by Paul B. Cora
He could be described as reckless, impulsive, undisciplined, lucky, fearless, and also as one of the most successful fighter pilots in the history of the U.S. Army Air Forces. A standout individualist in an outfit known for its individuality, Ralph K. Hofer’s meteoric rise as a high-scoring fighter pilot in World War II’s European theater has become the stuff of legend. From his feat of downing an enemy plane on his first combat mission to his insatiable penchant for engaging the Luftwaffe wholly independent of flight, squadron, and group, “Kid” Hofer amazed and confounded his contemporaries and today remains a compelling figure in the history of the Eighth Air Force.
Dead at age 23 with official credit for 30.5 enemy planes destroyed in air combat and ground strafing, he was the second highest–scoring Eighth Air Force fighter pilot to be killed in action during World War II.
For decades since the war, Hofer’s exact fate has remained a mystery, leaving historians to speculate on the events of his final mission on July 2, 1944. Recent research, however, has uncovered a number of facts that bring closure to his story and which now make it possible to piece together the fate of this remarkable pilot.
An Impulsive Start to His Career as a Fighter Pilot
Details of Hofer’s somewhat restless early life are sketchy, many of them coming from wartime press interviews. He was born Ralph Halbrook on a farm near Salem, Mo., in 1921, and later took his stepfather’s surname when his mother remarried. Athletically inclined, Hofer boxed as a youth during the 1930s and, after moving to Chicago in the prewar years, had some success in Golden Gloves amateur tournaments. Though briefly enrolled in a junior college where he showed interest in becoming a commercial artist, he returned to his native Missouri in 1940, taking a civilian job at Fort Leonard Wood.
The carefree impulsiveness which typified Hofer’s career as a fighter pilot was also largely responsible for getting the young Missourian into the war. According to Virginia Irwin, a war correspondent writing for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1944, Hofer’s pre-war plans had included anything but learning to fly. While working at Ft. Wood he hatched a scheme to pull up stakes yet again and headed for California where he hoped to make his way as a prize fighter. In the fall of 1941, he struck north to Detroit, Mich., where he contracted to deliver a new 1942 Hudson automobile from the factory to a purchaser on the West Coast in exchange for travel expenses.
By chance, while awaiting the availability of the car, he took a day outing to Windsor, Ontario. After crossing the Detroit River, he was directed to a Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) recruiting office by a well-meaning immigration official who assumed that the young American had the crossed border to join the RCAF. Immediately seizing the idea, Hofer was soon enrolled as an aviation cadet in Canada’s burgeoning air force.
Hofer Jumps to the USAAF
As an American in the RCAF, Ralph Hofer was in good company, though the spontaneity of his enlistment surely set him apart. Despite no prior aviation experience, he had no trouble completing elementary and advanced flight training in Canada and in October 1942 was posted to Britain. When months of additional training in England yielded no chance for action, Hofer eventually took the opportunity to transfer to the U.S. Army Air Forces. With his flight time, he could expect to be placed in a combat unit then flying missions over occupied Europe.
While his changeover to the USAAF in June 1943 gave him an immediate change of status from sergeant pilot, his RCAF rank, to flight officer (a rank bestowed on non-commissioned USAAF pilots), but he was required to undergo additional training on the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighter before joining a frontline unit. After completing his training in the fall of 1943, Flight Officer Hofer found himself headed for U.S. Army Air Forces Station F-356, Debden, Essex, for duty with the 334th Fighter Squadron, 4th Fighter Group.
Hofer’s combat unit was already known for its daring and individuality. The 4th Fighter Group, Eighth Air Force, had been created in 1942 by the wholesale transfer to the USAAF of three Royal Air Force “Eagle” squadrons composed entirely of American volunteers. Independent by nature, these men had made their way to Canada and Britain for the chance to fight while the U.S. was officially neutral. Though not one of the Eagles who formed the new unit, Hofer shared their spirit, and in his own way came to personify it.
An Amazing First Combat Mission
Hofer’s first combat mission took place on October 8, 1943, as the 4th Fighter Group provided escort to Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers attacking targets in Bremen. As a new and inexperienced pilot, he was assigned as wingman to Captain James A. Clark, a veteran who had served with 71 Eagle Squadron. As Clark’s wingman, Hofer’s primary duty was to cover his leader, watching for enemy aircraft and staying in formation with him no matter what. As events transpired, he became separated when German fighters attacked his flight of P-47s over the Netherlands.
