2nd Lieutenant – U.S. 8th Air Force
A2 Interpreter, European Theater – WWII
Panmunjon – Korean War
John Hoffman was born in Frankfurt Germany on September 8, 1927. His mother, Elsie Ulman, was an opera singer and his father, Paul Hoffman, was a concert pianist. There were four children in the family. “I had a brother who saw the holocaust coming in 1936 and came to Ohio. I had an older sister who lived through the blitz in London, and came to the United States… and I have a twin sister who is a widow, who lives in southern California on the beach.”
Although John was too young to remember Frankfurt before the Nazis came to power, what he remembers from his youth is that there was total control of the people. “This
is 1933, ‘34, ‘35… And I remember there was one rule and it was called ‘Ein topf gerichte.” That meant that everybody had to cook their main meal out of one pot. And there was a man that came to check and I remember like it was yesterday, he had a kind of a plastic Swastika and an armband. And he went in the kitchen and checked what was being cooked. And my mother called him ‘Ein topfgerichte onkel,’ ‘Uncle OnePot.’”
“I do remember some of the unrest, the anti-Semitism and that it was very uncomfortable. We were Jewish, or are Jewish, and in I think it was 1935. Everybody had to wear an armband. And there was totally anti-Semitic propaganda. …Difficult for a child going to school.” Asked whether his family emigrated, John said, “My mother was born and raised in Switzerland and the law is if you have a Swiss mother or a Swiss father you’re always
Swiss. And my mother saw the writing on the wall.” His mother had six brothers and four sisters and John was sent to live for about two years with an aunt in Zurich, Switzerland. His twin sister was sent to Saint Gallen. In the meantime his mother and father kept things going. His parents were traveling and John said that in 1938 or 1939 his father went back to Germany to get money. While he was there, the Nazis captured him and he was sent to a concentration camp. “And my mother then planned that we should emigrate to the United States.”
John and his family sailed to America in late 1939 on the S.S. Washington. On the way his
mother took them to Paris. They spent three days in Paris and then left from Le Havre. “And I remember when we were past Southampton in England, we saw a ship that had been sunk.” They landed in New York and John’s uncle and his adopted son picked them up. They went to Youngstown Ohio and were there for about six or seven months. His mother had concertized in the United States had some friends in Canton, Ohio, which is where they eventually moved.
John graduated a year early from high school in 1943 at the age of 16 & ¾ years old. World
War II had begun and he wanted to serve. A family friend, Ted Gibbs, a Colonel in the Ohio National Guard, helped John lie about his age enabling him to enlist in the army. His family’s reaction to his joining the air force was very positive, John said. “My father was still a prisoner in a concentration camp. And my brother had married and his wife was a nurse and all of that. You know, total support.”
Four weeks later John went to Camp Attabury, Indiana. Then he went to Fort Knox, Kentucky. “Everybody else was assigned to a training unit, basic training, and they gave
me three days off and… when I came back and reported, the Sgt Major said, “You are being transferred and there are some gentlemen, some officers that wish to talk to you. And I went in there and I was checked on my French, German, Italian, whether I spoke it and I could read it, and then they asked me if I was willing to volunteer at that time to go to a school in Haliburton, Md. which included an intelligence school.” John was given ten days leave to go home and six days later got a phone call to report. He took a train and went to
John went through the course and in February of 1944 he was issued heavy winter uniforms and got on an airplane at Langley Field, VA. “There were four officers on the
plane and one of them said, ‘Mr Hoffman?’ and I said ‘No sir, Private Hoffman,’ and he said ‘You’re a Warrant Officer now.’”
They flew to Greenland and then landed in London at Croydon Airport. John was assigned to the 8th Air Force and to A2 which was Air Intelligence. He says they slept in railroad sleeping cars at Croydon because of the bombing there. “It was very comfortable and the one thing was I had this kind of cabin and I was informed because I’d had no military training, really, that I was going to be training with a British Commando Unit. And I hadn’t even turned 17.”
“But the first thing when I got there, there was a very, very nice English gentleman. His name was Jacob. I called him Jake. And he was my batman. That’s because I was not a
private. And he shined my shoes and cleaned my rifle… I had a beer ration. I didn’t drink and I didn’t smoke. And I gave him my cigarette ration and my beer ration. And in return he taught me how to drink rum. (laughs) …it was like honey and you added water to it… And the English army had done that for hundreds of years.”
“I trained with him. I made a parachute drop. I did all of the indoctrination and I learned
that British 1st Sgts were god. I mean, you did not answer them. But I answered. I learned all of the proper things about war.” Asked about the living conditions, John said, “It was a lot better than sleeping on the ground. It was BOQs Bachelor Officer Quarters. The food was fine. The friendships were great.
John told us about the battle at Bastogne. “…They were planning an invasion but we didn’t
know what the date was and we knew that Eisenhower had come to London and about his meetings with Churchill. I was still in London, or outside of London in the camp…. It was late 1944 and my job was to interrogate German, Italian and French officers above the rank of Major. In other words, Colonels, Lieutenant Colonels and Generals… And the battle of Bastogne in Belgium was going on and this was I think, two or three weeks before Christmas of that year.”
