By David Schriemer, MD
Sometimes seemingly ordinary people do extraordinary things.
After working as a heavy equipment operator in the Civilian Conservation Corp, William Hobaugh finally found a job at Sutherland Paper Company in Kalamazoo in 1940. Knowing he was going to get drafted, he decided to enlist in the Navy in hopes of becoming a pilot. What he didn’t know was, at that time, the Navy required a college education for pilots. He did so well in boot camp at Great Lakes he was offered a different opportunity. He was asked to be a submariner. Bill reports he had never seen the ocean and didn’t know what a submarine was. ”When they told me the pay was 50% higher, I said ‘SOLD’”.
He proceeded to California, then Pearl Harbor for training, then to Midway Island where he joined the crew of the USS Steelhead. These subs were called “pigboats” because there was water enough only to cook and drink but not wash. The smell of 84 unwashed men after a two to three month mission was nauseating. If the ship was using its diesel engines on the surface, the sub could get as hot as 120 degrees. When submerged, oxygen levels would drop so that after eight hours a match would not stay lit. Sometimes they had to stay submerged 18 to 20 hours. Bill reports it would hurt to breathe and was difficult to think clearly and stay awake as carbon dioxide levels rose. When attacked with depth, charges the lights would go out and the sub was completely black; they had to do their jobs by feel and memory. Life on the submarine was brutal, physically and mentally.
Bill recalls many times when he thought he would die. Once in the South China Sea, the Steelhead got stuck in the mud on the bottom. Two attempts to break free failed. They would only have one more chance. The captain had the propellers engaged so that the sub shook and then blew the tanks to rise, although very slowly.
Twice while on lookout on the bridge he was almost killed. While under attack he could see tracer bullets go by him and somehow he was not hit. Another time, he spotted a destroyer hidden behind another enemy ship. No one else saw it. Based on Bill’s confidence and insistence, the captain ordered them to dive just as the destroyer turned to bear down on them and deploy depth charges.
Bill recalls once that a depth charge seemed to penetrate the ship; they could see the fire inside yet the port holes closed again. “I could never figure out how that could happen”.
Bill proudly displays his submariners pin. The pin had three holes into which a gold star was placed for each successful mission. Bill smirked as he told me that there were only three stars because they made the pin with only three holes. They never thought they would require more. Bill completed five missions. Fifty-two US Navy submarines were lost in WWII. After the fifth mission the badly damaged Steelhead was sent to California for repairs. The three quarter inch thick steel hull had been bowed inward in multiple places by depth charges. Bill was to be placed on a new submarine and see more action, but the war ended.
A two-week shore leave occurred twice a year. Once a year, the crew went to Pearl Harbor, and once a year to Midway Island where “there was only sand”. Bill reports that at Midway you could ride the garbage scow and shoot sharks as they dumped garbage in the ocean.
While swimming and looking for shells he came face to face with a large eel with its mouth open. That experience kept Bill from swimming ever again. After the war he and his wife visited Hawaii and the Naval Memorials 33 times.
Bill served two years, nine months; was deployed on five missions, had 26 confirmed sinkings; and had many brushes with death. “I was a lucky boy” he says.
After the war he went back to work at Sutherland Paper Company, raced cars and finally learned how to fly. After two children and a couple failed marriages, he found Marion, who was raising five kids of her own. He became a good father and husband. They have been married 52 years. He and Marion live in Portage. You may have met Bill at the YMCA or at a local bowling alley, as he has stayed active even at age 91.