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World War II and Purdue forge lifetime bond for Tennesseans

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Fisher grew up on a farm five miles from Sharon about eight miles from anyplace youve ever heard of in the northwest corner of Tennessee.

Waters called Fisher the smartest of the group.

When we studied together, Warner could look at something once and understand it, he said. He was a real sharp guy.

Posing cheerfully beneath the ivy-covered limestone and brick faade of the building that would one day bear Hovdes name, the group listened as the Purdue president advised their classmates:

The human mind requires simple, clear ideas and positive convictions to steer its way through the jungle of problems which surround us.

Didnt they know it.

Thats Joe Hatfield, BS 47, honorary PhD 05, second from the left. He grew up in Mt. Juliet, about 22 miles from Waters. They were cousins, but spent so much time together they felt like brothers.

Hatfield, too, was valedictorian of his high school class, despite missing six weeks of his sophomore year spent battling polio. Each of those days, Hatfields aunt, Mae Sweatt, massaged Joes legs, rubbing life back into his weary limbs.

He was 13 before electricity came to the Hatfield farm. In his book, A Cut Above the Rest, Hatfield said his family celebrated that night by turning on every light in the house, then running outdoors to see how it looked, glowing in the moonlight.

Before ever getting to the point of posing for their graduation day photograph, they and millions of their generation had been forged by the fires of the Great Depression and World War II.

Nothing the future could throw at them could be as tough as what they had already stared down. As they stood together as solid as that limestone wall not knowing what the future would hold for them, they did know one thing: Their time was now.

Fieldhouse collapse

Hatfield, Fisher and Waters had been together during one of Purdues darkest hours, on Feb. 24, 1947, when the wooden bleachers in the fieldhouse collapsed during the Purdue-Wisconsin basketball game. Like a house of cards succumbing to a breath of wind, the bleachers came tumbling down, killing three students and injuring more than 200 others.

The three of them rode the bleachers down to the ground like broncobusters, lifting their feet at the last second to escape with minor bruises. They pulled others from the mayhem to safety. Waters removed a large wooden splinter from the calf of a fellow student.

Thats E. C. Bashaw, BS 47, MS 48, on the left. He also was born in Mt. Juliet and went to high school with Hatfield. Both went to Martin Junior College (later renamed the University of Tennessee at Martin), where Bashaw played football as a 180-pound offensive lineman.

Of the four soldiers-turned-students, only Bradshaw was not in the fieldhouse on Feb. 24, 1947, when the east bleachers collapsed, killing three and injuring 200.

Most of the guys on the team had already gone away to war, said Bashaw. Otherwise, I dont think I ever would have gotten the chance to try out because I wasnt very good.

He and other athletes worked as janitors to pay for their educations.

We didnt have scholarships at Martin, so athletes had to work to keep the gymnasium and the football field clean to pay our way through school.

He studied agriculture at the suggestion of his high school vo-ag teacher, who he remembers as Mr. Browning.

I didnt know much about agriculture back then, Bashaw said, but Mr. Browning was a good teacher.

Bashaw was the first of the four Tennesseans to marry. He would have been at the game at the fieldhouse that night, too, but he decided to stay home with his wife, Bettye, in their one-bedroom apartment near campus.

Give of your talents and skills to build a better environment, Hovde concluded. And guard well the precious freedoms of America, lest you be one of those who will cause their loss.

Not these four. No chance.

From here, they all went on to productive lives as husbands and fathers. Each went on to rewarding professional careers, too. Bashaw established himself at Texas A&M University as one of the worlds foremost forage grass researchers. Likewise, Fisher gained renown as a developer of cotton through his research in Arizona and Utah. They co-authored a research paper while working on their postgraduate degrees at Texas A&M.

Waters was an insurance executive in Ohio and Tennessee, and Hatfield helped to build one of the largest independent poultry producers in the world in northwest Georgia, working there until his death in 2008.

But when they posed for this photo in front of the administration building, with smiles as bright as their futures, they did not know this would be the last time the four of them would all be together.

The beginnings

Fisher cut the grass at a nearby cemetery to earn enough money to go to college. The $90 he earned during the summer of 1940 was enough to get him started at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. He shared a basement room with a cousin for $4.50 a month and waited tables for his meals.

He met Waters at UT. They were part of a close group within the School of Agriculture, taking many of the same courses. But Fishers stay did not last long. He contracted rheumatic fever and missed too many classes to continue. He returned home to Sharon, gradually regaining enough strength to enroll at Martin, where he met Hatfield and Bashaw.

Like others his age, Fisher signed up for military service when he turned 19.

