The 390th Bombardment Group had its origins at Blythe Army Air Base in the edge of the Sonoran Desert in southern California, a warm weather B-17 combat crew-training site of the 34th Bomb Group. It was activated by General Order 14 issued by Headquarters Second Air Force at Fort George Wright, Spokane, Washington on January 26, 1943. On February 23, Headquarters Army Air Base, Blythe, California transferred a cadre of 124 officers and men from the 34th Bomb Group to the 390th Bomb Group with TD to attend the school of Applied Tactics, Orlando, Florida for a month and report on 1 April to Geiger Field, Spokane, Washington. Major Thomas S. Jeffrey, Jr. was Commanding Officer at Blythe of the 391st Bomb Squadron of the 34th Bomb Group. He and his Group Commander, Lt. Col. Irvine A. (“Bo”) Rendle, had been completely immersed during the fall of 1942 in the logistics of placing in operational status the newly completed Blythe facility as a site for phase training of newly organized B-17 combat crews.
The first name on the orders for the cadre of the 390th Bomb Group was Major Jeffrey as Deputy Group Commander. He had been directed by Bo Rendle to pick the best available in the 34th to staff the 390th. Rendle, however, elected not to serve as commanding officer of the new group but instead accepted command of a new B-24 Group, the 392nd, stationed then at Tucson. Shortly after this orders were published appointing Lt. Col. Edgar M. Wittan as commanding officer of the 390th. By this time Jeffrey had selected the key staff and command personnel forming the initial cadre of the 390th.
Lt. Col. Wittan and Major Jeffrey had first met and became fast friends in 1939 when both were stationed in a twin engine B-18 reconnaissance squadron at Langley Field. Jeffrey had graduated from Virginia Military Institute in 1938 with a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering and a reserve commission in the Field Artillery. He was accepted for Army Air Corps flight training at Randolph Field and receiving his wings flew B-18s out of Puerto Rico, then flew B-17Es with the 6th Bomb Group in Guatemala, and then attended Bombardier School at Midland, Texas. His next assignment was with the 34th Bomb Group at Geiger Field, Spokane in 1942.
Within two days after receiving orders for the activation of the initial cadre at Blythe, Major Jeffrey contacted the pilot officers in staff and command positions to report for afternoon meetings at the officers club where he briefed them on logistics involved in training air and support personnel and in plans being formulated to staff and equip an operational combat unit for overseas operation. Bill Pennebaker remembers that he concluded each session with a mix of Army Air Corps and other songs, which he personally led with his own guitar accompaniment. He was determined to build team spirit from the top and emphasized that the 390th was to be the best trained heavy bombardment Air Corps unit to be shipped out for duty abroad.
Wittan and Jeffrey comprised a superb command duo to oversee the training of personnel assigned for duty in the 390th. Jeffrey had primary responsibility for aircrew training while Wittan oversaw the logistics of putting the pieces together to keep the planes and crews equipped and operational to carry out their primary mission. On the 1st of April the cadre arrived at Geiger and within the next month received substantially its full complement of air and ground personnel. Within three months they had received their combat aircraft and support equipment. Training at Geiger was compacted and after three months the headquarters personnel and the four squadrons were assigned separate bases in Montana for another month of training.
During the training phase of the 390th, Col. Wittan spent two weeks in England to participate in several combat missions to experience what we would expect to encounter when operational there. He and Jeffrey were convinced that diligent, thorough training of all unit personnel was critical in carrying out our mission under combat conditions. Formation flying was emphasized for pilots, but personnel assigned to all other combat crew positions were given the best training possible. Jeffrey and Wittan constantly monitored the scope of our stateside training and communicated almost daily with squadron commanders and others concerning aspects of carefully structured training agendas.
Our combat crew training was concluded with a cross-country formation flight across the United States to Bermuda and back with 35 aircraft and crews. Following a brief leave the crews were cleared for flight across the Atlantic, led by Lt. Col. Jeffrey. After a brief stop at Prestwick, Scotland, the crews proceeded to RAF Station 153 just outside Framlingham (Parham), arriving there on July 18, 1943. Our ground support personnel and equipment and supplies arrived soon after. We flew our first combat mission on August 12, to a target in Bonn, Germany.
Until P-51 fighter aircraft became operational in February of 1944 we were particularly vulnerable to attacks of German fighter aircraft during our deeper penetrations, and the loss of 20 of our original 35 crews can be largely attributed to inadequate fighter cover on those missions. German fighters were particularly aggressive during three of our toughest missions – to Regensburg, Munster and Schweinfurt, later referred to as “The Big Three”.
Regensburg was our third mission, only five days after our first. Col. Wittan was the command pilot in the lead plane. We lost six aircraft – two over the target; two ditched in the Mediterranean; one interned in Switzerland; one down near Toulona, France, with its crew taken POW. Our bombing was excellent. The 390th received a Distinguished Unit Citation for its part in a legendary but trying mission.
