SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. --
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series celebrating the 75th anniversary of the 4th Fighter Wing
Throughout history, for the most part, fighting wars has been the job of young men. The record of Lt. Ralph "Kidd" Hofer is the story of how one young man fought in World War II for the 4th Fighter Group.
Ralph Hofer grew up in Missouri and was an outstanding athlete, being especially adept at football and boxing. In the spring of 1941 Hofer visited Canada on a lark. The Canadian immigration officer at the border sent Hofer (as he had sent scores of other Americans before him) to the Royal Canadian Air Force recruiting office. Hofer had no interest in airplanes or flying, but the enthusiasm of the other Americans there convinced him to enlist. The Canadians required Ralph Hofer to have a middle name so "Kidd" Hofer was born.
In September 1941,"Kidd" was assigned to the 334th Fighter Squadron of the 4th Fighter Group. Hofer’s first mission was only 12 days after his arrival at Royal Air Force Debden. On this day, he found himself heading for Germany on his first bomber escort mission.
Hofer was flying wing to Capt. Jim Clark, his current squadron commander. Shortly after flying over German airspace, the 4th Fighter Group encountered Me-109s and the air battle started.
Clark spotted an Me-109 below and dove to intercept. Hofer watched the enemy aircraft come apart as Clark’s six 50-caliber slugs found their mark. "Kidd's" eyes were drawn to a P-47 Thunderbolt from another group that was in trouble. "Kidd" rolled over and went to the rescue. Coming in from the rear and drawing up extremely close, he cut loose with his own .50 calibers. The enemy Me-109 came apart and crashed in the Zuiderzee, a shallow bay of the North Sea.
Landing back at Debden the "Kidd" did a perfect victory roll over the field and hurried to his parking spot to tell his side of the kill to his crew chief and anybody that would listen. The veteran pilots of 334th Squadron were very skeptical. However when Hofer’s gun camera films were reviewed it was confirmed he had gained his first kill on his first mission. The "Kidd" in the P-47 with the boxing mule and the name "Missouri Kidd, Sho Me" painted on the nose had his first kill.
Hofer soon developed a complete disregard for the dangers lurking in the skies over Europe. He apparently had no concern about having or being a wingman. In his youthful enthusiasm, he was there to shoot down Germans, with or without assistance. As in his boxing days, he was quite content to knock down his opponent all by himself.
One day "Kidd" was blasting away at a German plane when he had used up the gas in his fuselage tank and had forgotten to switch over to his wing tanks. When he momentarily broke off the attack to switch tanks, another American jumped in and opened fire on Hofer's adversary.
"Kidd" yelled, "Break, break!" making the other American believe a German was on his tail. He broke off the attack, allowing Hofer to move in and finish his kill!
Despite his lone wolf tactics and unorthodox unaccompanied flights over Europe, Hofer began to stack up victories month after month. Before he was finished he would destroy 30.5 German aircraft, the second highest total in the storied history of the 4th Fighter Group. But ultimately, Hofer's disregard for danger caught up with him.
On the famous Russian Shuttle mission, Hofer was separated from the group pursuing enemy fighters and landed at a different air base than the rest of the Group. With some difficulty, "Kidd" talked the Russians into servicing his assigned aircraft and he caught up with the group. The shuttle group was in Italy where Col. Donald Blakeslee approved a support mission with a bomber group stationed there. Upon the return of the mission Hofer was missing, which was not unusual for him.
Hofer's fate was a mystery until it was solved by Troy White‘s book Last of the Screwball Aces. It seems "Kidd" was separated from the group and he and his wingman were heading back to Italy when his wingman’s plane was hit by flak and started down with Hofer following. Lt. Stanford’s plane crash landed, but he survived. "Kidd" headed home alone, again not uncommon for him. Over Mostar, Yugoslavia he saw an enemy airfield ripe with targets so he headed down to inflict as much damage as he could. Flak was "Kidd's" undoing, not another enemy fighter.
Hofer's final act was representative of his extraordinary life. According to German records, Hofer crashed his Mustang into the quadruple 20 mm anti-aircraft gun that shot him down. In only 23 years, Hofer had blazed a path across the skies of Europe and into the heritage of the 4th Fighter Wing. Hero, daredevil, and screwball ace, Ralph "Kidd" Hofer was an American original.