Charles E. Hill: Veteran of the Month | December 2022
Charles Hill is the oldest of thirteen children born in the boot-heel of Missouri in 1925. He grew up in the small town of Gideon, which sits just west of the Mississippi river. His mother had him at 17 years of age after getting married to his father at sixteen. He grew up farming cotton with mules on their family farm and attended school through the eighth grade. Hill explained, “Usually, you would start planting in April or May, and then we would start harvesting in September around my birthday, and it was all hand-picked. We didn’t have cotton pickers back then.” Everyone in the family helped with the farm work. When Hill wasn’t out working in the fields, he enjoyed fishing and hunting rabbits and squirrels.
The United States Army drafted Hill at 19 years old, but they deferred him for six months so he could stay home to help his family harvest their crops. Once the harvesting was complete, Hill was sent to Camp Fannin in Tyler, Texas, for thirteen weeks of bootcamp. Camp Fannin opened in 1943 as an Army Infantry Replacement Training Center. Hill described his journey after bootcamp stating, “I went overseas from the United States to Glasgow, Scotland, and I went by rail from Glasgow, Scotland, to London, England, and I crossed the English channel there by London and went to Le Havre, France. That’s where I landed, and I was in Germany the rest of my time over there.” Hill explained that he didn’t participate in any fighting during his time overseas but stated, “I was there when it was going on, but I didn’t see none of it, and I was close enough to hear the gunfire, but I never seen no action myself. I got one battle scar battling Germany, that was the last battle they had, but I wasn’t in it.” When asked what he did in the Army, he stated, “I did everything, I started out as Infantry Replacement, and we was cut off, and they couldn’t get to the division they was gonna send me to, so they sent me to an armored division, the 6th Armored Division, and I was an infantry replacement with an M1 rifle, and all the fellas in the armored division used to make fun of me with my big old rifle, and they had that little carbine.” A carbine is a lighter rifle with a shorter barrel that is easier to maneuver during combat.
As part of the 6th Armored Division, also known as the Super Sixth, Hill took part in the liberation of Buchenwald, a concentration camp near Weimar in east-central Germany. Hill described the brutal cruelty, explaining that there was still a smell of death in the air. He revealed, “I talked to one of the boys that I think was 16 years old, and he was like a skeleton. They was just like skeletons with skin on them. It was pitiful.” Sadly Hill disclosed how the prisoners at the camp hid their babies in the ceiling to keep the Nazis from taking them, stating, “There were so many hidden in the ceiling that it fell through.” Hill explained the inhuman conditions, recalling, “They were skin and bones, and I think more people ought to know about that because the Nazi people were cruel. The regular Germans were good, but that Nazi bunch was awful.” Hill sadly noted, “You couldn’t imagine people could be cruel like that, but boy, they sure was.”
Buchenwald was the largest concentration camp in Germany. It not only incarcerated Jews, but political prisoners, repeat offenders, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma or Gypsies, German military deserters, asocials, and prisoners-of-war according to United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It is estimated that 250,000 prisoners were incarcerated at Buchenwald, at least 56,000 male prisoners were murdered, and more than 11,000 were Jews. But this is only an estimation as most prisoners were never registered. An excerpt from Holocaust Encyclopedia acknowledges the entrance of the 6th Armored Division, writing, “On April 11, 1945, in expectation of liberation, prisoners stormed the watchtowers. They seized control of the camp. Later that afternoon, US forces entered Buchenwald. Soldiers from the 6th Armored Division, part of the Third Army, found more than 21,000 people in the camp.”
After WWII, Hill worked guard duty and eventually signed up for kitchen patrol or KP, which had better working hours. The Army was going to send him to learn how to cook and bake, but Hill decided to sign up for the US Army Armor School, formerly Armored Force School, which taught enlisted men how to work on tanks in Fort Knox, Kentucky. Once the war was over, Hill was sent back to the US to start school, stating, “I come back to go to mechanic school at Fort Knox, Kentucky. I spent several weeks, I don’t remember exactly how many, but I finished the school in Fort Knox, Kentucky, on armored school for tanks.”
Hill explained that he enjoyed his time in the Army and at one point considered reenlisting but changed his mind recalling, “I am not sorry because everything worked out real good.” He continued, “I had a lot of good friends, even some German friends, and I liked the parts I had seen, especially Scotland. I liked the looks of Scotland. I was really impressed with that country.” When asked what he learned from his time in the Army, Hill asserted quickly, “They taught me one thing, to be obedient! I learned that right on the start.” Hill continued with a laugh. “But I come out just about as dumb as when I went in.”
When Hill was home on leave from the Army, he met up with Fronia Lynn. He had known her since she was a young girl, since his uncle was married to her aunt. However, they only had four dates before Hill proposed to Fronia, who was only 16 then. Fronia Hill wrote a memoir before she began losing her memory. In her memoir, she recalled how Hill had taken her shopping, bought her wedding dress, and asked her dad for her hand in marriage. Her father wasn’t happy about the engagement at first. He locked her wedding dress in the wardrobe and held onto the key for three days. Fronia wrote in her memoir, “Finally he gave in and gave me the key and told me to marry that Hill and raise all the little mountains I could. Well, it looks like I did (Haha).”
Charles and Fronia Hill eventually had seven children, five boys, and two girls. The young couple moved to St. Louis for better job opportunities. Hill stated, “I wound up being a diesel mechanic when I come home. I worked for all the best companies. I started out with the old St. Louis county bus.” Hill would work during the day and go to school at night to further his knowledge as a diesel mechanic. In 1972 the couple moved to Gideon for about six years before returning to St. Louis. Hill felt everything down in Gideon had changed and wanted to return to St. Louis to work and raise his family.
After retiring from his career as a diesel mechanic in 1990, Hill kept himself very busy, stating, “I loved it [retirement]. I done everything around here. I got jobs done I never even thought I would get to. I’ve been busy ever since I retired.” Hill loves to garden and tinker with anything he can around the house. One of the things Hill loves to do the most is garden. He loves to plant flowers and grow various vegetables, but when asked if he liked to cook, he quickly replied, “No! I doubt if I could fry an egg now.” Hill laughed, “Back when I cooked, they used lard, and now they don’t even use nothing. They use skillets and things without anything, and I don’t understand that.”
Charles and Fronia Hill were happily married for 74 years before she passed away in July 2021. They had 15 grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren, one step great-grandson, and four great-great-grandchildren. Hill proudly declared, “I have had a good career, and I had a good life. I’ve had one of the best lives you could have.” Hill continued saying, “I got the best kids in the world. In my eyes, anyway.” When I told him I thought it sounded like they had the best dad in the world, he humbly replied with a laugh, “Well, there is a lot of room there.”
Veterans Care Coordination is proud to recognize Charles Hill for his service to our country. We are privileged to have the opportunity to share the stories of our nation’s heroes. Thank you for your service, Charles Hill.