Don't Mess with the Kid!by Jim "Twitch" Tittle
Article Type: Military History
Article Date: December 30, 2002
Cradle Of AcesThere were many curious incidents to ponder in World War II. One of those included Ralph “Kid” Hofer. Most of us know the exploits of the 4th Fighter Group that flew P-47s and later transitioned to P-51Bs in early 1944. Squadrons in the 4th like the 334th and 336th included guys like Don Gentile, John Godfrey, James Goodson, Duane Beeson and Don Blakeslee to name a few. Reichsmarshall Hermann Göring even distinguished the 4th by mentioning them in a Radio Berlin broadcast saying, “We know where you’re based, you Debden air gangsters.”
|Ralph 'Kid' Hofer|
Along with the 334th and 336 were the 335th Squadron and a Headquarters Squadron based at Debden, England in the southeast corner of the isle just south of Duxford and north of London. It was one of many RAF airdromes given over to the Yanks when they arrived. Like all airfields in England it had been quite active during the Battle of Britain in 1940. No. 12 Group consisting of the 85th and 17th Squadrons flew Hurricanes on intercepts many times daily during that period.
By the time the 4th was operating full bore from Debden the war was going quite differently. In 1940 England stood alone against the scourge of Nazism. By 1943-44 the U.S. bomb groups and their escorts were taking the war home to Germany.
The 4th was born with personnel of the RAF Eagle Squadrons Nos. 71, 121 and 133 filled with American volunteers. Gentile, Godfrey and others came through the RCAF. From Canada to England to the RAF and finally into the U.S. Army Air Corps, Americans made their way to England. Where the USAAC had stringent qualifications the RCAF had a more relaxed policy and fellows like Godfrey or Gentile with peacetime flight experience simply had to demonstrate their ability to fly to get in.
Ralph Hofer was born Ralph K. Holbrook on July 22, 1921 but his father died at an early age and he acquired his stepfather’s name. He grew up in Salem Missouri, which was a small town so like many in the country. His small town ways soon yielded to big city lights when the family moved to Chicago. Ralph played semi-pro football there but took an interest in boxing liking the technical aspects and mechanics of the sport. Hofer wasn’t interested in “beating up” an opponent or receiving damage himself. He trophyed at the 1940 Golden Gloves Tournament in the light-heavyweight division.
In March 1941 he was in Detroit for a boxing tournament and crossed the border into Canada just to look around. He happened to find himself near the RCAF enlistment office and went in to see what was being offered. He’d had no interest in aviation of any kind but joined almost on a lark. He was soon learning to fly.
Hofer left for England in July 1942. Once there he did a bit of flying with the RAF in a training unit but was transferred to the USAF’s 4th Fighter Group a year later with the rank Flight Officer created for Anglo-to-American unit transferees. Later to be ace David Howe went into the 334th Squadron at Debden with him.
Perfect StartThe first aircraft assigned to him was a P-47C lettered QP-K and named Susan III. He put it to good use on October 8, 1943 on his first escort mission to Bremen. Colonel Don Blakeslee was leading the group that day when they were intercepted between Blankenberghe and Ostend, Holland by Bf 109Gs which promptly shot down Clyde Smith and Robert Patterson both of whom ended up as POWs. But during the action James Clark scored a kill that almost made him an ace at 4.5 and Duane Beeson became an ace on his way to 17.33 victories by downing two 109s.
But on this his first combat mission Ralph Hofer instinctively went to the assistance of a P-47 squadron mate. Whether it was Patterson’s or Smith’s plane is unknown but Hofer wheeled and dived from behind to blaze at the 109 that was firing on a Thunderbolt. Hofer lined up the Messerschmitt in the sight and pulled the trigger. The Jug shuddered as the eight fifties cut loose their deadly projectiles at the combined rate of 100 rounds per second but he was too late. The 109 and the P-47 both dropped into the Zuider Zee. The German didn’t get out. But for Kid Hofer it was a first mission-first kill and it couldn’t get any better than that.