“We were ordered to break because they were coming down into position above and behind us,” he later reported. “I flicked and spun down coming out … west of Zwolle.” As the remainder of Hofer’s flight mixed it up with the German interceptors, the absence of the new pilot was hardly missed. In fact, Hofer was unable to rejoin elements of his flight or squadron, and when he landed alone at Debden later on he was among the last to return from the mission. As he taxied to his hardstand, ground crewmen noted curiously that the protective tape placed by armorers over the clean muzzles of the Thunderbolt’s .50 caliber machine guns was broken, indicating that the fledgling pilot had triggered his guns—a rare occurrence for a pilot on his first combat mission.
When Hofer reported to his intelligence officer how he came to fire his guns, he related a seemingly unbelievable story. After being separated from his flight, he headed west toward home but soon saw a German Messerschmitt Me-109 fighter chasing a P-47 at low level. “Before I could close I saw the Me-109 fire, and smoke came from the P-47, which turned down and to the right from 1,000 feet altitude. I followed the Me-109 closing fast … to about 100 yards, opened fire and saw strikes and flashes on the [enemy aircraft]. I had to shove the stick forward to keep from ramming him as he turned over and went down into a steep dive. Oil on my wind screen prevented me from seeing any more.”
Heading out over the coast toward England, Hofer’s adventure was not yet over. “I was then down to about 300 feet so I started for base. A half-mile off shore I was shot at by a small trawler. I took several short squirts at it.”
Hofer’s claim on his first mission caused more than a little stir among the veterans at Debden. Most had made dozens of combat sorties before getting a chance to even fire their guns. When a number of senior members of 334 Squadron gathered to view the new pilot’s gun-camera film, however, they were forced to concede the impossible. When the film began to roll, there, on the screen, was a Messerschmitt 109 absorbing crippling punishment from close range.
A Growing Reputation for Lone Wolf Tactics
Though his combat career had begun remarkably, it was nearly four months before Hofer again returned to Debden with a story to tell. On February 6, 1944, he succeeded in bringing down another Me-109 over France, and from that point on his personal score began to grow. During a period of just under five months after his second victory, his short career reached its zenith, along with his reputation for “lone wolf” tactics and narrow escapes from hair-raising combat situations.
Hofer’s growing penchant for remarkable incidents was well-illustrated during an escort mission to Bavaria flown on March 18, 1944. The 4th Fighter Group had recently traded its P-47s for North American P-51 Mustangs, and on that day Hofer was assigned to fly the number four position in the 334th Squadron’s White Flight—in practice the wingman to the pilot is in the number four position. Once again, the fact that his primary duty was guarding his leader’s tail did not stand in the way of making a good bounce. When he spotted an unsuspecting Me-109, he promptly split from his leader and dove on the German fighter which, battered by .50 caliber hits, was seen to crash in a ball of fire. While climbing to rejoin his flight, he then sighted another Me-109 and immediately gave chase during which the German pilot, suddenly glimpsing the P-51 close on his tail, elected to bail out.
Hofer’s separation from the rest of his flight was complicated by radio malfunction and he remained on his own—a lone Mustang deep in Germany. Shortly after downing the second Messerschmitt, he spotted a German airfield and cruised the vicinity hoping for more targets. After chasing a third Me-109 which he lost in cloud, he decided to set course for the target area, Munich, with a view to rejoining his flight.
While en route, Hofer spotted yet another pair of Messerschmitts which passed above and in front of him and, thinking nothing of the odds, he proceeded to climb at full throttle after the two Me-109s. As he did so, however, his Mustang apparently suffered a malfunction of the propeller pitch control causing the prop to windmill. With the propeller blades suddenly unable to “bite,” Hofer’s Mustang began to shudder and lose airspeed.
“A terrific amount of boost and r.p.m.’s was recorded,” he told his Intelligence Officer after landing that day. Suddenly, concerned that his plane would not be able to make the long trip back to England due to the mysterious engine trouble, he chose internment over capture and put the aircraft into a shallow glide toward the Swiss border. Once over Switzerland, he went through his bailout procedure, which included jettisoning his canopy. Just as he was poised to exit the cockpit, however, the pitch problem inexplicably righted itself and his plane began to gain flying speed.
