Returning to our periodical spotlight on local street names and their origins, here's one most of you know about. However, as I have said many times, new people are moving into the area all the time and should know this stuff. Plus, who couldn't use a little refresher from time to time?
Waldo Hatler Memorial Drive in Neosho is named for Congressional Medal of Honor recipient M. Waldo Hatler, who lived in Neosho much of his life. Hatler was awarded his country's highest honor for swimming the flooded, and enemy-held, Meuse River in France to scout troop crossings for the advancing American Army during World War I. It was a dangerous mission, and many of those who attempted it paid with their lives. More on that later.
Hatler was born in Bolivar, Missouri on January 6, 1894, but his family moved to Newton County, along the banks of Shoal Creek, when he was less than four years old. Fewer than 10 years later they built a house in Neosho. The 1910 census shows the Hatler family lived at 416 Mill Street. Mill Street later became north College Street. While there is no 416 N. College Street today, I've wondered if the home at 414 N College, or the next one over, at 420 N College, isn't it. Or was it really in between and since been demolished? I don't really see a vacant lot, per se, there today. Also, according to a 1916 fire insurance map, there is no house at 416 N. Mill, which by the map would have been in the same 400 block of north College that exists today. It's possible it could have burned in the six years since the census, I suppose. Still, I'm skeptical. More research is required.
Waldo Hatler is a real inspiration to me. He took life by the horns at a young age and lived it to its fullest with courage throughout his time on Earth. My information comes from the book “The M. Waldo Hatler Story”, which was started by Hatler himself and finished by his wife after his death. By age 15 he was hopping trains with buddies to wherever they wanted to go during summer break. Even after he graduated Neosho High School, where he played fullback on the football team, and enrolled in the University of Michigan Law School, Hatler still hopped trains with friends, riding on top of the cars like hobos, during spring and summer breaks and had many adventures all over the country. His early life story abounds with tales from New Orleans to New York City.
When he graduated law school and passed the bar exam in Michigan and Missouri, Hatler returned to Neosho, though he never actually practiced law a day in his life. Instead, Hatler became a cashier for his father's majority owned bank in Stark City. One day he was held up and taken hostage by bank robbers. When they let him go, he chased the outlaws for miles, shooting at them all the way with guns borrowed from farm houses along the road, and finally caught up with the bandits. With the help of another local man he took them prisoner with an empty gun.
By his early 20s, Waldo Hatler had established majority ownership in a bank in the booming mining town of Cardin, Oklahoma, next to Picher, owned 51 percent of the bank in Stark City, owned a drill rig, and built small homes to rent. He was making a lot of money and life was good. Then the United States entered World War I in 1917.
Hatler knew he would be drafted, but he was afraid of the diseases rampant in training camps, particularly meningitis, so he tried to get into a six week fast-track-to-Europe officer training program being offered at colleges around the country, but it was always full.With time running out, he tried to enlist in the Navy, but according to Hatler his draft papers came through just before then and it was too late. He went into training at bleak and barren Camp Funston, Kansas and became a buck private in Company B, 356th Infantry Regiment, 89th Division, American Expeditionary Force.
Shipped to England and then France, Hatler soon saw combat. He eagerly volunteered for special missions and quickly found himself promoted through the ranks to company first sergeant. He had many close calls with death, but was never wounded, and killed quite a few of the enemy, some very up close. He once captured a village with five men, while outflanking an enemy machine gun that was decimating his company. The exploit that earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor occurred just three days before the end of war, on the night of November 8, 1918. The American Army needed volunteers to swim across the Meuse River at various points and determine the best places for the army to cross with the least amount of casualties. Hatler volunteered. Recent rains had swollen the river so much that it was above head level at the bank. His swimming partner drowned halfway across, perhaps from cramps in November's cold waters. One of the men in the two-man team next over drowned on the way back. Not only that, the Germans occupied the opposite bank. Another team turned around before getting across. Another team farther down made it across the stream but were clubbed to death by the Germans when they reached the bank. Hatler made it across the river and back and left a white cloth on a bush, as ordered, to indicate where to cross, though he developed a bad leg cramp on the way back and had to be dragged over the home bank. When the Americans pushed over the river in that sector, using pulley boats, they lost about 20 men. Further downstream, at a spot that had presumably not been reconnoitered, the loss was around 300 men, according to Hatler. Neosho son M. Waldo Hatler received the nation's greatest military award, the Congressional Medal of Honor, for helping save many American lives. He was one of 124 American men to receive the medal in World War I and he was from Neosho, Missouri.
After the war Hatler got into the real estate business, and made more money than he lost. Hatler suffered from strokes in his later years, but continued to attend Medal of Honor receptions, Presidential Inaugurations, army reunions, and American Legion events throughout his life. He died on August 31, 1967 and is buried in the Grand Army of the Republic Cemetery in Sulpher Springs, Arkansas. Hatler picked his own burial site 12 years earlier, after attending a dedication ceremony there and later declaring it “closer to heaven than any place I know of.”
Besides Waldo Hatler Memorial Drive, the Neosho Veterans of Foreign Wars post is named after him. There should be signs at every entrance to Neosho declaring it “Home of Congressional Medal of Honor recipient M. Waldo Hatler.” At least, that's my opinion.
- Wes Franklin writes a weekly column, That History Guy, for The Neosho Daily News.