May 1, 2010

Robert Lewis Coffey, Jr.

Robert Lewis Coffey, Jr. was born in Chattanooga, TN on Oct. 21, 1918 and moved with his family to Pennsylvania at an early age.  He was appointed a flying cadet on Sep. 23, 1939 and commissioned a 2d Lt. in June, 1940.  On Nov. 1, 1940 he was promoted to 1st Lt. and served in the USAAF during WWII.

Robert Lewis Coffey, Jr.
During his military career he served as air attache at the US Embassy in Santiago, Chile (1945-48) after which he resigned his commission as Lt. Col.  The following day (Sep. 2, 1948) he was commissioned full colonel in the Air Force Reserve.  His medals included the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal, Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Presidential Citation and the Belgian and French Croix de Guerre.

He was elected as a Democrat to the 81st Congress for the state of Pennsylvania where he served from Jan. 3, 1949 until his death on April 20, 1949.  He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

The following appeared in the Las Cruces, New Mexico Sun-News on April 21, 1949.

Pennsylvania Congressman Dies in Crash of Jet Plane Taking Off At Albuquerque Air Field

by Finis Mothershead

     ALBUQUERQUE, N. M., April 21 (AP)--A crashing jet fighter plane carried Rep. Robert Lewis Coffey, Jr. (D-Pa) to death here late yesterday.

     The crackup of his P-80 Shooting Star was tentatively laid to a partial power failure.  A thorough investigation was ordered.

     Coffey, a 30-year-old wartime hero and first timer in Congress, had landed at Kirtland Air Force base to refuel.  His ship rose only 25 feet, wavered and plunged into an arroyo as he took off on the final leg of a flight to March Field, Calif.  

On Cross-Country Hop

     The Johnstown, Pa., flier was on a cross-country training flight, undertaken while the House is in recess.  He held the rank of colonel in the air force reserve.

     A helpless witness to the crash was Lt. Col. William Ritchie, friend and companion of Coffey in European air combat during World War II.

     Ritchie, taking off behind Coffey in another P-80, was compelled to circle overhead for an hour.  This was to use up fuel before he could land.

Describes Crash

     "The plane (Coffey's) just settled at the south end of the runway," Ritchie said in describing the crash.  "I could see it strike a stream of sparks, like those from a grinding wheel.  They it bounced over into the ravine."

     Col. Harold O. Gunn, Kirtland commandant, said the ship turned a series of cartwheels before it snapped a powerline pole.  The engine was catapulted 100 yards beyond the main portion of the shattered fuselage.

Flier Wedged in Plane

     The plane did not explore or burn.  A crash crew found the body of the flier wedged inside.  He was killed instantly.  The accident happened about 4:40 p.m.

     As a deputy group commander in the Ninth Air Force, Coffey flew 97 combat missions over Europe.  Shot down over a German air field, he evaded capture and spent a month with the French underground.  Subsequently he worked his way through enemy lines to rejoin American forces.

  He emerged from the war with a chestful of decorations.  They included the distinguished flying cross, awarded him three times; the air medal, 27 times; the purple heart and bronze star.

There were three Coffey sons in this family.  In addition to Robert, William Coffey also died in a plane crash at an Iowa Army training base in 1944 just before he was to go overseas. (The Morning Herald, Uniontown, Fayette Co., PA, Sep. 14, 1949, p1, col. 3)

A special election was held to fill the seat of Robert Coffey.  His mother was defeated for the seat by Republican John C. Saylor of Johnstown.  Predictably, the labor unions headed by James L. McDevitt, accused the Republicans of buying the election. (Lebanon Daily News, Lebanon, PA, Sep. 22, 1949, p9, col. 3)

Robert's earliest ancestor in the US was Richard Coffey, first found in 1850 Bald Eagle, Clinton Co., PA.  He married Margaret McGinley, first generation American whose parents were born in Ireland.  Richard's son, John Leonard, was the father of Robert Lewis, Sr. who married Curry Brindley of AL.

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