Story by MARK SAAL • Photos by BENJAMIN ZACK • Standard-Examiner staff
OGDEN — Roaring along at 150 mph, Ogden native Ray Hobbs flew his B-17 bomber a scant 10 feet off the ground.
The Flying Fortress had just completed its day’s mission, and now Hobbs and his crew were taking the scenic route back to their air base near Horham, England. But first, a little fun in the Netherlands countryside.
Following the contours of the land, Hobbs would rapidly climb just high enough to get over the large dikes intersecting the landscape. But then, just as quickly, he’d dip back down and resume skimming the fields of the German-occupied territory.
“This was Holland, so when we dropped down to within 10 feet of the ground we were flying below sea level,” Hobbs muses.
At one point, a farmer standing in the wrong place at the wrong time was compelled to flatten himself on the ground as the bomber roared a few feet overhead. The crew had a good laugh over that one.
It was May 1945, just days before the end of World War II in Europe.
So, what on earth would possess Hobbs to engage in such daring behavior? Before he can answer, daughter Susan Stokes, who lives in North Ogden, blurts out her theory.
“Because he was 21 years old, and they gave him a plane,” she says with a laugh.
Although macular degeneration has left him legally blind and he wears hearing aids, today the 93-year-old Hobbs’ mind is still just as sharp as that long-ago autumn day when he enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces.
Harley in the sky
Born March 13, 1924, Hobbs spent most of his life in Ogden and graduated from Ogden High School in 1942.
“Except for three years in the service, and two years living in Washington Terrace, I’ve spent all of my 93 years within 150 feet of this house,” he said in a recent interview from his Ogden home.
On Dec. 8, 1941 — the day after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor — Hobbs went on a blind date with Lois Crosbie, also of Ogden.
“I took her to a dance at Mound Fort Junior High School,” he recalls.
He was 17, she was 15. They were smitten.
A few months after graduation, Hobbs enlisted in the military with the promise he could become an aircraft maintenance welder. He thought he was headed for Italy to fix aircraft.
Instead the military sent him to Colorado for aircraft armament school, where he’d learn to take care of the guns on various warplanes. In Colorado, his superiors asked for volunteers for the aviation cadet program.
“I raised my hand,” Hobbs says.
He did well enough on the test that he was shipped off to Missouri to begin his pilot training. He later earned his wings in Arizona and was told to report to Roswell, New Mexico, to fly B-17s.
“The B-17 was like a Harley (motorcycle) in the sky,” Stokes said. “Dad was so glad he was not doing the B-24 Liberators — they flew faster and had more bomb load and range, but they were noted for gas leakage. And exploding.”
While he was training on the B-17, Hobbs got a letter from Lois, his blind-date sweetheart back home. Despite the fact her father didn’t approve of his daughter’s choice, Lois told Hobbs, “Send me some money, and I’ll come down, and we’ll get married.”
Hobbs sent the money.
The couple were married Oct. 19, 1944, in a little church in Roswell. Three days later, Lois’ father died of a heart attack. Their honeymoon consisted of Hobbs wrangling just enough leave to return to Utah for the funeral.
“She always blamed herself for her father’s death,” Hobbs said.
By the spring of 1945, the newlyweds were stationed in Lincoln, Nebraska, where Hobbs was assigned his flight crew and awaited deployment.
Each morning, Hobbs would go to the base, not knowing if that was the day he and his crew would be shipped out.
“He’d leave each morning, and she’d cry,” Stokes said of her parents. “Then he’d come home that night, and she’d be happy.”
On March 16, 1945, Hobbs reported to the base as usual. But that night, he didn’t return home. Hobbs and his crew were sent to the East Coast for a date with a transport ship across the Atlantic Ocean and into the war in Europe.
“I wasn’t allowed to tell her,” Hobbs said.
Lois had to find her way back to Ogden on her own — and then wait.
Hobbs and his crew were assigned to the 95th Bomb Group, based at Horham airfield, in eastern England. The 95th — recognizable by the large block letter “B” inside a square on the aircraft’s tail — was the only bomb group to receive three Presidential Unit Citations, including one for the first daylight raid on Berlin in 1944.
On May 1, Hobbs and his crew were assigned their first bombing run. It wasn’t what they had expected.
Hobbs and his crew were to be a part of Operation Chowhound, a humanitarian relief project that, with Britain’s Operation Manna, was intended to drop food to the starving Dutch in their German-occupied lands.
The B-17s were fitted with plywood platforms in the bomb bay area with a slide latch — “like on a screen door,” Hobbs explains — to keep the plywood doors closed. When the aircraft was over the drop zone, a crew member would pull on a cord attached to the latch, and the plywood doors would swing away, dropping the food.
During one of the drops over Utrecht, Hobbs’ radio operator reported that one of the plywood doors didn’t open, leaving half of the load hung up in the belly of the plane. As Hobbs swung back around over the city to line up for a second pass at the drop zone, the rest of the load suddenly gave way.
“Oh crap, Ray,” the radio operator said. “There it went.”
One crew member reported seeing a 50-pound sack of flour break through the roof of a house and explode out the front door.
Food, not bombs
The day after Hobbs and his crew made their final Chowhound drop, Germany surrendered. A little over a month later, Hobbs flew the B-17 back to the United States. Despite all his training, Hobbs hadn’t had to drop a single bomb.
“I did some good, and I didn’t have to drop any bombs on anybody,” Hobbs said, his eyes tearing up. “I dropped food. I’ve always felt it was a blessing, and that my mother’s prayers were answered. I feel she prayed me home.”
After the victory in Europe, Hobbs came home to his pregnant wife for 30 days before being sent to Iowa where he was to be trained on B-29 Superfortresses in preparation for the war in the Pacific.
“But then they dropped the bomb,” Hobbs said, referring to the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
While Hobbs was in Iowa, Lois dropped a bombshell of her own. On Sept. 9, 1945, Hobbs was shooting pool in the officers’ club when he received a telegram informing him that his first child had arrived. It was Susan, the first of six children the couple would have.
“I had to put down the pool cue,” he said. “I couldn’t shoot anymore. My hands were shaking too much.”
Three days after Hobbs returned home from the war, he got a job as a stereotyper at the Standard-Examiner, where he worked for 33 years. He retired in February 1979.
Today, in addition to his six children, Hobbs has 33 grandchildren, 82 great-grandchildren and 2 great-great grandchildren. Lois passed away five years ago this coming July 24.
Last month, Hobbs flew back to England for a reunion of the 95th Bomb Group.
He says he was treated like a “rock star” as he was the only veteran from the 95th Bomb Group able to attend. He was also invited to lay wreaths at five cemeteries in the area, including the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial.
Hobbs says there wasn’t a dry eye at the Cambridge cemetery.
“All those men laying there, and most of them were under 21,” he said. “We have so much to be thankful for.”
Hobbs was also presented with the flag that flew over Cambridge. He says it’s something he’ll always treasure.
“I’ve been given flags that fly over the capitol, but all they do is run them up and down,” Hobbs said. “This flag is a sacred flag that was flying over a sacred cemetery.”
Stokes says her father was particularly touched by the number of people who thanked him for his service.
“People came out of the woodwork to thank him,” she said. “It helps remind me to thank those younger ones who are coming home from the service now.”