History Channel show on SS Mayaguez features Band alum
When you've made history yourself, history can't help but be more interesting to you. That's no doubt why Daniel Hoffman, who joined the Marines shortly after graduating from Purdue in 1972, always found himself flipping to the History Channel, reveling in the fascinating first person accounts of events that made news in other eras.
But this fall, not long after he performs on Ross-Ade field with the Alumni Marching Band, Hoffman won't find himself merely listening to the stories of others.
Instead he'll be the image on the television, telling his own story of the SS Mayaguez - considered by many to be the last battle of the Vietnam War - on the History Channel for all to hear.
Once again he'll make a journey back to Koh Tang, an island off the coast of Cambodia , one he's made many times in his mind, and shared verbally with others. In 1975, Hoffman was one of a contingent of Marines dispatched to rescue the 41-member crew of the SS Mayaguez. The ship had been intercepted and seized by the Khmer Rouge Navy while sailing from Hong Kong to Thailand .
Faulty intelligence sent them into a situation against a well-armed force at least 3 times their size – and the crew they were supposed to rescue was not there. The mission ended in disaster with four helicopters were shot down or disabled by Khmer Rouge forces and 41 men killed. The remaining Marines had to extracted under harrowing circumstances.
Today Hoffman and the other survivors of that rescue force refer to themselves as members of the Koh Tang Beach Club. He is one of five selected for the show. Production and cameramen came to his house in February to interview him for the History Channel documentary.
“I was pretty pleased” with the process, says Hoffman. “I've seen the preview and four of the uncut interviews. One of them was with pilot Bob Blough of Detroit , the helicopter pilot who took us off Koh Tang. That was pretty emotional.”
Editors are still polishing the program as part of their ‘True Warriors' series.” The series focuses on “unsung heroes from battles that weren't the biggest in the world and are often kind of forgotten,” the Gary , IN , native says.
Hoffman, who was on the second helicopter into the Koh Tang, and left on the next to last helicopter out, experienced the whole incident. With heavy machine guns blowing helicopters out of the sky, and men beside him being shot, “we didn't have time to be scared. We were scared afterwards,” he recalls. “We were working like a machine. Do this. Do that. Hardly anyone had any combat experience at all, but they all performed extremely well.”
On Koh Tang, the Marines found themselves trapped by the island's geography. “Extraction was the hairiest part because it was turning dark and the horseshoe-shaped perimeter just kept getting smaller and smaller. Eventually we were just there with our backs to the ocean and the enemy in front of us,” Hoffman says.
Being able to tell the story on national TV “validates our effort and honors the memory of the guys who died, the last 41 names on ‘The Wall' and the last chapter of the war,” he says.
The incident was ugly, but President Gerald Ford's show of force in reaction to it made it significant historically. “It was a victory for the United States . It showed the world they could not mess with America and never again has a United States ship been pirated A lot of things were learned in the incident about coordination of ground cover with air support. Lessons learned there were put to use in combined forces later,” he says.
“In retrospect, it's one of the proudest moments of my life, the accomplishment of being thrust into a life-or-death decision making situation and coming out very, very well,” says Hoffman who was awarded the Bronze Star with “V” for valor during the SS Mayaguez incident.
While in the Marines, Hoffman had assignments in 14 different countries in five years. After his tour of duty he worked in warehousing and distribution. Eventually he ended up working for the U.S. Postal Service and recently retired as Supervisor of Distribution Operations in Columbia , South Carolina .
Over all the years, Hoffman has made it a habit to return to Purdue for Alumni Marching Band. A baritone player, he's still proud of the fact he had a ribbon for every band offered in the 1970s.
“Of course I loved it. Band was one of the best things I ever did. Prof. Wright and Bill Kisinger and Roger Heath were all there when I was. I marched baritone horn and played bass guitar in Variety Band, string bass in symphony orchestra. I was in the Radio City Music Hall Band in 1971.”
Hoffman has fond memories of band trips, and in particular, the big send-off breakfasts his fraternity would host for the band jocks and twirlers.
The discipline stressed in band laid the foundation for the Marines. “I learned the importance of being organized and being on time and the importance of group effort with everyone dedicated to the same thing. Discipline, that's the right word for it, especially with Al G. Wright,” Hoffman says.