Under His Wings: Albert Hoff serves country in WWII and afterward
He was a farmer. A cattleman. He was a loving husband and father. He was a soldier.
I knew him as ‘Grandpa.’
Albert ‘Al’ Hoff, Bison South Dakota, was the son of German-Russian immigrant parents John and Fredericka Hoff. He was born October 20, 1919, at Eureka, South Dakota, the middle of John and Fredericka’s family of eighteen children. The family moved to the Date, South Dakota area when Al was in the second grade. He grew up attending country school, working on the farm and graduated from Bison High School.
Al’s first job after he graduated was washing dishes for a dollar a day at a restaurant in Hot Springs, South Dakota. He moved to Washington and got a job at a sawmill in the Wenatchee Valley, living with his sister until he was drafted into the Army in 1942 to serve his country during World War II.
Al was trained as a Ham Radio operator. He sailed for North Africa on the U.S.S. Thurston with the 9th Infantry Division of the United States Army.
“When we left the States I remember seeing the statue of Liberty in New York Harbor,” Al recalled. “We were all issued life jackets. I thought mine would make a nice pillow to sit on. One day I heard, ‘You—hey! You!’ The captain was talking straight to me. ‘What do you think? You’re going on a pleasure cruise? You put that life jacket on and you keep it on!’ So I did. Boy, I got it on and I kept it on, too!”
Al didn’t enjoy his first sea voyage. The rolling waves made him feel seasick, and though he never threw up a lot of the other soldiers were in pretty bad shape. The sailors had pretty nice food, but the soldiers’ fare was not very pleasant. Everywhere he looked he saw ships. Their convoy included cruisers and destroyers, but no big battleships.
“One morning all at once the ship just shivered and shook and shuddered,” Al remembered. “I thought we got torpedoed. We and another ship in our convoy had rammed each other. The ship was dented but it was ok.”
They landed at Casa Blanca, North Africa, on Christmas Eve of 1942. Here Al got his first taste of ‘C rations’ and he was not impressed.
“A rations were regular food,” he explained. “I had some A rations in England later on. Mostly we had C and D rations. D was just a hard chocolate bar to keep you from starving to death. There were three kinds of C rations: meat hash, meat stew and meat and beans.”
He had his fill of meat hash in the Army. Some years later, after he was married, his wife, Kari bought a can of stew at the grocery store, just in case of a situation where she needed to get a meal on in a hurry. When Al saw the can, he told her, “Don’t you ever buy that again!” She never did.
The troops traveled along the northern edge of Africa to Algeria in old French railroad cars classed ‘Forty Homo’ or ‘Eight Horses.’
“There I got my first sight of the war,” Al remembered. “At night we saw fighting in the distance. We could see the flash of the artillery fire where other troops ahead of us were fighting the Germans.”
They met the war head on.
“The Germans always came out of the sun so we could hardly see them and tried to kill us,” he said. “At night they dropped flare bombs so big that it would light up like it was day. One dropped close to me, maybe half a house length away. The concussion lifted me off the ground. That was one of the closest calls I had.”
Al was issued a tiny, metal covered New Testament that he carried in the pocket over his heart. Through all of the fighting, gunfire and bombs falling, sickness and close calls, he held on to the words of Psalm 91.
He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust. Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence.
As the Communications Officer, Al stayed with his radio. This meant he got to ride in the jeep that carried the radio and equipment. It was not a smooth ride, but he always felt sorry for the infantrymen who had to cover that rough terrain on foot. Messages were sent in code and the code was changed every day to make it more difficult for the Germans to intercept information. Al kept a grenade attached to his radio so that he could blow it up if needed so that the enemy would not get the code.
One day while they were eating chow as they called it, a mess sergeant who was rather trigger happy got spooked by something, grabbed his .50 caliber machine gun and started firing before he got it up.
“The bullets went just past my leg,” Al said. “It would have taken it off if he had hit me.”
They called it the African Tour, but with his classic sense of humor, Al said there had to be a better word than ‘tour’ to describe his time in Africa. It wasn’t a relaxing trip to see the sights. Al saw and experienced the horrors of war and said that much of it was best not retold.
A highlight of the war for Al came toward the end of the African campaign.
“I got the honor of sending the message from our general to the troops that were coming to go into Algiers and occupy it. This was one of the most historic messages I sent.”
