13 February 2020

Surviving World War II with Neal Howard Hobbs

Here at Arcare aged care, we understand that the life of every client is diverse, interesting and completely unique. By taking the time to sit down and listen to their stories, there is so much we can learn. I am about to give you a glimpse into the remarkably eventful life of Neal Howard Hobbs. Neal recalls what it was like growing up and working in Malaya, and shares with us the hardships he endured under the Japanese during World War II.

His childhood

Neal was born in Kuala Lumpur on 6th July 1924. His father was a jockey living and working in Malaya, now known as Malaysia. Neal got his middle name ‘Howard’ from his father’s first winning racehorse when he was a jockey at the age of sixteen.

In the year he was born, his father suffered a bad fall which fractured his spine and placed a strain on the family income. After a long time of recuperation, his father made the decision to go back to riding but the Straits Racing Association withdrew his licence to avoid responsibility for any subsequent falls which could prove fatal. His father then turned to training. The Great Depression was about to begin and as Neal said, “it caused the family great hardship and living off the smell of an oily rag had real meaning for us”.

As a child, they lived in San Peng Flats on Circular Road in KL and Neal mostly played with the Malay children. He made friends with a number of friends of the locals at school but in those days, it was not socially acceptable to visit their homes so interactions were confined to sporting events. In his last year at school, Neal became a prefect which he found very rewarding.

Neal excelled in sports as sports were always at the top of his agenda. He is most proud of his cricket achievements. He represented the State (Selangor) and the North in the annual North/South encounter in the years of 1948-1955. He was selected to represent Malaya/Singapore against Hong Kong.

He also did extremely well in hockey, golf, swimming and diving. When he was the school’s diving champion in 1941, 1924 Olympian E.M. encouraged him to train for the Olympic diving competitions. Neal declined as he felt the training regime would inhibit his other sporting activities.

Neal’s mother, Elsie had an attractive soprano voice and appeared in a number of amateur musicals staged in Kuala Lumpur in the mid-1930s. Her interest in music gave her the idea that her own children should also be involved in the creative arts. Neal’s sisters, Joyce and Audrey learnt ballet while Neal learnt tap dance. The cabaret act was named ‘The Hobblets’ and they went on the road in 1935. They performed mostly at the Selangor Club in Kuala Lumpur and in 1938, they performed at Raffles Hotel, Singapore. This was followed by a live on-air show at the Radio Malaya studios in Singapore to celebrate Australia’s 150th anniversary. The song and dance routine lasted a little over two years but Neal was glad when it ended because, as he said, “my nerves were frazzled”.

His time in the war

I was living in Kuala Lumpur at the time the Japanese invaded the country in December 1941. Their forces soon gained a foothold and moved rapidly down the peninsula towards Singapore.

Amongst the panic-stricken citizens anxious to get away were my father and I. (My mother and two sisters had left for Perth on MV Charon on 10th January). We managed to embark on 12th February on a vessel named Mata Hari. Two other ships of similar size joined us in convoy, these were Vyner Brooke and Giang Bee.

Moving through the minefields off Singapore, our vessel lost its way and when it finally reached safe waters, the other two ships were several hours ahead. This undoubtedly saved us from the same fate as the other two met. They were sunk by Japanese bombers off Bangka Island.

The Mata Hari’s fate was to be captured by a cruiser and a destroyer. We were halted in the early hours of Saturday, 14th February and when daylight appeared, a boarding party was sent by one of the warships to inspect our craft.

Prior to the boarding, our skipper warned that the Japanese troops would search and confiscate all articles of value. My father had two diamond rings left with him by my mother to assist us. I hid them between my toes in my tennis shoes and we were able to sell them on the black market when things got particularly grim.

An incident which will always remain with me was that during the inspection, a Japanese sailor with a bayonet attached to his rifle was checking out the passengers lined up on deck. When he got to me, he took a lunge and the tip of the bayonet struck an object inside my shirt which happened to be my drinking utensil. There were cigarette tins around in those days and I use them as my drinking utensil. When the lunge came, I jumped back and, just as well, otherwise I would be sporting a scar today. My immediate reaction was to fetch the tin out to show that it was not a grenade.

Eventually we were escorted into Muntok Harbour, Bangka, where we caught up with the survivors from the other ships. Within hours, our captors separated the women and children from the men who were placed in Muntok gaol.

Our first night in the gaol was a somewhat frightening one. When we had settled in, so to speak, around 7.30pm when it was totally dark, we heard yells and blood curdling screams coming from the gaol entrance. We immediately thought the guards had got drunk on sake (Japanese rice wine) and were on a rampage which would see us cut to pieces.

As it turned out, the noise came from a horde of Asian prisoners who had been brought to the gaol to spend their first night there. They were totally segregated from us and that night, we all slept on the bags of pepper. Talk about sleeping on hot stuff.

The next morning, we got an even bigger shock. We were put into trucks and taken to a large expanse of flat ground where several trenches had been dug up. We lined up in front of these trenches so the first thing that came to mind was a bullet in the back of the head. As it happened, we were on an airfield that the Dutch had dug up to prevent its use by the enemy. And our job was to fill in the trenches. Oh, what a relief.

Six weeks later we were transported to the mainland in the city of Palembang, Sumatra, and a gaol again became our home for the next ten months.

In May I contracted amoebic dysentery and was extremely ill. Fortunately at that time Charitas Hospital in Palemgang was still operating and I was moved there from the gaol. It was a Catholic hospital staffed by nuns who did a marvellous job. I was the patient of a Dr Goldberg, a woman, and I cannot thank her enough for getting me through the illness. I spent about six weeks in the hospital and when taken back to prison had shed 2 stone 7 lbs (16 kg) from my weight of 7 stone 10 lbs (49 kg). It took a long time to recover fully and coincidentally when the war ended I had got back to my exact original weight BUT in the meantime had grown six inches in height!!

