PAW Tracks

America’s entry into World War II changed the lives of millions of Americans, and thousands of Princeton alumni. In this episode, Herb Hobler ’44, a sophomore at the time of the Pearl Harbor attacks, remembers the swift changes on campus and his travels en route to the Pacific theater.

PAW Tracks is also available on iTunes — click here to subscribe

Herb Hobler ’44 in the 1944 Nassau Herald


Our December episode begins on a day that shaped the lives of millions of Americans, and thousands of Princeton alumni: Dec. 7, 1941.

Radio broadcast: This is John Daly speaking from the CBS newsroom in New York. Here is the Far East situation as reported to this moment. The Japanese have attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and our defense facilities at Manila, capital of the Philippines. …

Herb Hobler: I’m Herb Hobler, H-o-b-l-e-r, Class of 1944. On December 7th, I had the radio on. And anybody who is old enough to remember will remember just like I do. And I heard the announcer say that Pearl Harbor had just been bombed and I said to myself, where is Pearl Harbor? None of us knew where Pearl Harbor was. So then suddenly you say to yourself, what’s this all about? Of course, the war in Europe had been going on for two years. In a matter of weeks, in the old gym, there were recruiters, and big long lines of all the undergraduates coming in to enlist.

So I got in line, initially, to the Navy, and they asked me a bunch of questions. And why they gave me a little color test, I don’t know. You’ve probably never heard of the Ishihara color test, but it’s a bunch of colored dots, and I flunked 25 out of 26 of them. I didn’t see the right number; I saw another number. And the guy said, you’re color blind. And I said, no I’m not, I can see that that’s red and that’s blue and so and so. Well, the red-green combination doesn’t make you color blind, it makes you color ignorant with that mixture. He said, we can’t take you. I said, hell, my brother Wells is already in the Air Corps. He went into the Air Corps as soon as he graduated in summer of ’41. So I went and got in that line, and I’ll be damned if they didn’t give me the same test. And I pleaded with him. I said, my brother’s already in. He says, OK, normal. So I got in.

When I signed up for the Air Corps and these other people who were signing up, almost without exception, we were told to stay in school until we call you. You’re in the service, you haven’t been sworn in, but you’re in the reserve now. And the reason for that was the United States really wasn’t ready for this war. They didn’t have a big Army, they didn’t have a big Air Corps, they didn’t have [air] fields, they didn’t have ships.

There was nothing military about the time I was waiting. I just suddenly got a letter that said, you will report at the Trenton court house at such and such a time to be sworn in. And I went down there with nine other guys, some of whom were younger and some were a bit older than me at Princeton. We got sworn in and put on a train with all the shades hung down, as if this was a real secret. We wound up in Atlantic City, where the Air Corps had taken over all the hotels, which is nothing like it is today, of course,and suddenly, we were yes-sir-ing to corporals and sergeants and KP at 3:30 in the morning and it was quite a lifestyle. They made you feel like you were just a crummy bum, because they wanted to make you know, damn it, we’re in charge, not you, and you got to face up to this. Some people, I suspect, washed out and couldn’t take the discipline. It was in February, we marched up and down the boardwalk for eight hours a day in 20-degree weather.

I met a guy named Thurman Walling from Wichita, Kans., at Michigan State college. He was tall, broad shoulders. We became fast friends, and he was told that he would be in charge of the troop train taking us to the West Coast, and he had a compartment so I got to go in the compartment. So I went to Santa Ana, Calif., and that was for pre-flight. And there I learned how to — they flashed a picture of an airplane on and, what airplane is it? And we had to quickly identify all kinds of stuff. We had to learn how to do S.O.S., that kind of stuff, and lots of physical activity. I was an athlete in Princeton and did track and basketball and JV football, but boy did they shape me up. I had muscles that I never had when I was at Princeton by the time I got through.

And so that is when I had a date with a girl from Vassar in La Jolla, and she reminded me that Mary Randolph from Bronxville lived in La Jolla and was going to Occidental College. And I said, oh, well, I went to kindergarten with her, I’d better look her up. Called her up on the telephone at Occidental College in Los Angeles and said, I’m Herb Hobler, do you remember me? Yeah.  How about a date? My 21st birthday is Saturday. She said OK.

My weekend was about 24 hours from the time I left until I got back, so I didn’t have long. Didn't sleep a lot. At the end of our seventh very short weekend together, we smooched and I was groping for words to ask her to marry me and it never came to me. The next day we were having lunch, about to depart, and I said, do you know what I almost asked you last night? She said yeah. I said, what do you think? She said that’s great. I said we’re engaged then. So that’s how it that happened.

After we left there, we were sent to gunnery school in a little town in Nevada called Las Vegas. It wasn’t a big gambling place like it is now. And my wife Randy came up to see us in Las Vegas. She brought her engagement ring and I put it on her finger. Walling went with me to Hondo, Texas, just outside of San Antonio, where I got married and he was an usher. And he flunked out, but he had gunner’s wings. They sent him to Nebraska where there were several B-29s training. So they sent him over to Tinian and I wound up at Tinian. But he was on the very first flight over Japan from the Marianas, Nov. 25, 1944.

After the big fire raids, which you’ve read about — I was on four of them — he jumped on a little airplane and came over to Saipan, over to see me. I was living in a tent — I got a picture of the two of us together. He finished his 30 missions. There was a famous airplane called the “Dauntless Dotty” that flew 52 missions, had been used by different crews, and they decided to fly it back. The brass decided to fly it back, fly it all over the United States for bond rallies. His pilot volunteered to fly it back. He went to Kwajalein, the first step on the way home, which was a atoll that had been taken from the Japanese. And it took off at midnight and crashed and they were all killed. My buddy. Nicest person in the world. I get choked up thinking about it.

So I have some newspapers that my wife kept which were headlines of some of the battles in Europe and B-29 raids. Now I didn’t realize it at the time, but I came back and I saw these things and I said, that’s what my mother and my wife would see: Was Herb on that raid? Was he one of the planes that was lost? So the family — not just airplanes, but Battle of the Bulge or whatever it was — it had to be a very difficult thing for families reading newspapers about battles when they knew damn well their son was in it.

What you’re hearing from me is not really atypical. It’s just Herb Hobler’s experience. But there are hundreds and hundreds of stories of heroes. I was no hero; most of the people I was with were no heroes. People may say, well you flew in that airplane, you did this. Yeah, but I wasn’t alone. I was just one of many thousands of people doing it.

Herb Hobler and his wife Randy celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary earlier this year. Alumni may recall the Class of ’44’s stirring tribute [1] to its World War II veterans at Reunions in 2009, orchestrated primarily by Hobler. Active-duty military personnel and family members of classmates honored each of the 22 class members killed in the war. According to the University Archives, Princeton lost 355 alumni to World War II.