The troops of the 9th were now seasoned soldiers. They shipped from Africa to Sicily, landing at Palermo Harbor.
“We received a very UN-welcome from the German bombers,” Al recalled with a chuckle. “I was down in the hold of the ship and thought I’d go up on deck to see what was going on. I went up and a piece of shrapnel whizzed right by me. I thought I’d seen enough and went back down again!”
He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler. Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day; Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday. A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee. Only with thine eyes shalt thou behold and see the reward of the wicked.
Fighting in Sicily was hard, but the Americans proved victorious. Before they left Sicily, the troops were personally commended by General Patton himself.
“We stood and stood and stood, waiting,” Al remembered. “Finally he came. He told us we were going to England and he told us what we were going to do next: we were going into Europe to get that man, Hitler. Patton was a good general; he had guts like you wouldn’t believe.”
What Patton did not tell the men that day was that they were going to get a badly needed rest; the 9th Infantry Division had seen some of the hardest fighting of the war and the soldiers needed some time to recuperate. They needed to be ready for the D-Day invasion, but they didn’t know that yet.
The ship to England was crowded. They arrived in time for the holidays in 1943. Al recalled smelling the tantalizing odors of a fancy dinner cooking: turkey, ham and all the trimmings. After a year of hash his mouth was watering. It turned out that the meal was for the brass; Al was given a bowl of soup.
“I poured it overboard,” he said. “I was so disappointed.”
Used to the warm climate of the Mediterranean, the damp cold of England was a hard adjustment. Al got sick, landing in a London hospital with a fever of 104 degrees. He spent the winter in the little town of Winchester. When the Germans flew bombing missions over England, Al saw the planes coming, like little white dots in the sky.
“One morning, Commander Blanchard came in and said, ‘Hey, boys, we’re back in civilization now, and the people are finding little puddles all over town,’ So we got an education,” Al laughed.
Thanks to the Red Cross, Al was able to spend time with his brother Herb, a highlight of his time in England. Herb was in the Air Force and had A rations: regular food instead of the monotonous hash.
Six months passed with additional training but only vague orders. They spent time waterizing their vehicles: raising the exhaust intake so that they would be able to drive through 3-4’ deep water. To try to fool the Germans they made a ‘dry run’ packing up their vehicles, getting on boats, heading for France, but turning around and coming right back.
Finally, at the end of May, the 9th Division was put on six hour alert. The men knew that something big was coming.
HEADQUARTERS NINTH INFANTRY DIVISION
SOLDIERS OF THE NINTH DIVISION:
The hour for the greatest adventure of our lives is at hand. I have the greatest faith that the officers and men of this Division will meet the enemy as men of America would – with determination and a fury that will strike fear to the heart of the German soldier. No one knows better than we that he is not the “superman” his wicked leaders have tried to make us think he is. We know that man for man we are better than he.
Faith in a righteous cause and faith in our ability to defend that cause will win. A righteous cause is something that God has given us and denied our enemy. History does not lie.
With determined hearts and with the help of God, which we now beseech him to give us, we are going to win this war – now!
Good luck and Godspeed,
M. S. EDDY
Major General U.S.A. Commanding
“We crossed to Normandy on June 10th, 1944,” Al said. “This was the fourth day of the D-Day invasion, or D plus four, as we called it. We were on boats crossing the English Channel at night. We were partway across when we ran into three German sub-chasers; why they didn’t sink us I don’t know. An Allied cruiser saw the sub chasers too, and when they saw us they thought we were Germans too. They started shooting at us! The shells were just clearing the deck, splashing water back in on us. To stop our ship from shooting at us, we opened fire on the sub-chasers, so then they fired at us. I can still see the tracers coming at us from the Germans. After it was over, the commander of our landing craft contacted the cruiser and said, ‘That was good shooting, but almost too good!’”
The shoreline was full of the lifejackets of the boys that landed in the first days of the invasion. Al stood up on the seat of the jeep so as not to get wet while they drove off of the landing craft, through the waves and onto Utah Beach. Meanwhile, battleships were shelling the enemy to protect the landing troops.
“After we landed it was not too long till the Germans started shooting at us,” Al said. “First thing we dug foxholes, just deep enough to get us underground. The French countryside was full of hedge rows so we used them for cover as we were scouting around. We found a dead U.S. soldier—we could tell by his uniform. Every time we saw our uniform on a fallen soldier we felt for them.”
Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation; There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling. For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone. Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.
Fighting continued through France, Belgium and into Germany. While in France, Al sent a message for a young Frenchman to let his parents know that he was alright. Later, Al met his family and a lifelong friendship was formed. The young man’s parents were both schoolteachers and also had a little farm with dairy cows. During a brief respite from the fighting Al enjoyed a little taste of home life and the taste of fresh milk for the first time in a long time.
“We just got in on the tail end of the Battle of the Bulge,” Al said. “There we became acquainted with the buzz bomb. It made a lot of noise but it didn’t fly very high. Fire came out of its tail. It was designed to go a certain distance and then explode.”
The enemy was always trying to knock out communications, so Al got shelled a lot. Col. Van Hauten took his radio team right up to the front lines where they were under mortar fire.
“Mortar is short range,” he explained. “The enemy was just over the hill. I thought the colonel would surely get me killed driving that close to the front lines. I happened to glance at the wristwatch that my sister Martha had sent me. The mortar fire lasted one minute. It seemed like a lot longer!”
Al got a bad case of ‘jeep sickness’—sitting on the hard seat of the jeep gave him blisters all over his backside. The field hospital gave him a combination of penicillin and sulfa which caused him to swell up from his feet to his neck.
“They gave me a lot of attention after that,” he chuckled.
By early March, 1944, the 9th Infantry had reached the Rhine River at the town of Remagen. The Germans were fighting hard to defend the bridge across the Rhine River there.
“We crossed the railroad bridge at Remagen during the night,” Al remembered. “The Germans were trying to destroy the bridge. They finally got it down. My buddy, Stan Sailors and I went down to see the bridge after the Germans bombed it. Our engineers and GI’s were already working on building a new bridge below the old one. They just fished the pieces out of the water. The Germans were bombing us at the time. We had to sneak along from building to building to get back. That was the first time I saw a jet plane. I thought our P-38’s were fast but this German plane just swished right by.”
Through all of this commotion Al continued to operate his radio, sending and receiving vital messages.
“We kept the radios outside,” Al said. “There was a fellow in our outfit who had been a radio operator before. He invented a way to operate the radio remotely from a safe place with the key and a cord so that we wouldn’t have to be out and in danger while we were under fire.”
Because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him: I will set him on high, because he hath known my name. He shall call upon me, and I will answer him: I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him, and honor him. With long life will I satisfy him, and show him my salvation.
At last the Germans surrendered. Hitler was dead. The war was over. Al could go home. God had kept him safely under His wings. Many of his fellow soldiers were not coming home, though, and he carried that loss with him for the rest of his life.
“I remember coming into New York Harbor and seeing the crowds there in the city,” he recalled. “All those people, and every one of them an American!”
Back in South Dakota, Al enrolled in Spearfish College. It was there he met Kari Seim, who had grown up on a ranch north of Bison, and graduated from High School in Lemmon, South Dakota. It was love for a lifetime: they were married June 4, 1949 and spent sixty-two years sharing life on the Lazy H Ranch west of Bison where they raised their five children: Lance, Ericka, Linnea, Louis and Ronald. Al kept his radio skills sharp and used them throughout his life. Every morning he was up at the crack of dawn relaying weather observations over the radio. During the aftermath of the Rapid City Flood in 1972 Ham radio was the only communication method that had not been wiped out. Al was on the radio for several days straight relaying information to help in the recovery efforts, staying up till all hours getting messages to families about their loved ones.
He shared his love of the Ham radio with his grandsons, encouraging them to learn Morse Code and taking them to Ham Radio Field Days on occasion. He passed on a saying from one of his commanders: ‘Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!’ that has become standard household lingo for his grandchildren and great-grandchildren! They are also known to sing, as he did, with a twinkle in his eye, Irving Berlin’s words about life in the Army: “…The hardest blow of all, is to hear the bugler call; You’ve got to get up, you’ve got to get up, you’ve got to get up this morning! Some day I’m going to murder the bugler, Some day they’re going to find him dead; I’ll amputate his reveille, and step upon it heavily, …And then I’ll get that other pup – The guy that wakes the bugler up -And spend the rest of my life in bed.”