As we’ll see, it wasn’t long before his antics began to wear thin. His most famous quote was one breaking radio silence to exclaim, “Gee, ain’t the Alps pretty!”
|Outran the 109s|
On the 20th of December he had to abort an escort mission to Bremen. This wasn’t all that unusual in the times. A minor mechanical fault appeared in the complex aircraft that might prevent full performance in combat so the pilots returned home. A misfiring spark plug, an elevated fluid temperature or slightly low oil pressure was enough to turn back. Often another plane went with the aborter to guard it or report its location if it had to go in with a dead engine. If there were a scant number of fighters in the air this might not happen so as to not dilute squadron strength. For whatever reason Hofer was flying back solo.
Rubbernecking was a pilot’s life insurance policy. The reason they wore silk flying scarves was not for fashion flair but to guard the neck from the rough wool fleece of the fight jackets. Without a scarf a pilot’s neck would rub raw. Hofer’s rubbernecking paid off when he spied three 109s that turned onto his six. He opened the throttle of the P-47 and the Pratt & Whitney belched black as the mixture enriched. Whatever fault caused him to abort the original mission was not apparent now as he ran for England. The 109s were not anywhere near enough to shoot but pursued the lone Jug halfway across the Channel finally losing sight of him in the hazy marine inversion layer.
This should have taught the Kid a lesson of how dangerous it was to be alone in combat. It didn’t.
|The Kid with Duke - check out the whitewall tires|
On the ground Hofer was often seen wearing his number seventy-eight football jersey. He kept his hair as long as regulations would permit. His best friend was a handsome German Shepard named “Duke.” He was allegedly a one-man dog who took commands from no one else. Hofer even took the canine aloft in his plane. He was no wild man at the pubs but enjoyed himself when not flying.
|Sho-Me. (Painting by Troy White)|
|Artwork on P-47 went to P-51|
In January 1944 Hofer was assigned a new P-47C with the number 41-6484 code lettered QP-L. This ship was named "Missouri Kid - Sho Me" partly for the fact that Missouri is called the “show me” state. The Kid would score only once in this plane on February 6th while the group was engaged with the Luftwaffe over Paris. He got a 109 west of the city while two 190s were claimed over the metropolis by Vermont Garrison and Bob Hobert. Hofer was alone when he took down the 109 but it didn’t bother him.
Enter The P-51sA week later Colonel Blakeslee procured the new P-51Bs for the group. The old Spitfire pilots from the Eagle Squadrons never had taken to the huge Thunderbolts but this Mustang was just right. Ralph was assigned a P-51B-15NA with the number 42-106924 with the same QP-L letters as the P-47. This ship was baptized Salem Representative for his hometown and was festooned with the same mule wearing boxer shorts and boxing gloves as seen on Sho Me’s cowl. The ship was natural metal finish and sported the bulbous Malcolm hood for improved visibility.
|Salem Representative. (Painting by Troy White)|
|'Salem Representative' nose art jacket.|
The 4th now moved to a time when several 4th pilots began to escalate their scores as they turned up more targets over Germany. On March 16th Hofer with Jim Clark nearby made a kill while on a mission to Munich. A Bf 110G attempted to escape the ravenous Mustangs down at 300 feet but the .50 caliber API’s sent it crashing. Salem Representative had drawn her first blood.
On March 18th he ended up hunting alone again on a mission deep into Germany near Manheim. His four guns sent a 109 smoking into the ground and smashed up another sending its pilot to his chute. Then the Mustang’s prop then ran away over-speeding as he closed in on a third enemy plane. Hofer broke and began to think what to do as he steered for Switzerland. He later said that he concluded, “It’s better to bail out in a neutral country.” But it set him thinking.
The two 109s would give him acedom at five victories but the proof was in the port wing gun camera. “I wanted to save that film,” he later said grinning. “I got over Switzerland just in time to see the Forts blast an airdrome back across the border, knocking out rows of Hun planes on the ground. There I was, then, ready to go over the side with the prop out of control hardly keeping the plane in the air. But what about that film? I figured my gas and decided to try to get back.”
