Army veteran remembers momentous events of the 20th century
By all accounts, retired Col. Ralph M. Hockley should be dead, either at the hands of the Nazis or on a blood-splattered hill in Korea. Call it fate, divine intervention or just plain luck, he not only survived, but thrived, and witnessed some of the 20th century’s most defining conflicts and moments along the way.
Born Rudolf “Rudi” Martin Hockenheimer in Karlsruhe, Germany, in 1925, Hockley could once have expected to follow his father, Julius, into the butcher-supply business. The family wasn’t rich, but they were prosperous enough to employ a maid and the future looked promising. Then the economy crashed worldwide and not long after, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis came to power. They were suddenly the enemy in the country they called home.
Escape from Germany
“My first and second grade teacher happened … to be a local leader of the Nazi Party; he never failed to remind his students … of the greatness of the future of a Nazi Germany,” Hockley wrote in his memoirs, “Freedom is not free.” “Anyone and everyone hurled constant insults at the Jewish kids. … My best friend … called me a dirty Jew.
“After awhile, (my father) said, ‘I didn’t fight for this country to be treated like a dog,’” he added in an interview, explaining that Julius had proudly served in the German army in World War I. “This was in the ’34 timeframe. He decided that he would go to France. … Everybody in those days thought Hitler would last just a few years.”
It was early enough that Jews could leave Germany relatively easily, he added, although it was still very expensive: “You had to give up a lot of stuff; you had to practically give your house away and stuff like that. They kept your jewels and whatever, but it wasn’t that hard to get out. … It didn’t get almost impossible, I think, until 1938.”
Life in France
Despite some trouble with their residence permits that resulted in overnights in jail and near deportation, Hockley’s parents tried to build a normal life for their children in France. Money was tight, but the family was together and Hockley and his older sister, Marianne, were soon fluent in the language. Germany was a distant memory and they considered themselves French.
The war caught up with them in September 1939, and suddenly the Hockenheimers were again the enemy.
“All men eighteen and older who were refugees from Germany or Austria were collected and sent to an internment camp as enemy aliens,” wrote Hockley, and that included his father. He, his mother, Lilly, and his sister were rounded up for a short time as well. Hockley was also kicked out of school, ostensibly for his own good, so the other boys couldn’t pick on him for being German.
Lilly visited every relief agency in Marseille looking for help, and eventually volunteered her son as a translator for the Quaker-run American Friends Service Committee. Hockley also helped with research and paperwork for refugees hoping to be granted visas to the United States. It was a job that, in all likelihood, saved their lives.
Escape from France
“Twice a week I went to the American consulate,” he remembered. As a condition of the armistice, Nazi Germany had required the Vichy French government to surrender German citizens on demand, and refugees were terrified. “People were standing in line for their lives and I as a 14, 15-year-old, just walked in the door because the guard knew me and I had a letter from the Quakers that I was OK.
“After about six months … Mr. Hiram Bingham (the American vice consul who was credited with saving some 2,500 refugees) said, ‘We are ready to give you visas to the United States … but your dad’s in a camp and the visas are only good for 90 days. I’m going to give you a letter that says we’re going to do this and maybe they’ll let him out.’”
Meanwhile, in October 1940, the Nazis had expelled about 7,500 Jews from southwest Germany, shipping them to Gurs internment camp in the Pyrenees, where Julius had ended up. Food was scarce there and typhoid and dysentery were rampant. “My father was reunited with his relatives under the most dire circumstances,” wrote Hockley. “Because he had lived in France … he was able to help make their lives a little more bearable by negotiating with the guards for a chicken here, some other favor there.” Some of his relatives either died in the camp or later perished at Auschwitz, but thanks to his son’s connections with the Quakers, Julius was indeed released in the spring of 1941. His health would never be the same, however.
The soon-to-be Hockley family finally boarded the S.S. Winnipeg, May 6, praying and holding their breaths, their hearts pounding as French and Nazi officials checked their documents one last time. Just as they approached Martinique, however, “the ship was bathed in searchlights. … We saw men climbing on board … armed with rifles and sub-machine guns. The intruders wore blue jeans and gave the impression of being pirates,” he wrote. The sailors, from the Dutch sloop HNMS Van Kinsbergen, turned the bewildered passengers over to the British in Trinidad, who soon allowed the Hockleys to proceed to New York.
Return to Germany
By October 1943, Hockley was 18, with a high school degree, a few college courses and a number of odd jobs under his belt. Although his parents were scraping by, life in America was good. He wanted to do more. He wanted to contribute. He wanted to kill Hitler. “I wanted to be in Germany. I wanted to do something to clean out the people who had done all of this.” He took himself down to the draft board and said, “I want you to call me up.”
But by the time he finished basic training — where he qualified as a radio operator and was sworn in as a U.S. citizen — and attended advanced training in radio communications and military intelligence, Hockley had missed the war. He landed in Europe in April, and was in Paris for V-E Day, May 8, 1954. It “was a dream,” he recalled in his memoirs. “We were surrounded by adoring young ladies who would form circles around us and only permitted us to escape after we had kissed them all.” He was also able to find several family members and some old friends.
