MOUNT VERNON — For a man who loves his roots and has called Licking or Knox County home for the past century, Fred Hoffman has gotten around.
Hoffman celebrated his milestone 100th birthday Friday at the Country Club Retirement Campus with a niece, two nephews and several long-time friends. It was a time for sharing memories. The genial 6-footer’s hearing isn’t what it once was, and he can’t get around on his own, but he was ready with details when peppered by questions as he relaxed in his room.
You could say that Hoffman has led four lives. From his birth in Utica in 1912 until 1942, he was an unwilling student and restless adventurer who traveled all corners of the USA by hopping freight trains. He spent nearly four wartime years in the U.S. Army after being drafted at the age of 29. He married the love of his life, Avanelle McKenzie, after World War II. They were inseparable for 30 years, until she passed away in 1976. And as a widower for the past 36 years, he meticulously maintained the couple’s Mount Vernon home before moving to an independent-living apartment at Country Club at age 85. For the past five years, he has lived at the facility’s assisted-living wing.
Mr. Hoffman was born on Dec. 14, 1912, a month after Woodrow Wilson was elected president and in the same year New Mexico and Arizona were ratified as states to complete the continental 48. He attended school in Utica, and like many young men of the era, dropped out of high school. Once he satisfied his wanderlust, he settled into work for the Ohio Fuel Gas Co., which would later become part of Columbia Gas. He hired on at the princely sum of 20 cents an hour, and was working as a pipe fitter when called up by the Army in 1942.
Fred and Avanelle were in love by the time he shipped off to Fort Hayes in Columbus, but he wouldn’t agree to marriage at that point because he didn’t know if he would survive the war. As it turned out, he was fortunate to endure a major invasion, an infamous river crossing and several major battles without being wounded. Hoffman was a construction foreman in the 141st Infantry Regiment of the famed 36th Combat Division — the Texas Division — and advanced to the rank of staff sergeant.
After entering the war in the North African campaign, Hoffman participated in the invasion of Sicily and the Allied surge onto the Italian mainland. Italy surrendered to the Allies, but the German Army was determined to hold Rome and assumed formidable defensive positions. In January of 1944, the Texas Division was ordered to cross the Rapido River in support of the amphibious assault on Anzio. It was one of the war’s most ill-conceived actions, with no chance of success. Troops were cut down by German armor and gun emplacements, and many Americans died in the Rapido’s frigid waters. In all, 1,671 Americans perished with another thousand wounded.
Hoffman doesn’t discuss the war much, but acknowledges he has never shaken the sight of his sergeant being killed by an artillery shell. With humility that typifies many heroes of World War II, Hoffman passes off his combat experience as merely doing his job. His Bronze Star and several Campaign Medals, along with a Presidential Unit Citation issued to the 36th Division, say otherwise. Kevin Henthorn, director of the Knox County Veterans Services Office, visited Hoffman Friday and presented him with a certificate of appreciation for his courageous service.
Hoffman returned from Europe late in 1945 and soon married Avanelle. He also resumed his career with Ohio Power, where he served as a construction supervisor until his retirement. He and his wife enjoyed gardening together and loved dancing. He has fond memories of dancing to the biggest names of the Big Band era at Buckeye Lake Amusement Park.
He is the youngest of five children. He and Avanelle didn’t have children, but he has a close relationship with nieces and nephews. By reaching the lofty age of 100, he has defied the odds. Only one in 6,000 Americans lives to be 100, and 80 percent are women. But for a man who survived service in the hard-hit 36th Division — only two other divisions suffered more casualties in World War II — bucking the odds is par for the course.
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