The P-51 Pilot Training Manual describes the procedure for “Runaway Propellers” thus:
|Failure of the propeller governor is quite rare, and the chances are that you will never encounter it. When it does happen the prop runs away, that is, the blades go to full low pitch, resulting in engine speeds as high as 3,600 RPM or more. Obviously this speed must be reduced immediately or the engine will be totally ruined, necessitating a forced landing or bailout.|
If you are ever confronted with a runaway prop, the following procedure is in order.
On April 1st Hofer took out a 109 near Lake Constance and exactly a week later another fell to his guns over Celle. On the 11th yet another Messerschmitt 109 was claimed in a fight near Stettin. May 1st saw him become a double ace when the 109 pilot whose plane he was thrashing with fifties chose to bail out near Cologne.
On May 6th an Oak Leaf Cluster was added to his DFC and on the 8th he was made a 2nd lieutenant retroactive to April 22nd. He was reprimanded for “too much freelancing” referring to his lone wolf tactics of hunting. On the 12th of May he shared a 109 kill with Leonard Pierce and on the 21st he and Lt. Aubrey Hewatt teamed up to divide a Bu 131 trainer. Almost on cue he was telling the brass “see I’m a team player.”
The stories of the P-51 being mistaken for the somewhat similar profiled Bf 109 rang true on May 22nd. Near Kiel a P-38 hit popular 334th character Nick “Cowboy: Megura as he pursued three 109s. Megura’s stricken plane finally came down in Sweden. Though he was released in June it was a diplomatic consideration that he not return to combat. He had 11.80 kills at the time.
The 4th continued to pull missions deep into the Reich thanks, of course, to the P-51’s superb range. On May 24th Hofer appeared from nowhere to blast a 190 intent on attacking a straggling B-17. The German pilot sobered up and quickly bailed from the disintegrating Focke Wulf.
Just then Hofer saw his wingman, Tom Fraser pursuing the wingmen of the guy he’d just dispatched. “One of them made a split ‘S’ and Tom followed,” reported Hofer. “I then broke into the leader preventing him from firing on Lt. Fraser.” Salem Representative careened down from 14,000 to 10,000 feet as Hofer thumbed the trigger button atop the joystick. API began to take its toll and the German broke up toward a cloud as he dumped his canopy. He soon saw the FW crash and burn so he photographed the wreck to prove it was “his German.”
|May 28th vs. Uffz. Heinz Kunz's 109G-6. (Painting by Troy White)|
May ended as hot as it had begin on the 28th as Ralph claimed one of the eight 109s that the 4th destroyed over Magdeburg. Two Mustang pilots went down to become POWs though.
Ground AnticsThe triple air ace scored dangerous ground kills too. Blakeslee certainly stressed teamwork in his pilots. The rule was one ground target pass. Often targets of opportunity on the ground were prohibited due to the severe amount of defensive fire sent up against attackers. But the Kid cut out on his own at every occasion. He excelled by himself and was undaunted attacking planes on the ground.
The 8th AF originally awarded ground kills designated separately but included in a pilot’s tally so dangerous were they considered. Hofer scored fourteen times against aircraft on the ground. In the 4th FG only two men scored more—Claiborne Kinnard at seventeen and James Goodson at fifteen. Both took more time than Hofer to do it too. When fighters came down to strafe we must remember that every yahoo with a Mauser was firing besides the AA machine guns and light cannon. As we’ll see later, any rifle shot can be lucky.
An example of his lone wolf lust to kill almost got him in hot water with his superiors once. He’d aborted with a miss-feeding drop tank. It was quickly set right and Hofer set out alone on an unauthorized mission over Belgium. Finding no German aircraft to shoot at he strafed anti-aircraft positions to expend most of his ammo and basically have fun.
Upon his return Col. Clark approached his plane and demanded to know where he’d been.
“Sir, I had to turn back,” Hofer replied.
“But those guns have been fired,” countered Clark, “Explain that.”
“Oh that sir,” Hofer began as he thought fast. “Uh…I did that before I aborted.”
