Approaching the nondescript grey house in Bremerton, one would not assume that an American Marine — a hero at that, and a Pearl Harbor survivor to boot — lives inside.
Pushing a walker but looking quite fit and spry, Major Maynard “Rocky” Hoffmann appears far younger than his 94 years. “I can’t hear well,” he said, pointing at his right ear. “But that’s what three years of firing ammunition does.”
Born in Seattle in 1918, Maj. Hoffmann enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve while a student at Roosevelt High School in Seattle. He applied for active duty in 1940.
“I looked forward to going to boot camp. I didn’t want to be drafted into the Army and that’s what they were doing at the time.”
Hoffmann was a 23-year-old sergeant when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Hoffmann was stationed at the Ewa Marine Corps Air Station which is now known as Barbers Point Naval Air Station. Three miles from Pearl Harbor, Ewa Marine Corps Air Station was completed in early 1941. When the attack at Pearl Harbor occurred, four runways had been constructed, in addition to buildings and hangars.
Ewa was the first American installation hit during the Pearl Harbor attack. Hoffmann closed his eyes, recalling the moment.
“It took us all by total surprise. It took several minutes for people to determine what happened and what to do. One guy said, ‘I have never heard of an engine that sounds like that.’ A simple statement but that’s when we realized what was happening.”
It still required a visual confirmation to fully comprehend the situation in its entirety. “It really tipped us all off when we saw the big red meatball on the wing of the plane.”
How do the Marines train its men to react to enemy fire?
“You are trained to take cover and the important thing to do was to take cover – only there was no cover. There was a clump of trees so I headed there. On the road outside the trees there was a group of Marines, standing in the middle of the road. They said, ‘Sergeant, we don’t know what to do,’ so I said, ‘Ok, follow me.’ I turned and headed through some brush to the trees. I got halfway there and looked back. They were still standing there. They hadn’t moved. “I shouted an old Marine phrase from 1918, ‘Follow me, you can’t live forever!’That worked. They followed me.”
[NOTE: the actual saying is, “Come on, you sons of bitches-do you want to live forever?” (Attributed to Gunnery Sergeant Dan Daly, USMC, Belleau Wood, June 1918.)]
“I returned to my barracks and got my rifle, a 1917 Springfield. We had no automatic weapons,” Hoffmann said, knowing it was important to organize the Marines into a group. “There were seven of us and we formed a firing squad. We were firing at Zeros that were flying low. One of them crashed in a cane field just outside the station.” Hoffmann and his crew of Marines were credited with shooting the only enemy plane out of the sky at Ewa. According to Hoffmann, the Commandant of the Marine Corps wrote the base colonel wanting to find who shot the plane down. A board inquiry was held and it was determined through interviews and investigation that Rocky and his crew were the ones responsible. “Plus my comment, ‘Do you want to live forever?’ prompted a field promotion,” Hoffmann explained.
Hoffmann went to serve in the South Pacific for three years after leaving Pearl Harbor. His squadron was divided into three groups and they were sent to Midway, Wake Island and Palmyra. “I went to Palmyra. The ones that were sent to Wake Island – none of them came back.” When asked if he lost any friends on Wake Island, he paused and said quietly, “I was close to one Marine in particular. I don’t want to go into that.”
While serving in the South Pacific, Hoffmann applied to Officer’s Training School. He was then sent back to Pearl Harbor. “The Sergeant Major of the base greeted me and said, ‘Rocky, I want you to get cleaned up. Tomorrow morning you go into the colonel’s office. They’re gonna swear you in as a 2nd Lieutenant.’ I was sent back to the states to go to OTS. Years later, here in Bremerton, I noted a brief comment in a newspaper that the Sgt. Maj. was retiring. I took him to lunch, which I did several times. On one occasion I asked, ‘Why did you make me a 2nd Lt.?’ ” Hoffmann pauses and smiles. “He told me, ‘What you did on December 7 didn’t hurt you any.’” Hoffmann became an officer on January 1, 1942.
One little known detail is that Hoffmann attended night school for seven years – gaining proficiency in Gregg shorthand. “Once the Marines knew that, they made me a court reporter. I even got ready to take the test for Federal Court.” The Marines Corps remains the only U.S. armed forces service branch to employ court reporters.
