Monday, April 16, 2007
NAZI ICON PART AFRICAN-AMERICAN?
Photo: JOHN BYRUM
John Taylor Bowles, National Socialist Party presidential candidate, holds a memorial photo of his running mate Bill Hoff. Hoff was killed in a car wreck in December 2006.
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For a man who saw the world in black and white, William Hoff Jr.'s own life was shrouded in gray.
To his younger brother, Sheldon, he was Billy - an intelligent, caring man who once worked teaching black children to read. Billy doted on Sheldon's bi-racial children and wrote letters of encouragement to them.
"My brother was someone who was full of love and compassion," Sheldon Hoff said. "He had a good brain, and he attempted to do a lot of things in this life."
But when William Hoff got together with his friends to play dress-up, he was Wild Bill - a legendary colonel in the National Socialist Movement. Wild Bill was the consummate racist, a Nazi's Nazi.
A force in NSM
"People need heroes, and Colonel Hoff was a hero," said Tim Bishop, also a colonel in the NSM. "People will line up for miles and stand in the pouring rain to see a hero, and Colonel Hoff was one of those."
Wild Bill was such a force in the NSM, the largest neo-Nazi group in the U.S., that John Taylor Bowles, the group's candidate for the presidency of the United States, selected him to be his running mate. On Dec. 8, 2006, 10 hours after they announced their candidacy, Wild Bill died in a car wreck on a lonely stretch of Highway 146 near Enoree. He was 71.
On Saturday, NSM members from across the country will gather at the Redneck Shop in Laurens to honor their fallen comrade. Speeches and music will be the order of the day as they give a final tribute to a man who dedicated most of his adult life to their cause.
But Wild Bill took a secret with him to the grave, one he couldn't share with his NSM buddies. Wild Bill, an icon of white supremacy, was himself part black.
"It was the saddest thing, because the truth was right there in front of him," Sheldon Hoff said. "When you live a life without being honest with yourself, it must be a tough thing when you get to be 70. Lives are not wasted, but he could have gotten so much more out of this one."
A changed man
Billy was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1935, the third of six children. The family lived in a racially diverse area, a neighborhood where recent immigrants often landed.
His father, William Hoff Sr., grew up in South Carolina and settled in Brooklyn after serving in the Coast Guard. The family's last name was Huff until the 1930s, when the elder Hoff changed the spelling.
Money was tight, but William Hoff's family never went hungry. He worked a series of jobs on the bustling waterfront to keep food on the table.
"We were poor, but we were hard-working poor," Sheldon Hoff said. "I never remember my father being without work."
Billy and Sheldon's friends came in a wide variety of hues and nationalities. Together they played baseball in the street and basketball at a local gym. When they couldn't find a game, they'd hang out on the waterfront.
"We did a lot of city things," Sheldon said.
Shortly after his 17th birthday, Billy joined the Navy. When he was discharged two years later, he was a changed man - Billy went to sea, but Wild Bill came home.
Sheldon heard different stories. There were whispers that Wild Bill got into a fight with a black man, that he beat the man with a chair and badly injured him. There was talk that Wild Bill had thrown someone overboard.
"I've often wondered what happened," Sheldon said. "I can't help but think that we're all born just perfect, but that things happen that lead us to certain things."
Whatever happened, Wild Bill stopped seeing his old friends. He had new friends who shared his new ideas about the inferiority of blacks and Jews.
"He was in a string of neo-Nazi groups going back to the 1950s," said Mark Potok, a spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, a Montgomery, Ala.-based organization that tracks hate groups. "He was an important member of the first Nazi party in post-World War II America."
When their father died in 1958, Wild Bill dove deeper into white supremacy groups.
"He just went full bore, and he didn't care who knew," Sheldon said. "He was in the Ku Klux Klan, the Aryan Nation and any other extreme hate group he could join. It was just crazy."
The peak of the insanity came in 1969, when Wild Bill got caught up in a plan to set off a bomb in a room filled with civil rights activists. Wild Bill was convicted of conspiracy and weapons charges and did a six-year stretch in Attica.
Sheldon hoped it would be Billy who came home from prison. But when he got out, Wild Bill was wilder than ever.
Someone fired shots at black people in the subway. Someone burned a cross in the yard of the black family that lived across the street from Sheldon.
"It was never proven that it was him, and I'm not saying that it was him," Sheldon said. "But he was the only person in my community who would have done that."
A secret uncovered
In the mid-1980s, Wild Bill moved to Enoree and later became the NSM's East Coast director. At about the same time Wild Bill was discovering South Carolina, Sheldon was discovering genealogy.
Around 1995, Sheldon uncovered a bombshell, a gem that could have destroyed Wild Bill's credibility with the Nazis - in the 1910 census, their father's family was listed as black. Sheldon eventually traced their black ancestry back to the 1600s.
When he told his brother about his find, Wild Bill brushed it off.
"He was in denial, but after that he never gave us any of his 'white is superior' stuff," Sheldon said.
Sheldon knew the power of the information he had dug up, so he kept it to himself. He said he did so for his brother's protection.
"I loved my brother very much, regardless of who he was," Sheldon said. "I didn't want to bring any heat to him among his friends."
Bishop, the NSM colonel, didn't take the news of Wild Bill's ancestry well. He idolized Wild Bill - and still does.
"He wasn't a black man, I can guarantee you that," Bishop said.
Bowles, the presidential candidate, questioned whether Sheldon's view of Wild Bill's activities might have influenced his research.
"Anybody can say that," Bowles said. "My mother would make that claim if she thought it would make me stop what I was doing."
