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Service: A Story of Intelligence, Courage and Bravery

The cracks of rifles filled the air in Da Nang, Vietnam while the sun was shining at its brightest. Life and death was at stake each time he rose from bed. As he went out to complete his tasks for the day, the man was always aware of his surroundings. There was no other choice, otherwise he takes the risk of his life at the expense of the enemy.

That man, James Crist Hoffman, is my grandfather. Working in the Air Force for almost half a decade, he was dedicated and worked hard for his country. His work did not go unnoticed. His thrilling and intriguing story of service is one that starts before his birth.

Hoffman was living an average life when he graduated from Gettysburg College in June of 1964. Different career choices popped in and out of his head. One career that was common in his family was serving in the military.

His four uncles, as well as his father, served in World War II at the same time. All came home safely.

Hoffman’s father, James W. Hoffman, was a radio instructor in the Navy. He used broadband radio to help intercept signals from the enemy and transport those signals back to his base. He was stationed at Great Lakes Naval Training Center, near Waukegan, Illinois. James W. Hoffman served in the military for two years.

These are a collection of hats collected during Hoffman's military career. (Photo courtesy of Matt Wiener).
These are a collection of hats collected during Hoffman’s military career. (Photo courtesy of Matt Wiener).

At first, James C. Hoffman,(my grandfather) was questionable about following in his family’s footsteps to serve, though he did enroll in the ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Core) while at Gettysburg. While he had told the officials of ROTC he was not interested in serving, they sent him a letter asking to reconsider. In the midst of the of the decision making process, Hoffman had a talk with his father about making the choice, and as Hoffman said, his father regretted not making serving in the military a career. 

The talk did its part. However, there were other reasons that inspired Hoffman to serve. When he was younger boy, Hoffman’s Boy Scout troop visited Olmstead Air Force base in Middletown, Pennsylvania. This trip gave Hoffman a first hand experience at what life is like in the Air Force. “I’ve always been very fascinated by jets,” said Hoffman.  

On September 1, 1964, Hoffman arrived at Goodfellow Army base in San Angelo,Texas, as a Second Lieutenant. Feeling nervous and pumped up for what was ahead of him, Hoffman stepped into service with a good attitude. His goal was to become an intelligence officer for the Air Force. However, it wasn’t all action from the beginning.

Hoffman was placed into casual status as he awaited acceptance into USAF Intelligence Communicator school. He waited for six months. During the time of waiting, Hoffman taught a basic psychology course. He felt a real connection with his students, which were assigned to locations all over the globe, after taking his class.

As he continued to wait to enter IC (intelligence communicator) school, Hoffman also worked as an administrative officer for the wing chaplains office where he completed paperwork and wrote reports.

It wouldn’t be until March of 1965 that Hoffman would enter IC school. He learned skills to help detect enemy signals, and other required skills to be an Intelligence Officer. Hoffman was handed his diploma, as an honors graduate.

After graduating, Hoffman was stationed at Clark Air Force base in the Philippines. He was placed in 6922, a security wing. While in the Philippines, Hoffman, an Intelligence Communications officer (flight commander in charge of 100 men)  with the rank First Lieutenant, monitored the South China Communist Air Defense System.

He was part of a group that intercepted communications between the Chinese communists (ChiCom) radar sites as they tracked aircrafts. The communication was in Morse code, which included only dots and dashes. The analysts of the group broke the code and interpreted what was intercepted.

While stationed in the Philippines, Hoffman was also a traffic analysis officer. He briefed a Colonel, also a wing commander, every Friday, giving information on enemy aircraft’s and other information about the enemy.

During July of 1966, Hoffman was called to serve and be stationed in Vietnam at the time of the Vietnam War. He transferred to Da Nang, Vietnam, where Hoffman was included in the 6924 Security Squadron. Hoffman’s role was to fill in for a watch commander who had left, as well as train the replacement who went in to take the commander’s place.

Next to Hoffman's picture lays the uniform he wore in Vietnam. (Photo courtesy of Matt Wiener).
Next to Hoffman’s picture lays the uniform he wore in Vietnam. (Photo courtesy of Matt Wiener).

“I never had to kill anyone and I’m thankful for that,” said Hoffman, in an excerpt from his presentation about his time at service. However, his job was not stress free while fighting in the Vietnam War. (12.1 outfit to the side)

Hoffman worked midnight shifts, from 12 a.m. to 8 a.m. In turn, he had no choice but to sleep during the day, and even sleeping was a challenge in Vietnam. F-4C fighter bombers were taking off constantly. Gunshots entered the air continually. How could the man ever sleep if there was so much happening to keep him awake?

“Maybe it was good it was hard to sleep. It was best to sleep with one eye open anyway because we were worried about getting our throats cut,” Hoffman continued in the presentation.

