Hot Springs Village resident Erwin Hoeft grew up in Chicago, Illinois, graduated high school and attended Cornell College in Iowa. One day in 1960, he learned he was about to be drafted.
Hoeft wanted to control his own destiny so he contacted the Indiana Air National Guard in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he was living at the time. He enlisted on April 18, 1960.
In August, he began eight weeks of basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas. “That was very interesting. I was fortunate to have a drill sergeant that somehow was voted one of the best drill sergeants at Lackland. He never shouted. One thing I remember him saying was, ‘We are going to do this, make no mistake. You can do this the easy way or you can do this the hard way, but make no mistake, you are going to do this’,” Hoeft said.
About six weeks into the training the men got a more typical drill sergeant, one who, Hoeft said, was yelling and screaming all the time. But for some reason he was shortly thereafter replaced by the original sergeant. Hoeft had no idea the reasons for the changes.
Completing basic, he was assigned to the 122nd Tactical Fighter Wing back in Fort Wayne.
When it was announced that the Berlin Wall was going up, units in the U.S. were activated, including Hoeft’s. In October, they were federalized and ordered to active status as part of Operation Tack Hammer, when bases were readied for aircraft in several locations. Hoeft’s outfit, now the 163rd Tactical Fighter Squadron, was stationed at Chambley-Bussieres Air Base near Metz, France.
Hoeft said the unit was there in support of the 17th Air Force for NATO exercises, flying up to 30 sorties per day.
He arrived in December 1961, and said that the base had been closed since World War II, so the search was on for many necessary items, even bedding for the men. F-84F jets soon arrived as he went to work in the personnel department, usually typing orders and taking classes to learn different manuals.
There were times when the men could go on leave. On his first, he went to Paris and later to Germany. More on that later.
Hoeft said there was no danger at his base, but there was an Algerian uprising going on during this time that periodically turned riotous. For that reason there were instances when Hoeft and others would get a rifle and walk the base perimeter because there was a concern Algerians would try to steal materials and ammo from their base. “We were blessed to not have been affected by that,” he told me. He remembers seeing French machine guns atop the Arc de Triomphe during the conflict and there were assassination attempts on French President Charles DeGaulle during this time, including one on Aug. 22, 1962. When the men would travel off base, they would usually stay in groups of four or five and, Hoeft said, felt safe but stayed aware of their surroundings.
Hoeft said he was able to take a tour of East Berlin and did so with his wife during one of her visits. He said the differences between the east side and west side of the wall were striking. In the west were bright lights, many stores and people on the street. In the east all the buildings were gray and no one was on the streets. While on the tour, Hoeft asked their Communist guide where all the people were. He was told they were all at work. During the tour, no one was allowed to leave the bus and there were no stops.
In June 1962, his unit’s personnel returned to the USA, but all their equipment stayed in Chambley. When he arrived at the airport for his return flight, Hoeft noticed everything was being weighed, including the men. Turns out his flight was considered overweight so six men were not allowed to board the plane. Yep, Hoeft was one of those six. He and the others were given tickets to get to another base, from which they returned home.
In August 1962, the Guardsmen were released from active duty and returned to Indiana control. Hoeft was honorably discharged from the Indiana Air National Guard on April 17, 1965. In April 1966, he was discharged from the Air Force Reserve. He later attended Indiana University where he got a master’s degree.
As a civilian, Hoeft ended a 40-year career as the manager of systems, international operations, with International Harvester, with work assignments all over the globe; places like The Netherlands, Australia and South Africa. He retired in 1999 and moved with wife Bev to Hot Springs Village that same year from St. Charles, Illinois. They have two children: Joya and Linda.
When asked what impact his time in service meant for him, Hoeft said it taught him a real appreciation of the United States and, “I learned a lot about myself and taking orders,” he concluded.