Hattie now proudly displayed three stars in the window of her
apartment in St. Louis to honor her three sons in the military. When
people remarked about the difference in heights of her three sons (Fred
was 6'3", Randy 6' and John 5'9"),
would jokingly say "with each one I must have run out of a little bit of
She was warm,
smart and a tremendously affectionate down-to-earth woman. These
characteristics she passed on to each of her boys. Their sense of
humor was boundless. Once, after being thrown out of yet another
apartment because of one of her son's escapades, she remarked to a neighbor
that they alone, not her hard life, were what made her hair turn completely
white by age 35.
Though Fred volunteered immediately after Pearl
Harbor, he didn't actually
leave for basic training until March 24, 1942. The military was far from
ready to immediately process and train the thousands who came forward
after Pearl Harbor. This ultimately worked to his benefit as requirements
of a college degree to attend Officer's Training School had been waived
by the time he entered service. Fred Hillis and 95 other Army Air
Corps enlistees from Missouri were shipped to Uvalde, Texas for basic
training. This was soon followed with flight schools at Kelly Field
and Randolph Field outside San Antonio.
Fred had never been very far from his home, St. Louis.
There was an occasional
visit back to family in Southern Missouri, but that was it for him and
for most of the young men who found themselves hundreds of miles away
in Texas. Basic training was his first taste of the rest of the
world. He loved it all, Texas, his new found friends, and flying,
but most of all flying. What freedom, exhilaration, beauty. His
letters home to his sweetheart Mary were full of his friends, the glory
of flying and his adventures in the sky. Phone calls and letters
flew between the two. Mary made the long train trip to San Antonio
for a visit and arrangements were made for a November wedding after he
earned his wings. On November 8, 1942 Fred and Mary were married
in San Antonio, Texas. The next day his active duty officially commenced.
He received orders to report to Eglin Field in Florida.
Any flying was great, as far as Fred was concerned. He did extremely
well at Eglin Field, and soon found himself first an instructor and then
a medium bomber test pilot on the Proving Ground Group at Eglin.
He flew the North American B-25 and Martin B-26 twin-engine bombers. He
wasn't satisfied with just being the best bomber pilot he could be.
He grabbed the chance to fly everything Eglin Field had to offer, often
wandering over to the fighter section to bum fighter time (later recalled
by friend Colonel Burt McDowell). It wasn't
long before he had finally made it to the Bell P-39 Airacobra, even though
it meant leaving the parachute behind to fit into the aircraft.
Tall and lanky with an insatiable appetite and uncontrollable hair, it
was no wonder that Fred was tagged "Dagwood" by his fellow pilots.
But for once Fred's height worked to his disadvantage. It seemed
inevitable that his desire to fly fighters in combat would be thwarted
by the height limitations. Fighter pilots had to be small enough
to easily bail out of the cockpit in an emergency. Getting in and
out of a fighter cockpit for Fred Hillis was never a quick or easy task.
Fred and Mary quickly settled into the routine of life in Florida.
The heat, humidity and world-class bugs were tempered by the excitement
of their new life together and the new life growing within Mary.
A daughter, Cynthia Ann, was born at the Eglin Field hospital on September
9th, exactly ten months after their wedding. As one of three boys,
Fred was not at all disappointed to have a daughter.
Nobody really knows how he did it, but
somehow Fred finally managed to pass the physical examination to become a
fighter pilot. He couldn't wait to get out of the teaching and
testing business and into combat. In early August of 1944 he
received orders transferring him to England. He joined the Ninth Air
Force and soon found himself in France flying the Republic P-47
Thunderbolt. He christened his first fighter "Cookie," a nickname
given his daughter by his fellow test pilots at Eglin Field. He had
finally managed to shake the Dagwood
moniker, but daughter Cookie was destined to carry it for life.