“I then averaged up my gas and decided that I could possibly make it back with a little luck,” Hofer said later. Luck, as usual, was on Hofer’s side, and his canopyless P-51 touched down at Manston, the emergency landing field in Kent, with a mere six gallons of gasoline to spare.
Hofer’s Boyish Charm Makes a Lasting Impression
The two victories on the incredible mission of March 18 made “Kid” Hofer an ace (he had downed a twin engined Me-110 two days earlier). Though still a flight officer, in effect one of the lowest ranking members of the 4th’s air echelon, he was beginning to make a lasting impression on his fellow pilots, not only for his tendency to chase German planes on his own, but for his irrepressible boyish and happy-go-lucky manner.
With markedly long brown hair, Hofer’s adherence to uniform standards was anything but regulation. As part of his flying garb, he donned a bright blue football jersey emblazoned with the number 78 in orange. On his left hand he wore a gold snake ring, and according to one account, he had his Class A uniform blouse “tailored in zoot-suit fashion.” Around the base at Debden, Hofer could often be seen frolicking with his adopted Alsatian dog, Duke, who had previously belonged to another pilot who had bailed out over France.
According to James Goodson in his memoir Tumult in the Clouds, Duke was not just seen on the ground, but occasionally in the air, being taken aloft for local flights by his master who left his parachute behind to make room in the cockpit of his single-seat fighter. As an example of Hofer’s boyish sense of humor, he would delight in crouching down to create the illusion of the Alsatian dog at the controls, then pass another unsuspecting pilot airborne on a routine flight over Debden.
Concerns About Air Discipline
While Hofer’s exploits in the air brought him into the limelight as one of the hottest fighter pilots in the ETO in the spring of 1944, his lack of air discipline provided continual headaches to his superiors. No one could argue that it was not a fighter pilot’s job to engage and shoot down the enemy, and indeed, the 4th Fighter Group was founded in traditions of aggressiveness and, to an extent, individuality. The 4th’s air leaders were at times forced to walk a fine line between fostering both aggressiveness and air discipline, particularly in Hofer’s case.
It was imperative that the basic unit of battle formation, the two plane element of leader and wingman, remain intact. At times following one of Hofer’s one-man shows, frustrated flight and squadron commanders would suggest that he be grounded and taught a lesson. The discussion always returned to the practicality of grounding a fighter pilot who brought back concrete results.
Throughout the spring of 1944, the 4th Fighter Group continued its regular deep penetrations of German airspace as the struggle for daylight air superiority over Europe raged. In some of the most savage escort battles of the war, the group continued to dole out punishment to the Luftwaffe on an unprecedented scale and also to suffer its own heavy losses.
Despite his carefree attitude toward air discipline, Hofer’s luck continued to hold as his personal score grew. By the end of March 1944, he added a Focke-Wulf Fw-190 fighter to his list of victories, and another five enemy planes fell to his guns in April. During a phenomenal spree over the last 10 days of May, Hofer, by then promoted to 2nd lieutenant, would claim 14.5 German planes destroyed in the air and in ground strafing.
On the evening of D-Day, flying the second of two sorties, Hofer was nearly lost when a large force of German fighters jumped his squadron which was preoccupied strafing a German road convoy in Normandy. Of the four P-51s in Blue Flight of the 334th Squadron, only Hofer escaped being shot down. Just five days later, Hofer’s plane was hit by small arms fire over France, and he was forced to make an emergency landing at a temporary strip in the invasion beachhead. It was a close call, but his luck held once again and he later returned to Debden without so much as a scratch.
During the third week in June 1944, Virginia Irwin, the noted war correspondent for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, arrived at Debden to pen an in-depth story on the exploits of Kid Hofer. The result constitutes a significant portion of what is known about his background and attitude toward his own growing celebrity status. Asked by Irwin to consider the possibility of returning home as a hero, he replied, “No guy minds being a hero…. In fact, I kinda like being a hero. But if they toss in that old stuff about how I helped to liberate the conquered peoples of Europe, I’ll go beet red.” Commenting on his success as a fighter pilot, a self-effacing side emerged. It was “just one of those things,” he observed.
The 4th Fighter Group Assigned to Shuttle Bombing Mission
At the time of Irwin’s visit to Debden, the 4th Fighter Group was preparing for a special mission of great secrecy and prestige. Just before D-Day, the Italian-based 15th Air Force had sent a force of B-17s with P-51 escort to bomb targets in Eastern Europe and then on to the Soviet Union where they landed at specially prepared bases. Known as shuttle bombing, these missions not only gave American heavy bombers the chance to hit targets normally beyond their range by eliminating the return trip, but also provided tremendous propaganda value and bolstered cooperation with the Soviets.
