PREWAR BIOGRAPHY

A three-part biographical sketch of Fred L. Hillis, as recounted by his daughter, Cynthia Hillis McBride.
 

Hattie and Sam in 1917Fred Leroy Hillis was born June 8, 1918 near Brosely, MO.  He was the first of three boys born to 15 year old Hattie Franklin Hillis and Sam Leroy Hillis, a manual laborer for the railroad.  His parents were poor by anyone's standards and barely educated.  In 1927, Fred's father Sam died of tuberculosis.  His mother soon found herself in desperate circumstances.  Her family was able to offer no help.  Hattie was one of 10 children and her in-laws boasted an even larger family (21).  Rural Missouri offered no hope of employment for a young widow with three small sons and an eighth-grade education.

Looking for work, Hattie eventually found her way to St. Louis where she finally found employment as a waitress.  It was soon obvious that her pathetic salary was not going to be enough to feed both herself and her sons.  She temporarily found a place for the boys at an orphan's home sponsored by the Feefee Baptist Church in Hazelwood, Missouri near St. Louis.  It was the time of the Great Depression, and homes for orphans across the nation were swelling with the children of the destitute.  The grinding poverty of Fred's childhood proved to be a formative seed.  He developed an unquenchable appetite for knowledge that never died.  He realized early in life that education was the only way to a better life.  He decided that he would do whatever it took to achieve that goal.  Gradually, Fred and his brother Randy started to earn a bit from various odd jobs.  The families' slowly improving financial situation finally allowed them to live together again in 1932.  It had been a long separation.

Hattie and FredBy age 14 Fred was as tall as most men, and managed to pass himself off as 18 for a job after school and weekends for the Anheuser Busch brewery in St. Louis.  He was assigned to an area populated by a tight-knit bunch of tough old German brewers.  Many still communicated only in their native tongue.  Fred quickly developed a muscle bound body from the heavy physical demands of his job.  Simultaneously, as the months wore on, he also began to understand more of the second language of the brewery, German; an accomplishment that ten years hence was to prove fortuitous.

As a young man, Fred worked and saved what he could, finally making it to the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri, a Freshman finally at age 20.  His chosen course of study, Electrical Engineering, was far from an easy one.  He found a multitude of various jobs between and after classes to pay his way, but his rigid schedule left little time for socializing or dates. Study was done in bits and spurts whenever he could work it in.  In 1941, two things happened that were to alter this regimented lifestyle forever.  Fred met a beautiful, hazel-eyed brunette from a farm near Napton, Missouri.  Though Mary Frances Abney was a year younger than Fred was, she was already a Senior and an honor student at the university.  The attraction was immediate and mutual, and neither dated anyone else thereafter.  It was love

Close on the heels of the budding new relationship, the events of the morning of December 7, 1941 changed the lives of millions, including that of Fred and Mary.  The two oldest Hillis brothers enlisted with the multitudes that volunteered following Pearl Harbor, Fred with the Army Air Corps, and Randy with the Navy.  They joined their younger brother John, who was already serving in the Pacific on Midway Island as a Marine.

 

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