“I was put on an airplane with some other intelligence people and we landed outside of Bastogne and I was to do interrogation. I did a couple and then the Nazis or the Germans
did a counter attack and it was terrible weather and… there was fog and ice and snow. And I was then all of a sudden at the front. They gave me a rifle. I never used it. But I was there and there were a lot of things that went on. For instance, the Germans captured Americans and killed Americans of course and they took some of their uniforms and infiltrated and we were sitting there waiting. We heard that Patton was coming. I think it was with the 3rd Armored. And the planes couldn’t fly [because of the weather] and the armament division was stuck and then on Christmas eve of that year, all of a sudden the skies cleared. It was god’s presence. And our planes were able to bomb… And Patton was on the move and the Germans were defeated at Bastogne.”
John said that after the battle the war moved quickly. He spent a little time in France and then was transferred to Nuremberg where they were going to have the war crimes trials. There he met Air Force Colonel, later General, Nicholas Nickranston. He was working on morale and military police issues and he took John with him to Langley Field, VA. The job there was to investigate a colonel who was in charge of all of the “O clubs,” the Officer’s Clubs. John said it was basically police work. That year the Tommy Dorsey band came to Langley field at the officers club. By that time John had been made a 2nd Lieutenant, and Colonel Nickranston told Dorsey that John played and sang very well. John recalled his meeting with Tommy Dorsey: “‘Did you bring your horn?’ [Dorsey asked,] and I said yes. ‘Would you like to sit in and sing a couple of tunes?’ And I stayed on the bandstand all that night.”
“And we were at the bar. By that time, God knows, I was old enough to drink. (laughs) and we were at the bar and Tommy said ‘When are you getting out?’ And I had enlisted for the duration and eighteen which was normal at that time. And I said ‘Y’know, I’ve got time to go.’ And Nickranston said, ‘I’ll tell you what. You’re Multilingual and there’s a language school in Monterey and we need ChineseCantonese speakers.’ So he said, ‘You do that. You’ll be out by November.’ So I went to Monterey. I went to the language school.”
John said that from the minute he arrived at the Monterey school, he was required to speak the language. It didn’t matter how much of the language he knew; he simply was not
allowed to speak anything else. He graduated at the end of October 1947 and joined the Dorsey band at Frank Dailey’s Meadowbrook in New Jersey, on November 7th, 1947. John remembers that he was able to call his mother and father tell them that he was going to be on the Mutual Broadcasting show, where he sang ‘On a Slow Boat to China.’
John later performed at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, using the moniker “Johnny Martin. He was then offered a job by Danny Kaye, who was still doing his TV show but was soon going on a concert tour in Europe. During the tour, John opened Kaye’s shows with three or four songs. John also sang “Wonderful Copenhagen” in the movie Hans Christian Anderson.
In 1952, while he was once again working at the Desert Inn, his mother called him and said he had a telegram. The telegram stated that John was to report to go to Korea. “So again I went to the air force and I went to Seoul and then I ended up at Panmunjon and after that I caught a little bit of shrapnel and I was out,” John said, briefly summing up his time in Korea from 1952-1954.
Later in his career John worked in the broadcast business and marketing, and still sang and played music. Asked if it was hard to readjust to civilian life, John said no. “My whole life at that time was show business and that’s what I really wanted to do. When I was at Langley I snuck out and did gigs. Everybody knew.”
John said that his reflections on his service are all positive. He was not a naturalized citizen when he went into the service. He told us the story of getting his citizenship papers.
“I was working in a nightclub in Las Vegas, and my mother got the letter that I was to come in for my test to get my citizenship papers. I flew from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, and my mother insisted on going down there with me, and I restudied history. What if I don’t remember! It’s like taking a test in school. And when I got there I went in a room and [there was] a very nice man, whose name I don’t remember. But there were five of us and we had all been in the military. And he looked at the five of us and said, ‘Who’s the president of the United States?’ And then he said, ‘You passed.’ (laughs)”
Asked how his military experience change him he says, “I think it gave me a discipline. I
think it gave me a great love of our country and the freedom that we have…. My first wife was Japanese. My children are Eurasian. I don’t think there’s anywhere else in the world… where it’s as comfortable as here.” “I still think that we are the guiding light.”
Asked if he had advice for future generations, John told how in Switzerland, every male has to serve in the military, one way or another. “I think that there ought to be the
opportunity for everybody, men and women, to be able to spend at least two or three
years in the military, and learn the feeling and the discipline and the friendship and the good feeling that it gives you…. I think you make friendships that are forever.”
“Look, nobody wants to get shot at. I’ve experienced bombings as a child. It’s scary, but I
survived, and a great many people survived, and we have our country, and that’s thanks to all the people in the army, the navy, the air force. And also thanks to our allies, the Brits, the French.”
“I’m proud to be a veteran and I’m proud to be an American.”
Interview by Michael Assmus on May 11, 2013.