George Hatcher, one of the last surviving members of The Erwin Nine, the troop of World War II Army Air Corpsmen from Erwin imprisoned together in Germany. (Lee Talbert/Johnson City Press)
At age 93, George Hatcher, one of the last surviving members of The Erwin Nine, the troop of World War II Army Air Corpsmen from Erwin imprisoned together in Germany, shared his story for a purpose on Wednesday.
“You can read the history but I want you to know what was going through my mind at those times,” Hatcher told one of about 50 hospice workers gathered at Caris Healthcare in Johnson City to learn more about the experiences of the veterans they care for. “I want people to know what freedom means and what our generation did to preserve this freedom,” he said.
Invited to speak at Caris as part of the national We Care for Veterans training program the hospice care providers are working through, Hatcher began and ended his discussion saying, “I am not a hero. I’m a country boy who went where I was told to go and did what I was told to do.”
“What I am is a 93 year old Army Air Corps veteran of World War II. I am a teetotaller. I use no drugs or alcohol or tobacco. I exercise every morning and I read my Bible every day. And I am the commander of the East Tennessee Chapter of American Ex-Prisoners of War.
“What I am not is a hero. There were 16 million young men who volunteered for the war. They went where we were told to go and they did what they were told to do. And many of them never came back to tell their stories.”
Like millions of his comrades, Hathcer said his war experience began soon after the Dec. 7, 1941, bombing of Pearl Harbor. With three friends from his tiny hometown, the 1940 Unicoi County High School graduate and quarterback for the school’s football team traveled to Knoxville to join the Air Corps. He was sent to radio school and eventually stationed in England with the Eighth Air Force Heavy Bomber Group flying bombing missions deep inside Germany.
On the 10th day before the allied invasion of France known as D-Day, Hatcher was with a 10-man crew that had put 100 hours on their B-17G bomber when he was sent out on a 700 bomber raid into Germany. Somewhere over the English Channel the plane was hit by artillery flak from below, followed by a fighter attack from above.
Hatcher saw the wing of the plane blown away and flames engulfing its fuel tanks before he was knocked unconscious by shrapnel. He awoke to the sound of the plane’s bail out bell ringing and used the next 20 seconds to blow up his radio, unloose a load of metal chaff to disrupt the enemy’s radar, buckle on his parachute, race through the plane’s fuselage and leap out through a wall of flames.
“I could see my friends falling near me. We were flying at 27,000 and it took a while for us to descend that. The plane went on and was gone and it got very quiet. ... I used that time to say a prayer for me and my friends,” he said.
Nine of the 10-member crew were captured within minutes of their landing. Their navigator, a Hebrew, was identified by his dog tags and killed immediately. They would later learn their pilot had escaped and remained on the run for 10 days while the rest were hauled away to a small German town where they were paraded through the streets at rifle point and jeered at and beaten by the townspeople on a march to a train that would take them to the first of eight German prisons he was held in.
The first food he received came two days after his capture, a single slice of bread with a smear of jam shared with him by a German guard on the box car of a train. In the prison camps he learned to survive on one slice of bread and one cup of soup a day. He and his friends dubbed the soup “green death” and ate without looking at it in order to be able to swallow the insect protein it contained. He kept the bread in his pocket and nibbled away in tiny bites over the course of the day to stave off pangs of hunger.
News of the war’s progress came to them from newly arrived prisoners and when there were no new prisoners the Germans tortured them with false reports of German victories on U.S. soil. He said a German’s account of the devastation of New York City which he knew could not be true still troubled him deeply.
In the eight months he spent at Stalag IV, he would meet eight other Erwin natives, all Air Corps members assigned to different planes, all shot down and captured and all destined to make it home safely.
Their most horrendous memories were of the weeks just before their liberation when they spent days packed shoulder to shoulder in packed box cars with no room to move, no food, no water and no place to relieve themselves as they were moved from camp to camp to avoid the approaching Americans.
“We went to war as lads and came home grown men. I was one of the fortunate ones that came home to tell my story.”