Hoffmann frequently starts his sentences with, “This isn’t very interesting,” or, “I don’t know if you want to know this.” When asked to remember specifics, he pauses, puts his head down, and with his right hand raised and shaking, places it back down gently on the arm of his couch. Then a quiet stream of fascinating details burst forth.
Major Hoffmann married Marion Hollister in Montecito, California in 1943. “I thought I was stationed in Santa Barbara,” he explains. “I told my commanding officer that I would just get engaged if I was shipping out and married if I wasn’t. Well, I got married and two weeks later I had orders to leave,” Hoffmann remembered. “We had a large wedding in a beautiful church.” Rocky and Marion were married for 62 years. He pulls out some pictures in his wallet. One black and white photo shows two young adults kissing on the beach in Santa Barbara. “And here’s one of me and my girl getting acquainted . . . we got married one month later,” he says with a laugh. “I keep that one in my wallet. We don’t need to show anyone that picture.”
The Hoffmann family grew to include three children: two sons, Mark and Eric, born in 1944 and 1945, respectively, in Santa Barbara. A daughter, Denise, was born in Seattle a few years after that. Hoffman now has seven grandchildren and, “No great grandkids yet.” Mark currently resides in Bremerton and Eric in Iowa. Daughter Denise lives in Australia.
“I’m a strong believer in the military and the reserves,” he says. “It’s good to always maintain a state of readiness in case of an attack. I don’t know if you want to know this, but I am opposed to the troops sent over to Afghanistan. If anyone wants to have a civil war, then let ‘em.”
What are Hoffmann’s fondest memories as a Marine? “It’s hard to say,” he says quietly. “When I was promoted to Major — actually, I was very pleased to learn I was one of the Marines who shot down a fighter plane. Once a Marine, always a Marine.”
Hoffmann doesn’t keep in touch with other Pearl Harbor survivors, saying, “No, there’s only a few left in the county.” He says that a good candidate for the military completes training and lives up to the oath to defend the country. “I spent a total of 45 years in the Marine Corps and Marine Corps Reserve.” Hoffmann retired in 1978. “Military is very important to me and my life. I was proud to be a Marine. I had a good background so I could retire as a Major. I have many fond memories of my travels.”
The origin of the nickname Rocky proves an interesting tale. Reluctant to give a direct quote, he thought a bit and then revealed that it involved an active duty Marine making disparaging remarks about Marine Reservists. After several requests by Hoffmann (at the time a Marine Reserve) to refrain from continuing with the cutting comments, and the failure of the active duty Marine to do so, Hoffmann earned the nickname Rocky after knocking the offender out cold. His commander dragged him outside and told him, “None of my Marines is gonna go around with the name Maynard. From now on you’re Rocky.” And it stuck with him from that day on.
Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Ewa was chosen because it had an ideal peacetime air training environment and was completed in early 1941. Upon the groundbreaking of the MCAS, plans were already in the works for an expansion of the naval aviation facilities at Barbers Point. According to Naval Air Museum Barbers Point, construction of an airfield west of Ewa began in November 1941 but was suspended temporarily after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Construction crews were diverted to quickly complete Ewa.
Hoffmann is an eyewitness to the exact moment that the United States entered World War II. Although most of the attack was focused on Pearl Harbor, the MCAS sustained enormous damage. Ewa was the first installation hit during the attack on Pearl Harbor. The repairs, along with an extensive construction project on Barbers Point, initially intended as an outlaying landing field for Naval Air Station Ford Island in Pearl Harbor, was still unfinished when it was established as a naval air station on April 15, 1942. A substantial amount of aviation activity occurred here as the Navy gathered forces in Hawaii to fight across the South Pacific.
The advent of the Korean War meant that MCAS Ewa experienced another surge in activity. However, with the utilization of jet aircraft, the runways at MCAS Ewa proved unsuitable to their needs. The Marine Corps shifted its aviation assets to MCAS Kaneohe Bay. Ewa was officially closed on June 18, 1952 and its property assumed by Naval Air Station Barbers Point. Many of Ewa’s fortifications survive to this day. Parts of the old airfield are visible.
Naval Air Station Barbers Point – the Navy’s last naval air station in the Hawaiian Islands – ceased operations on July 1, 1999. Completing 57 years of service, NAS Barbers Point, known as the ‘Crossroads of the Pacific’ was returned to the state of Hawaii. NAS Barbers Point served as the largest naval air station in the Pacific theater.