A camp which we called Barracks Camp, and which we helped to build in the city, became our domain for the following eight months.

In September 1943 our captors decided to return us to Muntok gaol on Bangka where we languished until March 1945. This was a horrific period, which saw an immense acceleration in the death rate.

Finally, with a certain amount of relief, we were transported, via Palembang, by sea, rail and truck to a disused rubber estate in central Sumatra at a place called Belalau. We were accommodated in workers quarters and the area was surrounded by barbed wire. This location afforded the opportunity to break out to raid local smallholdings in order to pilfer produce such as tapioca, papaya (pawpaw), bananas and any other edible crops. Those game enough to take the risk were able to augment their meagre camp diet.

My partner on these missions was a chap by the name of McCann from Western Australia. I would emphasize that the risks were real. Two persons who were caught were removed from camp and were not seen again. Japanese soldiers needed little excuse when it came to exercising their brutality.

There was an occasion when I could have been strung up. On one of our daylight excursions (we would go out at night as well) when McCann and I were returning with our spoils, McCann made it safely into Camp. It was always arranged that we would receive a wave from someone inside to indicate that the way was clear. When it was my turn, I got the signal but unfortunately for me the guard who had passed by decided to tum back just as I was stepping through the fence and he saw me. I got in all right but a roll call was immediately brought on to see if the guard could pick me out and he did.

I was marched off to the guardhouse and kept there overnight. Efforts were made periodically by my captors to get me to admit that I was the culprit with assurances that no harm would come to me but I had the good sense to deny being the person. Meantime I was getting beaten up on a fairly regular basis. Eventually when daylight came I was released and I owe this to our British camp leader, Hal Hammett, who worked on the Jap camp commandant for most of the night pleading my case. Incidentally, I was Hal’s bridge partner so he obviously didn’t want to lose me!

I suppose McCann and I had made about seven trips beyond the wire and that was stretching our luck. One dangerous aspect in breaking out which we seemed to ignore was the wildlife out there in the jungle. Sumatra at that time was known for having a significant number of tigers and others of the cat family plus a few bears and snakes but we never gave it a thought. Obviously the desire to survive starvation was more compelling.

One of the tasks I had for a period of eight months was as a member of the burial party at Muntok gaol the second time around. It was particularly harrowing when one had to place in a coffin someone who had become a close friend and this occurred a few times. After a time it became less sad and depressing.

The overall British mortality rate in our men’s camp was 54½ % and, in the women’s camp 30% failed to survive. Malnutrition was the main contributor but when you add to this the fact that medical supplies were pitifully meagre to cope with diseases such as dysentery, beri beri and malaria, it was perhaps fortunate that many more didn’t die.

Getting the extra rations from the outside had the additional benefit of being able to use the tapioca to make up and cook potato cakes for sale for a few cents. This enabled us to purchase through the black market a few edible items not provided in our diet such as sugar, onions and chillies.”

Rice was the staple food but there was never enough. Meat and vegetables were at starvation levels. There was no bread available and almost no fruit. Out of the thousands of tons of Red Cross parcels that would have been destined for us, each prisoner received about ½lb butter, ½ tin bully beef and one packet of cigarettes in 3½ years. The Japanese polished off the rest.

I had my 21st birthday as a prisoner a month before hostilities ceased and received, on probably the last sheet of paper available, a memorable birthday card to celebrate the occasion. The card was signed by all 43 members in my Block and it reads:

To young Neal on his coming of age
Congratulations from Block 8
Best wishes for a happy future

There was a young fellow named Hobbs
Who’d contract to do all sorts of jobs
For Ubi not cents he’d go outside the fence
and return to assuage father’s sobs.

Ubi, as mentioned above, is the Malay/Indonesian word for potato and in this case specifically refers to the tapioca root.

In early September ’45 we were flown out of Sumatra to Singapore where we boarded a ship to Sydney. A few days later a Dakota took us to Perth to join my mother and sisters.

His family and his life in Australia

In early October 1945, the Hobbs family was reunited in Perth, WA. After a year in Perth recuperating from his debilitating internment by the Japanese, Neal returned to KL where he worked for George Blunn in his import/export company for a couple of years before moving to sports writing for the Straits Times newspaper in Singapore. Having to write on sporting matters instead of taking part in it discontented him so he returned to KL and joined a stock broking firm called Charles Bradburne and later returned to Singapore as a rubber broker.

Neal’s daughter Pauline entered the world in Kuala Lumpur on 12th July 1962 on the back seat of an MG Magnette. On New Year’s Day, 1965 the Hobbs family returned to Australia permanently.

After his return to Australia, he worked in the air conditioning industry for about twenty years prior to retiring from the workforce. Living alone, he moved to a delightful spot just north of Caloundra to be closer to his daughter who lived in Brisbane.

Neal maintains, “I have never had any regrets about spending all those years in Malaya, except for being nabbed by the Japs of course. It was an immensely interesting life and even involved, during my spare time on race days, a two year stint in 1948-49 as a horse racing commentator over Radio Malaya for the Selangor Turf Club”.

Despite the hardships he experienced and the troubles he saw, Neal’s passion for sport burns ever brightly and he remains cheerful and upbeat. He even has a spring in his step when walks down the corridors of Arcare North Lakes.

(Excerpts and photos of Neal’s life taken from Muntok Peace Museum)

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