western Front.

DH 9, Type of aircraft that Lt. Joffe crashed at Hicks Field

In mid-January 1918, Lt. Joffe flew his Airco de Havilland twin seat bomber at several hundred feet altitude. The aircraft suddenly became uncontrollable and spun toward the earth nose first at full speed.  He pulled back his control stick with all his strength and hit his pedals attempting to stabilize the plane to no avail.  It hit the ground at Hicks Field near Saginaw full force fracturing several neck vertebrae causing his demise. He was the thirtieth aviator to lose his life at Camp Taliaferro’s airfields.

Rabbi Charles Blumenthal of Congregation Ahavath Sholom officiated at a memorial ceremony at the Hebrew Institute on Taylor Street in Fort Worth, Texas.   The Jewish community then buried him at the congregation’s Hebrew cemetery where he rests in honor today.

The inscription on his memorial monument:

LIEUT. JAMES J. JOFFE
BORN SEPT. 5, 1895
DIED IN SERVICE OF HIS COUNTRY
JANUARY 15, 1918

The first aero squadrons activated from cadets from Joffe’s group were the 208th and 229th.  He was one of approximately 33 cadets who lost their lives during training.

Note: A version of this article appears in Dr. Julian Haber’s book The Yanks Are Coming Over There, Over There. The book is a joint project of JWV Post 755 and Fort Worth Jewish Archives.  Funding provided by grants from the Dan Danciger JCC  Hebrew Day School Supporting foundation and Tarrant County Jewish Federation.

Revised versions of They Were Soldiers in Peace and War Vol. I and Vol. II tell the stories of more than one hundred Jewish American Service men and women, WWI through our current conflicts and was published in 2015.  They are available in our museum store.