At Purdue, Waters received $50 a month while learning to be a Naval officer.

Read an interview with Waters by clicking here

He didnt think the Navy Reserves would take him, said his sister, Mildred Clarke, 93. Warner had developed a heart murmur from the rheumatic fever. One of the biggest reasons he signed up was so he could take the free physical. He didnt think he would pass because of the murmur and because he ruptured his appendix when he was in the eighth grade, but he passed.

At Martin, Hatfield milked cows each morning to earn enough money to stay in school. He took agriculture courses with Fisher and Bashaw at Martin but had no interest in returning to the family farm at Mt. Juliet. Milking cows each day was enough to burst that balloon.

As soon as he was old enough, he, too, signed up for the Navy.

They didnt sign up to be heroes. Thats just what everybody did back then, said his wife, Carrie. But I think all of the men of that generation were heroes. At least they were to me.

That was echoed by Bashaws daughter, Jane Kazleman, a teacher in Jacksonville, N.C.

They were four country boys from Tennessee who didnt have a lot. They just did what they had to do. They all felt it was their duty to go into the military, she said.

As a young student, Waters had trouble focusing on his studies at Tennessee.

I was terribly confused about going to war. It was hard to buckle down and study knowing that the war was in my future, Waters said. I was not a good student at UT.

Waters signed up for the Navy because his first glimpse of Army life did not excite him.

They were training in the hills around our hometown, Waters said. It was a lot like the terrain in Germany so we got to see them train. I saw they were sleeping on the cold, hard ground, and I didnt want anything to do with that. And I didnt want to march. I didnt think being an infantryman was anything to look forward to.

V-12 and the Navy

All but Bashaw reported to Purdue on July 1, 1943, as part of the V-12 program, established by the Navy to educate and train officers for the war. They initially stayed for 10 months, living in Cary Hall.

Bashaw had been sent to the University of Louisville, but that was a short stay.

They didnt have an agriculture program at Louisville, so after a couple of days, they sent me up to Purdue, he said.

At Purdue, the training was demanding.

We got up at 5:30 and ran every morning on campus, Waters said. Then wed do calisthenics. Alex Wojciechowicz, one of Fordham Universitys original Seven Blocks of Granite, was our chief petty officer. And for 30 minutes, he really put us through the works. Then we went back to the dorm and ate breakfast, cleaned up and went to class. We had classes all day. We had a little free time in the afternoon and at night, but at 10 p.m., the lights went out.

They were required to wear their uniforms every day on campus, said Lt. Bryan Garcia, assistant professor of naval science at Purdue.

The goal was not to interrupt their studies but to supplement it with Navy courses and get them the required education for them to become officers, he said.

Waters said he grew up at Purdue.

I grew up real fast, he said. There wasnt much time to mess around at Purdue.

Joe Hatfield, standing watch on the USS Renault in World War II.

The V-12 program was difficult but not without benefits. Each Naval officer received $50 a month while on campus.

After two semesters of classwork and military training, the Navy broke up the four friends from Tennessee, sending each to Midshipmens School for further training before shipping them off to war.

Hatfield was sent to Cornell University in upstate New York; Fisher went to Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.; Bashaw to Notre Dame University; and Waters to Columbia University in New York.

By 1945, all four would be at sea, serving as ensigns. Fisher was an assistant gunnery officer on a destroyer escort looking for German submarines in the north Atlantic. Bashaws call to duty was on a sea-and-air rescue ship. Hatfield was a radar navigator on an attack transport ship based out of Providence, R.I. Waters served aboard a new Navy troop transport, the USS Gallatin.

There were 1,500 Marines and a crew of 532 on board the Gallatin as it got underway from the Navy base at San Diego on Jan. 18, 1945.

The ship, freshly minted at the Oregon Shipbuilding Corp. in Portland, was built to transport troops and supplies. The crew had spent some time training near Seattle before heading down the coast to San Francisco, Los Angeles and, eventually, San Diego. There, the Gallatin, loaded with a full complement of Marines and supplies, headed out to sea on its first voyage into the enemy waters of the South Pacific.

Waters had but a single thought that winter day as the California shoreline faded from view and into memory.

I looked back at the coastline as we headed out to sea, recalled Waters, an ensign on the Gallatin, and I wondered if I would ever see home again.

They were four brave men, but they were human. They missed each other and the college lifestyle they had grown to love. But mostly, they missed home.

The saddest night of my life was the first Christmas night I spent at sea, Waters said. We were in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I crawled up into my bunk and cried myself to sleep. Home home home, Waters said. I had a wonderful home. And thats what I cried for. I missed it so.

Read part two of this story by clicking here.

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