Mitchell County

Merle H. Hobbs, S 1/c



St. Ansgar -- Mrs. Hilmer Hobbs received word from the war department that her husband, Sgt. Hilmer Hobbs, is missing in action, somewhere in Germany. Sgt. Hobbs is the son of Mr. and Mrs. Lee Hobbs and another son, Merle, a seaman on the U.S.S. Houston, has been missing in action for the past 3 years.

Source: The Mason City Globe-Gazette, February 17, 1945

SEAMAN CAPTURED, BROTHER KILLED --Mr. and Mrs. Lee Hobbs of St. Ansgar received word from the war department that their son, S.Sgt Hilmer Hobbs, who was previously reported missing in action in Germany, was killed in action Jan. 31 this year. He was attached to the 78th Lightening division with the 1st army under General Hodges. Just the day before this news came, the parents got a card from their son, Merle, seaman 1/c, on the U.S.S. Houston, who had been reported missing the past 3 years. He states he is a prisoner of the Japs, is in good health and working for wages.

Source: The Mason City Globe-Gazette, February 28, 1945 (photos included)


By Nick Lamberto
Register Staff Writer

Thirty-three years ago Merle H. Hobbs of Marengo was told he only had six months to live.

For Hobbs, the forecast was the final bitter irony: He had lived through the sinking of the U.S. Cruiser Houston and 3 1/2 years years of starvation and deprivation as a Japanese prisoner of war.

He asked himself: Why the bitter dregs of a death sentence pronounced by friendly American doctors after all that?

"Guess I fooled them, " Hobbs said with a broad smile during a recent interview.

"I had tuberculosis in the advanced stages, malaria, pellagra, dysentery, beri beri, round worms, hook worms -- you name it."

But Hobbs refused to die and after being hospitalized for 3 1/2 years -- three of those years at Iowa's Oakdale sanitarium -- he became a full-fledged and reasonably healthy civilian again.

Remembers Comrades

But Hobbs often pauses to remember his fallen comrades of World War II, especially on Memorial Day and Veterans Day.

The year Hobbs and all other POWs and MIAs (missing in action) will be honored on July 18 in a national recognition day.

Only his determination to survive kept Hobbs alive during 18 hours in the sea and years of slave labor as a POW in Java, Singapore, Burma and Thailand.

Hobbs, born Dec. 20, 1921, enlisted in the U.S. Navy on June 4, 1940, shortly after his graduation from St. Ansgar High School.

World War II started in September 1939 when Hitler's Nazi troops marched into Poland. The United States entered World War II after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

Almost three moths later on Feb. 28, 1942 - the Cruiser Houston and 12 other allied warships were sunk in a battle with a Japanese fleet in the Macassar Straits between Borneo and Java. Japan lost eight ships in the battle.

Iowans Survive

Of the 1,164, men aboard the Houston, only 346 survived. Hobbs and six other Iowans on the Houston were among the survivors.

The other Iowans who lived through the sinking and subsequent imprisonment were Harold McManus of Cherokee, William R. Miles of Cresco, John E. Hood of Des Moines, Earl C. Humphrey of rural Mount Pleasant and Elmer L. McFadden of Washington.

Another Iowan -- Lyle Roszell of Shellsburg -- survived the sinking and the long swim with Hobbs, but he died of dysentery in a POW camp in Thailand.

"The heat was so intense I had blisters on my fingers from hanging over the side of the ship after our anti-aircraft gun took a direct hit." Hobbs recalled.

"We jumped overboard after the second abandon ship order and Roszell and I found each other in the dark.

"We found a life raft with 12 men on it and hung on that for awhile.

"Then we took off by ourselves and started swimming toward land and almost made it, but the tide took us out to sea again.

"A Japanese whaleboat came by and the crewmen threw a line toward us. Two men swung out hooks at us. Finally they picked us out of the water.

"I didn't realize how tired I was until then, after 18 hours in the water. I just flopped in the boat.

"We were taken aboard a destroyer and given a cigarette and some water, and then put aboard the whaleboat again.

Army POWs

"Then we were dumped into the sea again and later picked up by an army lading craft. We were supposed to be Army prisoners, I guess."

Hobbs spent most of his time as a POW slave laborer in jungle camps. He helped build the so-called "death railroad" through Burma jungle and the famous bridge on the river Kwai.

An estimated 116,000 POWs died building the railroad.

Hobbs weighed 178 pounds aboard ship, but during his captivity his weight dropper to 87 pounds.

Toward the end of the war Hobbs and other POWs managed to gain some weight back by scrounging and stealing food.

When he was liberated in September 1945, Hobbs weighed 121 pounds.

'Seven of us ate 12 dozen eggs, toast and bacon at Calcutta," Hobbs recalled. "We ate all the time. I gained 41 pounds in 31 days."

Hobb's brother, Hilmer, 20 was killed in the Battle of the Bulge.

Married Brother's Widow

Hobbs married his brother's widow Feb. 14, 1946, while he was hospitalized in New York.

"We wanted to keep her in the family," Hobbs said. "Our courtship mainly was by letters."

At the age of 30, Hobbs went back to school for three years to learn watch making in Kansas City, Mo.

Then, after a year as an apprentice, Hobbs passed the state exam and opened a small jewelry shop at St. Ansgar, where he had been born and reared.

A year later he bought a larger store in Marengo and owned and operated that until his retirement on Jan. 15, 1978.

Since then Hobbs and his wife, Marilyn, had lived a leisurely life -- golfing, fishing and visiting with sons, Brad, Rock, Tracy and Robin and four grandchildren.

Hobbs now weighs 186 ponds and stand 5-9 1/2.

"People ask me if we ever tried to escape from those jungle camps", Hobbs said.

"There was no chance. You couldn't survive in the jungle, Even if you did the hostile native would have killed you.

"I'm lucky to be alive -- in more ways than one."

Source: The Des Moines Register, May 28, 1979 (photo included)