At the end of June, the Eighth Air Force was poised to duplicate the 15th’s shuttle feat by sending B-17s with escort from England against targets near Berlin and then on to the Ukraine non-stop. Accompanying the bombers would be the red-nosed Mustangs of the 4th along with one squadron from the 352nd Fighter Group. Hofer had been grounded for the mission by the 4th’s Commander, Colonel Don Blakeslee, for refusing to be vaccinated in preparation for the upcoming shuttle. Even worse, Blakeslee denied Hofer access to the bar at Debden’s officer’s club. In the end, Hofer relented and took his shots; Blakeslee relented and cleared him for the mission. At that point the last great adventure of Ralph K. Hofer was set in motion.
On June 21, 1944, over 1,100 heavy bombers with nearly the same number of escorting fighters rose from bases throughout England bound for targets in Berlin and eastern Germany. Of these, the shuttle force consisted of 144 B-17s escorted by the 68 P-51s of the 4th and 352nd Groups. Colonel Blakeslee led the shuttle escort up from Debden at 0728 hours then initiated an easterly climb for high-altitude rendezvous with the bombers. He had briefed his pilots on the importance of avoiding combat with German fighters if at all possible, since anyone forced to jettison his drop tanks before passing Berlin would be unable to complete the nearly 1,500 mile trip to the Ukraine. This mission, he told them, was strictly for show, and he expected all 68 Mustangs to land en masse at Piryatin some seven and one half-hours after takeoff. Additionally, he cautioned them about Soviet sensitivity to having the Americans in their home airspace and warned that stragglers deviating from the briefed flight plan were likely to be attacked by Red fighters.
The Squadron Makes it to Russia, But Without Hofer
The course of the shuttle mission went smoothly enough, though over western Poland one Mustang and a B-17 were lost in a brief encounter with a formation of Fw-190s. After crossing the Russian fighting front, the American bombers parted company with their fighter escort and headed toward the designated base at Poltava, leaving Blakeslee and his Mustangs to make their way to Piryatin. Navigating carefully over desolate and unfamiliar portions of the Ukraine, some tense moments passed as the estimated time of arrival approached and fuel gauges neared empty. In a monumental demonstration of navigational skill, however, Blakeslee got the four squadrons of P-51s down at Piryatin exactly on time.
Before an audience of Soviet dignitaries and Red Air Force officers, Blakeslee and his pilots taxied their Mustangs into position, shut down their engines, and emerged after one of the longest flights many of them would ever complete in a single-seat fighter. Taking stock of the force, it became clear that all but two P-51s had made it to Piryatin on time. One had been lost in the engagement over Poland, and the other, piloted by Lieutenant Ralph K. Hofer, was missing. As Blakeslee learned later on, Hofer had become separated during the brief dogfight but had nonetheless plodded eastward to Kiev where he made an unscheduled landing at a Red Air Force field.
On June 26, the shuttle force took off on its second leg and after hitting targets in eastern Europe flew on to bases in Italy. Released by the Soviets at Kiev, Hofer followed several days behind with two other pilots whose Mustangs were delayed by mechanical problems. Navigation never being his strong suit, Hofer and the two other pilots split up en route following a brief directional dispute. While his departed comrades managed to reach Italy, Hofer eventually landed on Malta, safe again, but well off course.
Hofer eventually rejoined his squadron in time to participate in a July 2 mission to Budapest, Hungary, for which Blakeslee had offered his P-51s as additional escorts for the 15th Air Force’s heavy bombers. In the course of the mission, a large formation of Me-109s was encountered over Hungary, and Blakeslee’s pilots quickly engaged them. A savage melee ensued, and when the scattered elements of the 4th returned to Italy later that day six Mustangs were missing, including that of Ralph Hofer.
Being overdue in Hofer’s case was a matter of routine. So many times before he had disappeared only to return later with a story to tell and the gun camera film to prove it. Captain Frank C. Jones of the group’s 335th Squadron was among the last to see Hofer’s plane as the group climbed to engage the enemy aircraft at the start of the July 2 encounter. With no further information forthcoming, there was no alternative but to officially list Hofer as missing in action when he failed to turn up by the following day.