But Bowles was open to the possibility that Wild Bill's lineage might be less than lily white. "There's probably a little mixture in a lot of people," he said.
More important, Bowles said, was Wild Bill's dedication to the movement. His 30-plus years of "political activism" made him the perfect running mate, Bowles said.
Bowles met Wild Bill about four years ago and says they became fast friends. But his tales of Wild Bill's exploits take a detour off the reality highway.
Bowles claims that Wild Bill - a slight man who stood 5-feet, 8-inches tall and weighed about 150 pounds - was a mercenary who fought all over the world, and that he received more than 70,000 votes as a write-in candidate for one of New York's U.S. Senate seats. But he can produce no evidence, and none could be found, to verify those claims.
More in the realm of believability was the love Bowles said Wild Bill had for flea markets. He collected belt buckles, and Bowles said a display is planned for the Redneck Shop.
Bishop said Wild Bill also had a love for good German food and beer. The last time he saw Wild Bill, at the NSM's 2005 national meeting in Kansas City, Mo., they shared plenty of both.
"We rented a German restaurant and it had quite the German atmosphere, especially after we brought in our regalia," Bishop said. "Colonel Hoff was in his element and I was proud to be right there by his side."
Wild Bill also enjoyed an after-dinner cigarette. Even though smoking wasn't permitted in the restaurant, Wild Bill was allowed to light up.
"Rules were bent for Colonel Hoff," Bishop said.
Bishop, 50, lives in Kansas. Geography isn't his strong suit - he calls President George W. Bush a Zionist who wants to make Canada, the U.S. and Mexico one continent - but he makes up for it with his ability to spout the party's anti-Jew, anti-black and anti-government rhetoric.
He said his loyalty to Wild Bill is a result of Wild Bill's loyalty to the cause.
"In this movement, you have people come and go a lot. People are wish-washy," Bishop said. "Colonel Hoff made a commitment way back in the day, and he stayed committed up until the very end. That's why he was a hero."
John Howard, owner of Redneck Shop and the person in South Carolina who perhaps knew Wild Bill the longest - Howard and his wife, Hazel, earned mention as "special and close friends" in Wild Bill's obituary and along with "adopted grandson" Dwayne Howard were the only survivors listed - refused to talk about his old friend.
"He was a good man and he's deceased. That's all I can tell you," Howard said before slamming down the telephone.
Potok, the SPLC spokesman, said Wild Bill's name was well-earned. Even the most hard-line neo-Nazis looked up to him, he said.
"The National Socialist Movement is a pretty sorry bunch of people," Potok said. "For Bill Hoff to be a hero to them is not that surprising."
An unkind end
Bowles and Wild Bill began planning their run for the nation's top offices almost immediately after President Bush won his second term. Bowles moved to South Carolina from Maryland - where he was a guest of the state from 1985 to '89 after being convicted of arson for profit - a year ago to operate the campaign out of the Redneck Shop.
The last time Bowles saw Wild Bill was early last December. They had gotten together at the Redneck Shop to work on their handbook for organizing grassroots support, Bowles said.
"He was getting tired and had to go take his nap."
When Bowles arrived at the Redneck Shop on Dec. 8, he received the news that stopped him in his tracks.
"As soon as I came into the store, John Howard said, 'Bill's dead,' " Bowles said. "I was devastated. He was my best friend."
Halfway across the country, Bishop had just walked out of the post office after mailing a Christmas card to Wild Bill when his cell phone rang. He had received a card from Wild Bill - his first of the season - that included stickers of a German eagle and Mickey Mouse, and he wanted to respond quickly.
"I sure did love him, and I sure do miss him," Bishop said. "His going was a great shock."
The sun was shining brightly on the morning Wild Bill met his end. At about 8 a.m., Wild Bill was turning left from Mountain Shoals Road onto Highway 146, and pulled his 1981 Dodge van into the path of a 2000 Volvo tractor-trailer.
Wild Bill wasn't wearing a seat belt and died at the scene. The driver of the tractor-trailer escaped without injury.
Bowles and Bishop say the timing of the accident is suspicious.
"There were no clouds, no fog or rain that morning," Bowles said. "Bill knew those back roads like the back of his hand, and it leaves you wondering how he missed that tractor-trailer. "
Sheldon Hoff said the conspiracy theories are predictable. He said the NSM wants to turn his brother into a martyr for the cause.
Bowles said that's not true. He said Wild Bill's life, and death, made him a martyr.
"This is where we get into the word game," Bowles said. "You can't make someone a martyr. That's like trying to make someone a hero. If you're a martyr, you're a martyr."
Sheldon didn't receive a phone call informing him of his brother's death. About 10 days after the accident he was doing genealogy research online when he came across a story from the Herald-Journal' s Web site.
"I called John Howard, and he said he didn't know we existed," Sheldon said. "I was disappointed, but I'd been feeling disappointed for a long time because of what he's done."
Sheldon has a difficult time squaring his memories of Billy with the image of Wild Bill. Billy was a guy who would go the extra mile to help anyone of any color. Wild Bill was a man consumed by hatred, a creation of the groups he so readily followed.
The family has yet to gather for a memorial service. Sheldon is not sure when, or if, that will happen.
He's resentful of the ceremony that the NSM will hold Saturday. He's angry that the group's hold on Billy outlives Wild Bill.
"We don't have his ashes, we don't even have a button from his clothes," Sheldon said. "They stole him in life, and they're stealing him in death."
Robert W. Dalton can be reached at 562-7274 or
Posted by Nikki at 4/16/2007 07:13:00 PM