Hockley was eventually assigned to work in de-Nazification as a counter intelligence agent, so even though he didn’t get to fight, he felt like he had “the opportunity to participate in getting at some of the people who had caused all of this.
“When it all began,” he mused, “I was a little German boy. Twelve or thirteen years later, I was an American Soldier and citizen, something that would otherwise never have happened.”
Fighting in Korea
Five years later, that American Soldier was a second lieutenant, assigned to the 37th Field Artillery Battalion, 2nd Infantry Division as a forward observer – just in time for the Korean War.
After arriving in country, Hockley’s team was attached to the 27th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, which was trying to battle its way out of the Bowling Alley near Taegu in August 1950. “They told us to go up on three hills,” he said. “They gave me and my sergeant four 18-year-old infantrymen and we were up on a hill. These guys went to sleep. I had my sergeant kick them every hour to keep them awake.
“About 3:30, approximately, this bugle sounded in the valley,” he continued. “The first guy that showed up was a scout. He was about 20, 30 feet below us when we saw him with an antiquated rifle. … I didn’t think much about it. I hauled out my .45 from under my jacket and shot him.”
Hockley would receive a Bronze Star for valor for his actions that night. An urgent Red Cross message called him home in November because his father’s health was rapidly failing, but he was back on the line by spring. In August and September of 1951, he provided artillery support for the Battle of Bloody Ridge, a costly mission to seize a series of hills United Nations commanders believed the enemy was using as observation posts.
“I only remember one thing: It poured. They had the monsoon rain. It poured every minute,” he remembered. “Everything was mud. You couldn’t walk because your feet wouldn’t get out of the mud. You couldn’t drive a jeep. You just shot at people. You couldn’t read your map because it was soaking wet. It was just miserable. … We lost quite a few people.”
The follow-on battle in September, the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge, was an even bloodier attempt to seize the high ground by unit upon unit in fighting that was often hand-to-hand. Several companies were wiped out and the 23rd Infantry Regiment was shattered. Hockley ordered artillery barrage after artillery barrage.
“The North Koreans were very well dug in,” he wrote. “They dug trenches or holes on the back of a hill, big enough to hold mortars and small field guns; when they were ready to fire, they brought their weapons out of the hole, fired, then pushed them back into the hill. Thus their weapons could not be observed from the air and were fairly safe from the artillery.
“It was a disaster,” Hockley added in an interview. “We lost 14 forward observers in those two weeks, not all killed, but some of them. All of them were friends of mine.”
He had been attached to a French battalion, but just as it prepared to assault the main hill, an action that would mean certain death for many, Hockley’s team was mysteriously recalled.
“We were in Service Battery for 36 hours. I got a phone call that the team that replaced us were all dead,” he said. “I think of all the things that happened to me in the Korean War, that’s the one that shook me the most. … I knew the guy: he had a family, three kids. I couldn’t believe what luck I had. This goes all the way back to France, in my mind. How many more times?” It was like he was living on borrowed time.
Offered a staff job and a chance at promotion if he stayed in Korea another six months, Hockley refused. He knew, eventually, his luck would run out.
Cold War Berlin
After a follow-on assignment as an intelligence officer in Berlin, Hockley got out of the regular Army, although he stayed in the Reserves and became an Army civilian. He married another German Jew who had also escaped the Nazis, and returned to Berlin for a second intelligence assignment at the height of the Cold War. It was a time of spies and adrenaline, of fear and tension, of car chases and listening devices.
He and the rest of the West awoke one morning to find that the border between East and West Berlin was closed, barricaded with barbed wire and the beginnings of a wall. It was a day that changed the world.
“At 10 a.m. on Sunday, 13 August 1961, I received a phone call from (a friend) who asked, ‘Mr. Hockley, what is the story with this wall?’ … I turned on the television and found out that the Russians and East Germans had sealed all borders between East and West at most intersections and border crossing points. … The unbelievable thing was that … we had not been notified.
“It was a stupendous event,” he added, one not without drama for his own family as his wife’s cousin had to smuggle his fiancée out of East Berlin.
Hockley spent the rest of his career in various intelligence assignments in Germany, raising his children there before finally retiring from federal service in 1981. It was surreal at times, bittersweet at others, but he managed to keep it all in perspective: “I was an American. I was not there as a German. … Every German will tell you, ‘Oh, I’ve never been a Nazi. Some of them it was true and some of them it wasn’t. You couldn’t go back and check everybody’s background.
“I was often asked how, as a Jew, I could have spent so many years working in Germany,” he added in his memoir. “I had learned to judge people as individuals. Most of the post-war Germans I met were nice people. … As the years wore on, fewer and fewer people were old enough to have participated in war crimes, so that issue began to dissipate – though it was not forgotten.”