Several weeks after the conclusion of the Britain-Russia-Italy shuttle mission, word was received that Hofer’s body had been identified within the wreckage of his P-51 several hundred miles south of Budapest in Morstar, Yugoslavia. While it was unclear what exactly had happened, some surmised that he had likely been downed by a member of the Luftwaffe’s elite JG 52 fighter squadron, which was operating in the area at that time, and for decades afterward this speculation solidified into legend. His remains were eventually recovered and reburied outside St. Louis, and for more than 50 years what had taken place on July 2, 1944, remained a mystery.
What Really Happened to Kid Hofer?
The first break in the case took place in the 1990s when the recollections of George Stanford, a former pilot in the 335th Squadron came to light in a memoir by former 4th Fighter Group pilot Frank Speer and later in Speer’s history of the group, The Debden Warbirds. On the July 2, 1944, mission to Budapest, Stanford had been leading the 335th Squadron with Hofer filling in as his wingman. At the start of the engagement with the Me-109s, Stanford was beset with mechanical difficulties. His drop tanks refused to jettison, and then suddenly his engine threw a piston rod forcing him to break away and head for the deck.
With no hope of nursing the crippled engine back to Italy, Stanford belly landed in a Hungarian wheatfield and was later taken prisoner. While standing near the wreckage of his plane, he spotted a lone P-51, which proceeded to buzz him at low level. The plane, he related years later, was none other than that of his wingman, Ralph Hofer, who apparently followed him down. What Stanford then saw behind the unsuspecting Hofer made his heart sink—an Me-109 following in perfect firing position. The Messerschmitt opened fire just before the two aircraft disappeared from sight, leaving Stanford convinced of Hofer’s fate.
Stanford’s account brought more pieces of the puzzle into place before the full story was uncovered. Subsequent research into Hungarian military records revealed that one Ensign Leo Krizsevszky, a pilot in the Me-109 equipped 101 “Puma” Regiment of the Hungarian Air Force, had in fact claimed an American P-51 on July 2, 1944. Full credit was withheld since Krizsevszky was unable to give the exact location of his victim, and no wreckage had turned up on Hungarian soil. Furthermore, Krizsevszky was killed on July 26, 1944, while attacking 15th Air Force bombers en route to targets in Austria.
While the claim of the Hungarian pilot dovetailed with the account of George Stanford, it did little to explain why Hofer’s body was recovered near Morstar, Yugoslavia, some 300 miles from Budapest. It was not until aviation artist and Hofer biographer Troy White published his book Kidd Hofer: Last of the Screwball Aces in 2003 that full details of the young ace’s final mission could be pieced together. Through painstaking research in both German and Yugoslav military records, White reveals that Hofer was not downed by an enemy fighter pilot, but like so many Allied aces of World War II, he succumbed to ground fire over the German operated Morstar Sud airfield.
As White points out, it is entirely possible that Hofer was attacked and possibly damaged by Krizsevszky as was recounted by George Stanford. White further argues, convincingly, that Hofer may have been attempting to nurse his damaged Mustang back to Italy and was attempting an emergency landing at the German base, or in keeping with his character, he may even have intended to strafe the field. What is certain according to the records of the flak unit stationed at Morstar Sud airfield is that a P-51 was shot down at low level and crashed into one of the drome’s flak emplacements at 1204 hours on July 2, 1944. The body of the American pilot was subsequently identified as Lieutenant Ralph K. Hofer, 334th Fighter Squadron, 4th Fighter Group, USAAF.
Ralph Hofer’s short but eventful career with the 4th Fighter Group has earned him a distinguished place within the legend and lore of World War II aviation. Among a breed of individuals for whom flamboyance and daring were hallmarks, Hofer stood out as exceptional to the point of reckless. His very involvement in the air war was the result of an unforeseen opportunity, which he immediately seized. His approach to combat flying was little different, and to close with the enemy he took every opportunity as it came without concern for the risk. Ranked as number 20 among some 260 Eighth Air Force fighter aces of World War II, Hofer demonstrated the old adage that fortune favors the bold, but also proved that fortune can be an all too fleeting commodity.
Paul B. Cora is a World War II aviation historian who has written on a range of USAAF subjects. He is also the author of Yellowjackets! a narrative history of the 361st Fighter Group, Eighth Air Force, in World War II. Mr. Cora writes from Towson, Md.