Edgar L. Hoffman arrived at Utah Beach five days after D-Day, the Allied invasion at Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944.
The bloodiest of the fighting was finished. Yet right there up in the sky, he says, was a German airplane buzzing the troops as they moved off the beach. But it soon became apparent that the plane was nothing more than a gnatty nuisance rather than a genuine threat.
“It was the last plane the Germans had in that area, and the pilot was just being an aggravation. Some of us shot at him with our rifles. He was harmless because he had no ammunition,” says Hoffman, who served with the 312th Service Group supplying bombs and ammo for the 50th Fighter Group, which had P-47 Thunderbolts.
Throughout the war, the planes provided the aerial charge ahead of the tanks and ground troops of Gen. George S. Patton Jr.’s 3rd Army to soften up the German lines as the Allies reclaimed Europe from the Nazis.
But for Hoffman and his buddies, it was first things first.
They moved off the beach about a mile inland and took up residence in a hedgerow for about a month.
“One day, I spotted a Jeep pull up at the end of our hedgerow, and Gen. Eisenhower, Gen. Bradley and Gen. Montgomery all got out and had a brief conversation and then left. I think they were checking on how things were going. I felt a little shocked to see them.”
The excitement of seeing the supreme Allied commander, Army Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower; the invasion force’s U.S. commander, Army Gen. Omar N. Bradley; and his British counterpart, Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery, soon passed, and one afternoon during a lull, the 19-year-old Hoffman and another soldier decided to go out and do some souvenir hunting.
“We ought to have had our heads examined. We didn’t know if the area had been cleared of mines. I found a dead German in a foxhole and took his rifle,” Hoffman says. “I later sold it for $25.”
He soon learned that shots from a rifle, while a necessary tool of war, were nothing compared with the damage that bomb-laden planes could inflict on the enemy. He witnessed that firsthand as fighters and bombers flew directly overhead en route to Saint-Lô, a Normandy town controlled by the Germans.
“I watched for an entire day as bombers and fighters flew above us coming from England and heading to Saint-Lô. I was amazed at the sight. There was one wave after another. When we later passed through Saint-Lô, it was nothing but a hole in the ground,” says Hoffman, a Canisius High School graduate.
The first airfields where the 312th serviced aircraft were often nothing more than coils of metal unrolled by the Army Corps of Engineers to provide a flat takeoff and landing surface for the planes.
“The pilots needed a smooth surface because the ground beneath was uneven,” Hoffman says. “The ground had been used by farmers and had rolls in it.”
As the Allies advanced, he says, “We were able to use the airfields the Germans had built and civilian airfields. We went all over hell’s half-acre. There was a lot of action. Our company supplied the bombs and ammunition for the airplanes.”
Two days after Paris was liberated, Hoffman and other soldiers could not resist a visit.
“It was wild. The French were still shooting off their guns in celebratory fire,” he says. “Then I made a second trip there a while later. Some of the guys wanted us to buy perfume so that they could send it back to their sweethearts and wives. We went right to the Chanel shop. We stayed overnight, and someone stole all the perfume from our Jeep.
“When we got back to the company, we thought the guys would murder us, but they were understanding.”
At the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, Hoffman says, he and his buddies were at the German-Austrian border.
“We were so close to Hitler’s hideout, the Eagle’s Nest, Berchtesgaden, that some of the guys made a trip there and took everything they could grab, from linens to a special Luger that had a 9-inch barrel and a leaf sight. I bought it for a hundred dollars, and 20 years later, I sold it for a hundred dollars. One of my smarter moves,” Hoffman ruefully recalls.
After having survived the war, Hoffman notes, the trip home nearly killed him.
“We sailed for home out of Brussels on a Victory ship, and let me tell you, we were in one of the worst storms. The waves would go over the top of the bridge, and the back end of the ship would be out of the water,” he says. “You could hear the propellers, and the ship would shake. It was a bad ride. Everybody onboard was sick, sick, sick.”
Once back in Buffalo, life was smooth sailing.
He married Patricia J. Dietzer, whom he had met as a young teenager when he had a newspaper route on Sterling Avenue in North Buffalo.
“I was 2 years older than her,” he says, “and we started dating after the war.”
The rest is history.
They raised three children, and Hoffman supported them by selling printing supplies for more than 30 years.
“My wife worked for 25 years as a secretary at Ken-Ton schools.”
This past September, they celebrated their 66th wedding anniversary.
Reflecting on his military service, Hoffman says, “It made me grow up in a hurry.”