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La Jolla author’s six-year effort documents an untold story

By Will Carless

Richard Hoffman has a rocky, roaring laugh that brings a smile to the face of all the coffee drinkers sitting around him as he answers questions about his new book. A full-time La Jolla resident for the last 18 years, Hoffman spends his time these days in the sedate surroundings of the Jewel, working on his new book and just enjoying life with his wife Dorothy.

For the past six years, the 78-year-old Hoffman has been diligently researching and writing a book, “The Fighting Flying Boat: A History of the PBM Mariner,” which was recently published by the prestigious Naval Institute Press. Much more than simply a history of one particular aircraft, Hoffman’s tome covers a lot of ground, and investigates a previously untold chapter of the role of the Navy in fighting World War II.

"(The PBM Mariner) participated in frankly all the major campaigns of the war,” said Hoffman, “so telling the story of the airplane is telling the story of the history of what the Navy was doing from about ’41 to ’55.”

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Very little had previously been documented about the PBM Mariner - a so-called flying boat - despite its 20 years of service from the beginning of World War II through the Korean War. Hoffman set about changing all that, and in 1993 he joined an organization called the Mariner/Marlin Association, a group of flying boat enthusiasts from around the world.

Soon after, he was becoming more and more interested in tracing the Mariner’s history. In 1996, Hoffman joined a team that was attempting to raise a sunken Mariner from the bed of Lake Washington. During that effort, the retired naval captain discovered just how under-chronicled the Mariner was in Navy history books and decided to change that fact.

Within a couple of years, Hoffman was communicating with Mariner enthusiasts all over the world. In defiance of the old adage that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, he began to explore cyberspace.

“The Internet was invaluable,” said Hoffman. “I could send an e-mail to a guy in Australia in the morning and get an answer that afternoon. It’s mind boggling.”

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However, Hoffman still had to convince the people he was contacting that he was serious in his aim to write an accurate and comprehensive history of his subject. This was not always easy, and he found that he often had to build a rapport with experts and enthusiasts before they would even talk to him.

“The world is full of people writing books on airplanes,” said Hoffman with his trademark guffaw, “and some of them don’t know what the hell they’re doing. So, for people to put out any effort, they like to know that they’re dealing with someone with, some intelligence anyway.”

Hoffman himself certainly knows what he is talking about when it comes to flying boats. He was a Mariner pilot in the Korean War and served for more than 30 years in the United States Navy. His 10-chapter book examines everything from the machine’s design and development to its last deployment as a commercial transporter for a Maine lobster company, and has impressed his contemporaries.

“I know of no one who would be more qualified than Dick Hoffman to author the book,” said Dave Rinehart, editor of the Mariner/Marlin Assn Newsletter and a former aviation electronics technician. “I have read this book and believe it to be extremely well-written and as thorough as it can be due to rather limited information available to tell its story.”

Hoffman brought together the combined knowledge of a vast number of people in compiling the Mariner’s history. His sources included the Royal Australian Air Force, the British Royal Air Force, the Dutch Navy, the Uruguayan Navy and the Argentinian Navy, in addition to commercial sources, enthusiasts and historical society members in a number of countries.

Although he had previously written articles and short pieces for small publications, Hoffman had never taken on something as challenging as writing a book. That doesn’t mean he regrets spending six years of his life working on his masterpiece however. He’s already started on his next book, a history of the Marlin flying boat, which he hopes to submit to the publishers between January and June next year.

He is glad he took on the task, no matter how long he spent tapping away on a keyboard with his two index fingers. Writing the history of the flying boat also appealed to Hoffman’s military sensibilities in regards to accuracy.

“I enjoyed it,” said Hoffman, “because, in doing the research, I learned a lot. I cleared up a lot of errors I found in previous works. I tended to be very very meticulous.”

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“The Fighting Flying Boat: A History of the Martin PBM Mariner” is published by the Naval Institute Press.