The second of the Big Three, on October 10, Marshall flew to Munster with the Jim Geary crew in “Pistol Packin’ Mama”. The 390th lost eight crews. Our bombs were square on target. Our gunners were credited with 62 enemy aircraft destroyed. The 100th Group in our 13thWing lost ten of its fourteen aircraft over the target, while the Wing lost twenty-five of fifty-three planes dispatched. Tom Jeffrey after the war noted that this mission ‘was one of the toughest, if not the toughest, flown in England by the Eighth Air Force during World War II’.
The target for the third of the Big Three was a strategic ball bearing plant at Schweinfurt, Germany on October 14. Lt. Col. Jeffrey was the command pilot, flying with the lead crew of Lt. Robert D. Brown. Bombing results were superb. The 390th received its second Distinguished Unit Citation and Jeffrey was awarded the Silver Star for his effective leadership as the 13th Wing Command Pilot. The 390th lost one aircraft, the entire Wing only two. All other Groups with 291 aircraft dispatched lost a total of 58 aircraft on the mission.
When Lt. Col. Jeffrey returned to base after the Schweinfurt mission the 390th had lost 18 of its original 35 crews. Replacement crews arrived as needed and promptly trained under his supervision to enable us to operate effectively. Soon the combat strength of the Group was increased to 70 crews, with the responsibility for their training and that of our lead crews falling on the shoulders of our Deputy Group Commander.
The 390th in its initial four months of operations was fortunate in losing in combat only one of its twelve original command and staff pilot officers. Col. Wittan served as our Group Commander from March 1, 1943 until April 17, 1944 when he assumed command of the 13th Combat Wing, to which the 390th, 100th and 95th Groups were attached. Tom Jeffrey served as our Deputy Group Commander from the end of February, 1943 until May 9, 1944 when he was given command of the 100th. Col Frederick W. Ott was Group Commander of the 390th from May 15, 1944 until September 6, 1944; Col. Joseph A. Moller succeeded him as Commander thereafter until May 6, 1945. Wittan and Jeffrey each served in their respective command positions much longer than Ott and Moller collectively and should be given major credit for our outstanding contributions to the team effort of the 390th organization during World War II.
In May of 1944 General LeMay, then commander of the Third Division of Eighth Air Force Bombardment Groups, contacted Lt. Col. Jeffrey, offering him a choice of serving as Group Commander of the 95th Group or with the 100th. Jeffrey asked for a day to think over which command he preferred. The 95th was highly regarded, with a solid combat record. The 100th had had a series of tragic missions, with significant losses in crews and command personnel. Jeffrey saw an opportunity to make over the 100th into a better combat unit that would be beneficial to the Wing and war effort. If successful he would get more credit for a job-well-done than if he merely maintained the momentum of the 95th. He called General LeMay and indicated his preference to command the 100th. The General is reported to have replied: “I thought that is what you would say.”
Jeffrey, now promoted to full Colonel as commanding officer of the 100th, worked diligently to reorganize its command and staff structure, to emphasize all aspects of crew training and to provide enthusiasm and expertise needed by both flying and ground support personnel. In a relatively short period of time the operational record of the 100th was substantially equal to that of the other Groups in the 13th Wing. He was highly regarded in his role as Group Commander.
Several weeks prior to the end of hostilities in Europe Colonel Jeffrey was relieved of command of the 100th and assigned the role of deputy director of operations of the US Strategic Air Force in Paris and later as director of operations of US Air Forces in Europe when the Headquarters moved to Wiesbaden, Germany. In 1946 he served as deputy director of operations for the Air Training Command at Barksdale Field. He next was director of operations for the 47th Air Division, Walker Air Force Base, New Mexico; then chief of Strategic Weapons Systems Development, Air Research and Development Command; then attended the Air War College.
Beginning in 1955 Colonel Jeffrey was assigned to the Pentagon where he served for three years as chief of development for the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project. For two years beginning in 1958 he served as director of operations and chief of staff of Joint Task Force 7, planning and participating in the atomic tests series in the Pacific Area. Then he went to the Industrial College of the Armed Forces at Fort McNair, D.C. Following this, he was selected by General LeMay and appointed by the Chief of Staff to become the Site Activation Task Force Commander in charge of construction of the first strategic missile unit in the Air Force, the 567th Atlas “E” Squadron, based at Fairchild AFB. He then became the Site Activation Task Force Commander to supervise construction of the Minuteman I missile wing at Minot AFB, North Dakota. In June of 1964 he was assigned to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base as assistant to the commander and than as vice commander, ASD. Thereafter, as a Major General and prior to his retirement, he served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense in Washington in several capacities allied with the Air Force projects.
The 390th Bomb Group was fortunate in having General Jeffrey involved in putting together the initial personnel structure of the 390th Bomb Group at the Blythe Air Base during February and March of 1943, in overseeing the training of our combat crews and serving in the role model of a motivated and dedicated deputy commander. His knowledge of aircraft and their flight characteristics, military hardware, navigation, bombardment, anti-aircraft weapons, command pilot procedures, meteorology, military customs and a myriad of other topics was a pleasure to witness. He was a fixture at our combat mission briefings and made it a point to welcome crews as they returned from assigned targets.
As Deputy Group Commander of the 390th from its inception and for a span of fifteen months, thereafter, Tom Jeffrey deserves recognition as an unsung founding father of the 390th Bombardment Group.