Gone, but Never Forgotten
James Hoffman, a 1944 graduate of Kings Point, plays a very special role in our story. He grew up in a small town—Cambridge, Illinois—and applied to admission to the Cadet Corps in May 1942 while still in high school. He was accepted, and was called to training at Pass Christian in September. He arrived several weeks before the recently acquired campus was ready for students, and therefore spent those first few weeks aboard the training vessel SS North Star. In early October, Hoffman and his two dozen classmates moved all their possessions, along with all of the training equipment aboard the North Star, into the former Inn by the Sea resort.
After about eight weeks of preliminary training, on November 13th, Cadet-Midshipman Hoffman shipped out on the SS Wade Hampton, a Delta Line freighter which on its maiden voyage carried a load of sugar from Santiago, Cuba to the Domino Sugar plant in Baltimore. The Wade Hampton then moved on to New York, where she picked up a general cargo of war materiel, including two PT boats that were stowed on deck. In mid February 1943, she joined convoy HX-227 headed for Russia on the notorious Murmansk run.
The Wade Hampton never made it. She fell behind her convoy due to bad weather, and was torpedoed on February 28th as she was passing south of Greenland. Hoffman wound up in a lifeboat for three hours, at the end of which a British corvette rescued him and his fellow survivors. He recalled that his Sea Project went to the bottom with his ship. In a sense, the crew of the Wade Hampton was lucky: Of the 59 people on board, including the Naval Armed Guard, only nine died.
Hoffman and his fellow survivors soon found themselves aboard the SS Santa Catalina, en route to Liverpool. There, they were put up in a so-called “survivors’ pool”—a hotel that had been taken over for the war effort. As Hoffman recalled:…They had a dining room where you could get a meal. A good thing for us, because we had no money …. We’d lost everything except the clothes on our backs…Like other American mariners at the survivors’ pool, Hoffman watched the bulletin boards for an announcement of a ship returning to the U.S. Eventually, he found a berth on a British liner that was speedy enough, making 19 to 20 knots, to traverse the North Atlantic unescorted. He recalls being served fish for breakfast, which he found exotic. He arrived in New York, reported to the Maritime Commission’s training office at 39 Broadway, and received a replacement uniform and a week’s leave.
At the end of the week, he received his new papers from the Coast Guard, and found himself reassigned to the S. S. Borinquen, a converted passenger liner that ferried troops and other passengers back and forth between New York and the Mediterranean, with stops at Casablanca, Algiers, Palermo, and other ports of call. For a teenage mariner, even an experienced one, it was a whole new world, full of dangers and novelty.
In late September 1943, Hoffman arrived at Kings Point for his advanced training, just in time for the formal dedication of the campus on September 20. He completed his advanced training as an engineering cadet, and graduated in June 1944. He was on active duty with the U. S. Navy when the war ended, and counted himself among the lucky survivors of World War II.
Like many WW II survivors, Hoffman left behind the military as quickly as he could. He pursued a civilian career, got married, and made his way through his adult life and work. But his dramatic wartime experiences never fully left his mind—nor did the fact that the merchant mariners of World War II had never been accorded veteran’s status. It was a promise made by President Franklin Roosevelt, but ignored for decades by subsequent administrations. As Hoffman and many others saw it, this was a blatant injustice—one which was not remedied until 1988 when judicial pressure forced the Air Force (the agency with Congressional authority to determine veteran’s status) to extend formal veteran’s recognition and a limited G. I. Bill of Rights to the merchant mariners of WW II.
This retroactive recognition was extended to the cadet-midshipmen who died on their training voyages whose stories were told in the preceding page of this book. Thinking about the implications of this chain of events, Hoffman realized that there was almost no chance that, nearly a half-century after the fact, the families of the cadets would ever receive the long-overdue veteran-recognition documents. So working with a Captain George McCarthy, who was based in the Washington area, Hoffman lobbied the Coast Guard to issue an individual certificate for each cadet killed in action, and send those documents to Kings Point.
After a certain amount of arm-twisting, the Coast Guard acquiesced. But it soon became clear that the Academy, although supportive of Hoffman’s and McCarthy’s efforts, didn’t have the resources to track down families across the country to hand over the documents. So Hoffman volunteered for that task himself:
I said, “Okay, fine. I’ll start looking for the families. And soon as I find one, I’ll notify you, and you can get the document for that cadet sent out to the family. And that’s what I started doing, back in late 1988 or early 1989.” Starting with a list of next-of-kin that the Academy had, Hoffman began digging. To put it mildly, it was a tough slog. More than four decades had passed. Families had moved, died out, or simply disappeared. Hoffman haunted libraries, scoured old newspapers, contacted veterans’ groups, and otherwise dug deep, looking for relatives, in most cases, siblings or nephews and nieces of the deceased cadets.
Near the close of 2004, Thomas G. Schroeder, a 1957 graduate of the Academy, joined the search for the families of the 142. Like Hoffman, Schroeder has put in hundreds of hours in the ongoing effort, and Hoffman noted that Schroeder had been particularly helpful in winning the cooperation of many individuals during the long and difficult search.
Hoffman and Schroeder turned up all the families who wanted the Veterans Document; it was a labor of love. “I want to give them the document that honors their loved one,” Hoffman said. “So I keep at it.” When Hoffman died Tom Schroeder kept at it. The last family was reached in 2013 by Tom Schroeder.
Many of the photographs, letters, and other personal comments that appear in this volume are there thanks to Hoffman’s and Schroeder’s tireless efforts. The memories of the cadet-midshipmen and the USMMA alumni profiled in this book are much richer through their efforts. They may be long gone, but thanks to their fellow mariners, they will never be forgotten.
Jim was honored by the Kings Point Alumni and the Academy in 2003 with the award of the Peter Rackett Lifetime Achievement Award and on May 17, 2005, the Academy dedicated the James Hoffman Advanced Learning Center.
James Hoffman died on May 5, 2011 and was buried with full military honors with gun salutes.