Death, tragedy and drug use were daily occurrences in Da Nang. While doing his job, Hoffman had chances to talk to different kinds of men working for their countries’ military. He conversed with two Australian cargo aircraft pilots, who told him stories of what techniques they used to get Vietcong (Vietnam communists, the enemy at that time) prisoners to talk. This included throwing prisoners off a helicopter 10,000 feet in the air when they refused to talk.

12.1 Vietnam

Though he served in Vietnam for two months, Hoffman is fully aware of the effects the war has taken on him. There is one photo that he saw from Life magazine that has stuck with him. A woman had a body bag, with what one can assume a loved one lays deceased inside, delivered to her. The pure emotion on the woman’s face tells the entire story. Even though this picture was taken after he left Da Nang, Hoffman uses it as a reference to his days during the war. 

Hoffman continued his service with the USAF in September 1967. He was stationed at Kelly Air Force base, in San Antonio, Texas. His rank moved up during his time in San Antonio, to Captain. Hoffman worked as a plans officer for the HQ of USAF security. His main job was to review plans to put into action as the war was going on. “One of my more exciting plans while on the job was, a plan that stated that Aldabra Island and Diego Garcia would have Air Force bases there, in order to gain more information on the enemies,” said Hoffman.

He also used electronic warfare while in San Antonio. The warfare was using the best technology available in order to jam their own radar nets. They frequently sent transmissions to other bases to throw off their enemies, who were tracking their nets simultaneously.

Hoffman, while on the job, sporadically briefed a two-star General. While briefing this General, the weather was very important. It would critically affect any plans put into place, and potentially could halt them for a moment. Hoffman also received “snowflakes” — notes and questions hand-written by the general that he had to answer.

On September 1, 1968, Hoffman made the decision to leave after four years of service in the Air Force.

There was a variety of reasons he left. He wanted to stay with his wife and start a family. Hoffman is a family man and became a middle school history and English teacher. His love of teaching was inspired by his mother, who taught third grade for many years.

The life of serving in the military had its positives and negatives.

“Though there are advantages to the military lifestyle, there is a big disadvantage; while in service, you are at the mercy of the government for your lifestyle,” said Hoffman.

More than fifty years after his service, Hoffman admits that he did not pay much attention to Veteran’s Day until he got older. It did not stick with him as much at the time.

In recent years, however, Hoffman has come to accept the recognition and feel proud because of it.

My grandfather was never really one to boast about his past accomplishments. Yet, as a veteran, it feels almost necessary to get well-deserved recognition from peers. He continues his stories of respect from peers as a veteran throughout recent years.  
In 2012, Hoffman and his wife visited Mount Rushmore with family. Every night, there is an official lighting ceremony. A part of the ceremony is named ‘Salute to Veterans’ — its purpose is to honor veterans who attend. The veterans stand on stage and are honored by touching an American flag that was previously lowered, in order to leave their legacy on the flag.

Hoffman recalls how back during his days of service, veterans coming home from service were not treated the same way veterans are in present day. He remembers reading newspapers that included stories of protests against those who returned home from the Vietnam Conflict.

Anti war protesters greeted returning veterans viciously in the late 60s during Hoffman’s last years of service. The protesters threw red paint onto those returning from service. “Red was the color of communism, so they were coloring them as communists,” Hoffman remembers. Other acts of harassment on the veterans included spitting, yelling, and protest signs.

Though Hoffman was not involved in the protests, these stories have stuck with him since his retirement from service, and through his thirty year teaching career in Upstate New York.

He expected similar protests from when he returned on leave. Hopping off the plane, on edge for any red paint, but to his surprise, Hoffman was not encountered by any protesters. Due to not full on expressing he was a veteran, Hoffman saved himself the trouble, which benefited him.

Hoffman stands beside the Vietnam War memorial, located outside the Clayton town center. (Photo courtesy of Matt Wiener).
Hoffman stands beside the Vietnam War memorial, located outside the Clayton town center. (Photo courtesy of Matt Wiener).

Recently in Clayton, North Carolina (Hoffman’s current residence), the town unveiled a memorial to commemorate all of those who served in the Vietnam War. Pasted on the front of the memorial is the following message: “ALL GAVE SOME- SOME GAVE ALL……. Dedicated to the memory of all who proudly served and protected their country”. In between the two messages are the logos of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard. 

Located outside of the Clayton Town Center, the memorial is open to the public for anyone to reflect. The memorial is especially meaningful  for Hoffman, who feels respected as a veteran who fought in Vietnam.

Even though his days of service are far behind him, Hoffman does miss some parts of serving. “[What I miss most about service was] being able to make a difference in the world and doing something that mattered,” said Hoffman.

Now a grandfather, husband and retired teacher, Hoffman lives quietly at his residence a half hour away from Raleigh. Though Veterans Day has come and passed, it is only right to continue to give respect. Thank you for your service, Mr. Hoffman.


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