Chaplain (Capt.) Albert J. Hoffman
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When I last talked with Homer Ankrum, September 2003 in Des Moines, he gave us a general permission to place material from his book, "Dogfaces Who Smiled Through Tears", online as a part of the 34th Infantry Division Association website.
There was just one thread I had in mind. I place it online now in memory of and with thanks to Homer Ankrum: soldier, writer, researcher, editor, gentleman, and gentle man.
- Patrick Skelly
4-6 November 1943 Santa Maria Olivetto 133rd Infantry Regiment
Chaplain (Capt.) Albert J. Hoffman, Catholic Chaplain
The dauntless 3rd Battalion had continued their attack on Santa Maria Olivetto. Mine fields and more mine fields stood as obstacles to overcome. ...
Moving closely with the combat troops, Chaplain Hoffman was again birddogging the wounded and administering to the dead. If he had received a medal for each time he aided wounded under fire he probably couldn't have carried them all in his field jacket pockets.
A shell landed only a few feet from Chaplain Hoffman and though he was standing upright he received not a scratch. The same barrage had hit Company K area and Hoffman hurried with aid men and stretchers to remove the wounded.
Continued artillery shelling caused Company K to fall back, but the Chaplain and Sergeant Leland C. McDonald, Fairfield Iowa, and another medic stayed with the casualties. While bandaging the wounds of an officer, courageous Sergeant McDonald was killed by a shell burst.
One of the wounded soldiers told the Chaplain there were some men lying along the road to their front. Hoffman and a medic proceeded to crawl out to them and upon arrival found eight men, two of whom were dead. Turning, Hoffman discovered the medic who had started with him was no longer there. He then called back, "Medic, Medic, up here!" One of the wounded men, lying on the road, raised his battered and bleeding body and called, "Coming, Sir." Chaplain Hoffman replied, "Lie still, you are no longer a medic. you are a patient now!.
As Hoffman anointed men and helped medics bandage wounded, the enemy opened up with machine guns, coupled with a terrifying mortar barrage and in a few minutes two of the wounded were dead. Hoffman received several nasty cuts across the face, while the medic with him was wounded.
Hoffman evacuated his medic out of the immediate area, then returned where he crawled around caring for the wounded men until four o'clock in the afternoon. His time was spent changing their bandages, loosening tourniquets and giving them water. Occasionally stretcher bearers would crawl out and take back one or two of the casualties. Throughout the day the battle for the town continued, casualties mounting as heavily mined areas continued to be encountered. After three medics were blown to bits trying to reach the wounded, sadly Hoffman ordered them to cease attempts and reaching a field phone he call back for mine sweepers. He was advised they would be sent up with the ammunition carriers.
Then came a long wait, while the fabulous man worried about his men, wounded and dying. Another phone call revealed the ammo carriers had departed. A short while later the 1st Sergeant of Headquarters Compnay, 3rd Battalion, 133rd Infantry, worked his way out to Hoffman and told him the ammo carriers had been pinned down by enemy fire in the sunken road. The two then crawled some 500 yards to the ammunition bearers' location, machine-gun and small-arms fire raking the area at each sign of movement. The 1st Sergeant dashed across the road to signal the stretcher team, but due to earth-grazing machine-gun fire was unable to return.
Hoffman, by now, was getting desperate to get the mine-sweeper crew, for time was becoming crucial for the wounded back on the hillside. Gangrene poisoning would be setting in if he didn't get them out soon. Crawling into a plowed field he followed a line of small bushes which screened him from enemy guns, but at the end of the bushes was an open area over 100 yards wide. Calculating that if the machine guns spotted him they would have to raise their sights to get a bead on him as he crossed, Hoffman made a mad dash. The Germans spotted him, adjusted their sights, and were able to deliver three bursts of fire, but none of them found their mark before the fleetfooted Chaplain reached cover.
After attending the wounded ammo bearers, somehow Hoffman was able to lead the mine-sweeping crew across a railroad embankment to an olive grove. From there they worked their way up to the mine field where they detected mines, and cleared a path to the wounded he had sought so desperately to help.