D-Day on Jun 6, 1944 saw the 4th in the thick of things flying an early morning sweep around the landing areas. Hofer was heard over the R/T to exclaim, “Woohoo, a train!” as he broke formation and beat up two locomotives. He returned with flak damage in a wing tank.
As we know 101-victory Luftwaffe ace Josef “Pips” Priller and his wingman made one quick strafing pass in their FW 190s as they were the only serviceable fighters in the area of the landings! But late in the day some other Luftwaffe units were on the prowl and a flight Hofer joined was bounced by 190A-8s. The Americans were busy strafing vehicles and had no lookout. Hofer narrowly escaped. Eight other planes and pilots weren’t so lucky.
|Rifle bullet brought it down. (Painting by Troy White)|
On the 11th Colonel Clark led the group against a 70-vehicle convoy. Later discovered as a rifle bullet, a slug had hit an oil line of Salem Representative’s Merlin engine. Noting the severe drop in oil pressure Hofer turned back as his plane hemorrhaged its lifeblood from it 12.5-gallon reservoir. Twelve-victory ace Deacon Hively heard Hofer on the radio, “I’m going down”
“Which side of the lines are you on?” asked Hively.
Cool as ice Hofer curtly replied, “Our side.”
“Okay, see you tomorrow. And get me a helmet too!” Hively added.
Hofer luckily found the only airfield in Normandy and was officially the 4th FG ‘s first member to set foot on the Continent. Hively got his German helmet, a canteen and an overdue library copy of Mein Kampf when Hofer returned to Debden!
June 21, 1944 saw the first Russia Shuttle mission in which American combat planes continued east to Russia after exiting the German target area for refuel and layover. Sadly, soon before, another pilot flying Salem Representative lost the ship and Hofer took a P-51B-7 numbered 43-6746 with the letters QP-X to Russia. Over Poland the Luftwaffe struck and got one B-17 plus a P-51 while the Mustangs confirmed two Germans. Hofer claimed a damaged on one.
At the end of the 1,600-mile 7.5-hour flight only Hofer’s Mustang was unaccounted for. The Kid had gone off on his own again and ran low on fuel. He landed at Kiev and refueled where he was taken for a possible German spy. Debden was contacted for confirmation of his plane’s ID numbers and he flew on to Piryaten to rejoin his squadron.
On the 26th the group was to make the next leg in the mission to bomb oil plants in Poland continuing on to land in Italy. At least that was the plan. Hofer and three others didn’t get off to join up with them until the 29th due to mechanical maladies. After receiving a warning from the flight leader that his course was wrong he continued anyway and ran low on fuel once again. This time some Spitfires directed him to Malta. Luck was still with the Kid.
Vanishing PointBut such had been his formation breaking solo activity he was barred from flying with the 334th on the Russia mission. Subsequently Captain George Stanford allowed him to tag along with the 335th. The 8th AF teamed up the 15th AF for a big show over Hungary from Foggia, Italy on July 2nd.
Over Budapest the Americans were met by German and Hungarian fighters—Bf 109G-6s, Bf 110G-2s, Me 410s and FW 190A-8s. The fierce resistance and wild aerial melee ultimately cost eleven B-24s, four B-17s and nine P51s. At any rate bombing of the oil refineries was not too accurate.
And now we come to the last chapter in the Kid Hofer story. Interestingly, there are two endings so you can take your pick. Be warned, both are curious.
Captain Stanford saw some fifty 109s as he passed over Budapest. He turned to give chase and found his wing tanks would not release. Instead of aborting he attempted to keep up with Blakeslee and pushed too much power, which blew the V-12 and covered the windscreen with oil. He spun down and found his plane on fire forcing him to belly in to a field. As he was taking off his chute he looked up to see Hofer’s Mustang close overhead. The Kid had followed him down to protect him. Not the antics of a lone wolf. Was he paying back the kindness of Stanford who allowed him to fly his wing when no one else wanted him?
