Even after war, John Hoppe kept on smiling
More than once, the U.S. Army told John Hoppe to wipe that smile off his face.
“During basic training, they often asked what I was smiling about,” he said. “They never succeeded in getting me to stop smiling, though.”
Hoppe shared some memories recently. A major portion of those memories included his service in the army during World War II.
“I’ve spent 40 years trying to forget some of that service and a few of the things that happened,” said Hoppe.
Hoppe was born near Lamar, Colo. He grew up on a small ranch with no electricity or running water.
“We didn’t have to get used to not having those things. I was used to physical work, too,” he said.
Because there were few jobs, many men went to work for the CCC, a public works relief program for unemployed men. Those workers lived in the open and were accustomed to a military-type discipline. Hoppe credited the CCC with giving America a heads-up at the start of the war. Many of the senior non-commissioned officers in the early years of the war had a CCC background.
After finishing high school in 1941 and a stint in junior college, Hoppe was drafted in June of 1943. He went to basic training at Camp Hood near Waco, Texas, and survived a very hot summer before finishing in the fall.
Next came his acceptance into Army Specialized Training Program, an early program that would eventually provide leaders for the rebuilding of Europe after the war. Hoppe was transferred from Texas to California.
“We thought we had died and gone to heaven!” he said.
Shortly afterwards, the ASTP program was cancelled and he was assigned to the 89th Infantry Division and began training for mountain combat. His unit was transferred and trained at Camp Butner until the fall and was shipped out to France late in 1943.
His ship arrived in La Havre, France, and the men were transferred to LSTs for the trip ashore. Since the LSTs could not make it all the way to the beach, Hoppe’s unit had to wade ashore in the cold ocean water of December. Immediately, the shivering soldiers were loaded onto trucks for transport to a tent camp.
“The tents were pitched on top of snow. We lost quite a few to trench foot, a condition where circulation stops in the feet because of the extended cold and dampness,” he said. “I would take off my boots and massage my feet and put on dry socks. We didn’t have much in the way of extras, but most of us had extra socks. We would loop the wet ones over the inside of our underwear and our body heat would dry them. Dry socks were a luxury.”
Hoppe’s 89th Division served under Gen. George Patton and was soon involved in the Battle of the Bulge.
“With Patton, you were expected to be ready to move. We didn’t always know where we were,” he said. “I remember one night when we were loaded on a long convoy of trucks after dark and shipped 90 miles to go into battle again first thing the next morning. We had outflanked the Germans and cut them off.”
Most days were focused on taking the next village and then the next one.
“If we could take the village late in the day, we knew we could sleep inside houses that night. Of course the Germans didn’t want to give up the village because they would then be sleeping outside in the cold that night. We had to keep the Germans in front of us, so we had to clear each house. We didn’t stay long in any place,” Hoppe said.
Food was a major concern. The soldiers were issued C Rations consisting of three cans of various foods. The cans were roughly the size of Campbell’s Soup cans. They usually got two meals for consumption the next day.
“We usually kept two or three cans that we liked and got rid of the rest. Once when we were about to cross the Rhine River into Germany, we were issued seven days’ worth, or 42 cans. We traveled light, so we got rid of most of the cans. As our food ran out, we scrounged in the villages for more to eat. Lots of the villagers were living off of potatoes, berries and wines. Once I found a jar of jam and carried it with me until we came under fire. The jar broke and I was a sticky mess for days,” Hoppe said.
“There was a time that we found a couple of chickens. We had one of the chickens cooking and got orders to move out. The chicken was raw but we took it with us anyway. We started cooking it again, then got more orders to move. We finally ate the partially cooked chicken because it was all we had.”
The soldiers suffered additional hardships. Hoppe remembers one particular night when his unit could hear the German tanks in a big wooded area.
“We didn’t carry anything that would encumber us. We might not need it because we didn’t know how long we would survive. On that cold night, another soldier and I buttoned our rain coats together around both of us so that we could stay warm. We were down in a depression in the earth trying to sleep. The other soldier said, ‘Hoppe, are you cold or scared?’ I said, ‘Both!’ ”
Hoppe doesn’t remember ever seeing General Patton but felt that he knew the famous leader.
“Nobody liked him,” Hoppe said. “He pushed us hard and we felt he was too free in sacrificing his men. We were afraid of him. But even though we considered him an S.O.B., he was our S.O.B. We didn’t want to lose him.”
At one time, Hoppe’s unit was closer to Berlin than any other.
“We could have gone in first. But Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill had made an agreement,” he said. “The Russians had suffered tremendous losses and would get the honor of capturing Berlin.”
On May 8, 1945, Hoppe’s unit was on the front and waiting for orders. They were told that the war was over and to stand by for surrendering German troops.
“Very soon they came down the road with trucks, tanks and mobile guns,” he said. “We thought that we didn’t have a chance because we were just a rifle company. The Germans wanted to surrender to the Americans because they feared the treatment they would receive from the Russians. We put the prisoners in a ball field area where they were screened. Already we were on the lookout for war criminals.”
Following the German surrender, Hoppe stayed in Germany for another year. A points system that included years of service, wounds and decorations allowed some of the men to go home while others with lower totals were sent to help out in the war against Japan. Those with the middle points stayed in Germany to help re-establish order and government.
Hoppe finished his U.S. Army Service as a buck sergeant, a rank obtained during his first week of combat, and a mortar squad leader. He was never officially wounded, though he did discover a small bullet wound on his leg.
“I felt the cold breeze and couldn’t figure where it was coming from,” he said. The bullet had sliced his pants. “I used duct tape to close it and kept going.”
He also remembered an occasion when, just after he left a position while moving forward, another man took up the same position. Within just a few minutes, that man was dead. Hoppe earned a Bronze Star for Valor. He declined to discuss the combat situation surrounding the award.
With his army service completed, Hoppe returned home and found it hard to adjust to civilian life. His family had sold the farm, so Hoppe moved to Texas to work in the oil fields near Borger. He spent three years there and also found his future wife, Narcidel.
Hoppe returned to school and graduated from Texas Tech and found employment++with General Electric as an engineer, but also worked in sales, marketing and planning. He also enlisted in the Air Force Reserve and was commissioned as an officer. Hoppe laughed and said, “I could still be recalled!”
Hoppe has four children and three grandchildren who check on him regularly. His wife passed away five years ago after 60 years of marriage.
Now at 89 years of age, Hoppe stays busy. He has an immaculate yard, loves to garden and square dance. Hoppe walks 2 miles on most days and is already planning his second 5K next March. He spends some time shooting also and plans on joining the YMCA soon.
No matter what happens from here on out, Hoppe has had a good life. He shared some cartoons from “Willie and Joe,” a popular series written by Bill Mauldin and published in Stars and Stripes and later in book form. Hoppe’s easy smile, never far away, returns as he says, “I hope you will write all of this as a happy story.”