After the town was cleared Hoffman set about ensuring care was rendered to the wounded and administering to the dead. He spotted a German out in the mine fields, but by the time he reached him he had died. Hoffman called for stretcher bearers to remove his body.
As the great Chaplain stepped back from the German's body he stepped on a land mine. There was a blinding flash and he felt himself hurled through the air. Recalling the event he said, "Oh! Oh! Now you've done it - this is it!" As he landed, the two stretcher bearers with hime called out, "Stay where you are - we will get you!"
Hoffman turned in the direction of the stretcher bearers to see one of them step on another mine, which killed him almost immediately and seriously wounded the other. Captain, [later] Colonel, Carter recalls how other men below were more than willing to make further attempts to get Hoffman out, but the courageous Chaplain discouraged anyone from attempting to reach him advising the area was too heavily strewn with mines. Difficult as it was, Captain Carter ordered his men to make no further attempts to remove Hoffman from the field until mine sweepers could be brought in.
Taking stock of his condition, Hoffman painfully raised his left leg and could see that it was blown off at a point below the knee. His right leg was completely paralyzed and immobile and bleeding profusely and his hands were covered with blood. He remembered thinking this would be a good time to say his last prayers and soon after he commenced he lost consciousness.
Word that their beloved Chaplain was perhaps mortally wounded, passed through the Regiment like wild fire. Mine sweepers hastened to the area where they worked feverishly to clear the mine fields for a path to his side. Placing Hoffman on a stretcher, tears welled in the eyes of the battle-hardened men bearing him, as well as those along the route to the aid station.
Chaplain Hoffman was not to awaken until four hours after he was picked up and brought to the aid station. Sergeant Arden Hining, Fairfield Iowa, then with Medical Detachment, 133rd Infantry, on duty at the aid station recalls while the medics and doctors worked on him, the courageous Chaplain's thoughts were still on his men, for he very accurately rendered a report on the dead he had previously brought out. Sergeant Hining said with Hoffman's wounds treated to the degree possible, tearful doctors and medics placed the brave affable man in an ambulance and stood by as the the most heroic Chaplain in the annals of Military History started his journey back to a haspital.
Those who survived the War were to learn gangrene had set in the stump of his left leg, necessitating removal above the knee. After evacuation to Africa he almost lost his right leg, but at the last moment the infection broke and the limb was saved. Chaplain Hoffman was then returned to the United States, the country he had so willingly served, where he received much acclaim for his heroics. He continued his Chaplain duties until the War ended. Returning to Dubuque Iowa he eventually served as Dean at Lorus College, the school he attended in his youth, a living legend and inspiration to all who came to know this phenomenal messanger of God and His teachings. A new Armory at Dubuque was dedicated in his name.
Hoffman was very much a realist, practical thinking and though a very devout Christian man, he well understood the nature of man and the combat soldier. This statement by him seems to confirm and offer an explanation of his analysis:
" A soldier is close to death, and therefore close to reality. But some men just don't pray; it's not in their makeup. Some want to, but don't know how to, and an example is a sergeant who yelled over to me when we got pin-pointed by a German mortar platoon, 'Al, you know how to pray. Get started!'"
"But generally speaking, religion, after all is not something in a church; it is something in man. With some people, religion is a social mask which they wear because it is expected of them by the community. In warfare this mask is dropped. You may pick up a personal religion, and you may not. If you had one beforehand, it will become even more personal to you. The soldiers who pray do so without shame. You often hear them praying out loud. But people are dead wrong who think that war takes a lot of men and makes them holy. Some of the soldiers who generate fervor in the heat of combat are going to lose it when the heat is off. And a lot of soldiers in the rear areas are already losing what religion they had. You might sum it up by saying that war doesn't harm religion, but it doesn't help it either."
"Religious heroics aren't present, even when death is only a few hours away, after the prayers or Psalms are concluded or the Last Sacraments are given, the man says, 'Thanks, Chaplain' or 'Thanks, Father'. Rarely anything else. People don't say heroic things when they are dying; it's just a matter of duty, hard and painful, both for the dying man and for the Chaplain. It's a weight on you all the time."
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