Stanford stated, “There, right on his tail, was a 109 pouring lead into the Kid. The Kid was obviously too busy looking for me to realize what was happening, for he took no evasive action and was probably hit soon thereafter.”
|Hofer's QP-X. (Painting by Troy White)|
QP-X was found in Mostar, Yugoslavia some 285 miles away however. Did the Kid receive a wound that led to his loss of consciousness due to blood loss allowing him to fly on? Mostar, Yugoslavia is south from Budapest, Hungary. If one were returning to Foggia, Italy it is a logical waypoint.
After the war it was pieced together that one Leo Krizsevszky of the Royal Hungarian Air Force had made a claim for a P-51 relative to the geographic location where Stanford went down but only received a “probable” since his target did not go down in their territory. This sounds suspect since any aircraft that flew 285 miles before crashing would have likely been claimed as a “damaged.” Besides, in the turmoil of the war how did anyone know that a P-51 crashing 285 miles away in another country had anything to do with another combat so far away? How is it possible to “guesstimate,” even in post-war times, that anyone over Budapest was absolutely responsible for Hofer’s crash? At 285 MPH it would have taken an hour to get there.
B-24 gunners killed Krizsevszky on July 26, 1944 so it was never possible to ask the pilot and draw a positive conclusion. Was the Hungarian claiming Stanford’s P-51 and not Hofer’s? Was Stanford’s plane on fire due to Krizsevszky’s gunfire or just hot oil and fuel from the blown engine?
The other story about Hofer’s disappearance that day was that he broke formation and dived down to strafe an airfield. A Luftwaffe pilot who ended up with eighteen kills by the name of Walter Boener claimed QP-X as his.
Was it possible that Krizsevszky didn’t mortally wound the Kid and once he eluded him he strafed the Luftwaffe field where Boener finished the job? Did Hofer get any kills we don’t know about during the time no one saw him?
This writer knows a Hungarian pilot who told me their 109Fs at this same time were armed with one 20 mm and two 7.9 mms. Hardly the thing to attack bombers with. They didn’t have Gs with heavier guns. Did Krizsevszky have any 20mm rounds left if he’d attacked B-17s or was he popping at Hofer with the little 7.9s only?
Are both pilots wrong and Hofer’s demise was caused by ground fire? As recent facts have been tested and come to light that Roy Brown in a Sopwith Camel did not shoot down Manfred von Richtofen in WWI and was in fact fatally hit by a ground-based gunner we can only assume Hofer’s true fate. In either scenario the Kid traveled those 285 miles after any combat over Budapest.
He was truly a lone wolf warrior in the air, that enigmatic figure personifying the hero of the old western where the lone stranger triumphs over the odds with his fast gun. His character has been embellished in Hollywood epics since WWII as that rebellious fellow who constantly screws up and other guys get killed as he tunnel-visions on a kill. Right down to Top Gun and beyond the scripts have portrayed many fighter pilots like this as a virtual antithesis of Don Gentile and John Godfrey who themselves personify aerial combat teamwork.
Ralph Hofer claimed 16.5 aerial kills and 14.0 on the ground. Today the Victory Claims Board has adjusted his score to 15.0 in the air and no one talks about those hideously tough ground kills that made many top aces POWS from defensive fire.
The Kid ended up with six Oaks Leaf Clusters to his Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with three OLCs and the Belgian Croix de Guerre with Palm.
For more info:
- Fourth Fighter Group
- Nose Art Jackets
- Troy White's Art of the Fourth Fighter Group
- More of Troy White's Paintings of "Salem Representative"
- EAW skin for Ralph "Kid" Hofer's "Salem Representative".
- Boyce, Col. Ward J.
American Fighter Aces Album
American Fighter Aces, AZ. 1996
- Freeman, Roger A.
Mustang At War
Roger A. Freeman U.S.A. 1974
- Friedheim, Eric
Macrae-Smith Co., PA 1945
- Gurney, Gene
Five Down And Glory
G.P. Putnam's Sons, NY 1958
- Headquarters AAF Training Command
Pilot Training Manual for the Mustang (AAF Manual 51-127-5)
Office of Flying Safety, Winston-Salem, NC, 1945
- Hess, William H.
Fighting Mustang: The Chronicle Of The P-51
Doubleday & Company, NY 1970