ERWIN — Decorated World War II veteran and “Erwin Nine” member George Hatcher was surrounded by friends, family and fellow military veterans on Friday as he marked the end of a nearly two-year battle.
Almost 70 years after his discharge from the U.S. military, Hatcher has finally received the awards recognizing his full service. At a Friday ceremony held in the Unicoi County Courthouse, Hatcher received a Silver Star and a Bronze Star.
The Silver Star represents five European-African-Middle Eastern campaigns during WWII, and the Bronze Star represents service in one campaign.
The story of Hatcher’s stars began after his military service ended. Following his honorable discharge in 1945, Hatcher registered his discharge at the Unicoi County Courthouse. His original DD Form 214, a document issued upon a service member’s discharge from active duty, stated he was entitled to, among other awards and decorations, the stars received Friday.
Although Hatcher was entitled to the stars, he never had a desire to possess the physical awards until a couple of years back. A friend and fellow veteran from Elizabethton showed Hatcher a shadow box he had to hold and display his awards and medals. An impressed Hatcher had a shadow box of his own built, and he decided that it was time to procure his WWII campaign stars to be encased inside.
Hatcher contacted the Department of the Army to obtain a Prisoner of War Medal and replacements of all other awards to which he was entitled for his service. The response he received in January 2012 started a nearly two-year campaign to get the medals.
In a letter dated Jan. 11, 2012, the Department of the Army stated Hatcher’s military records had been corrected to reflect his award entitlement. The department verified Hatcher was entitled to two European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Bronze Stars, meaning he would not be awarded for all six of the campaigns in which he served.
“Your WD AGO Form 53-55 credits you with participation in six campaigns; however, you may not receive campaign credit while a prisoner of war. The documentation available to us indicates you were a prisoner from May 27, 1944, to April 29, 1945,” the letter stated.
“They were penalizing me because I was a prisoner of war,” Hatcher said.
Hatcher admits he was taken aback by the response because, despite his captivity during these four campaigns, he was continuing to serve his country.
“If I had been AWOL or shot dead, of course, I wouldn’t have been entitled to them,” Hatcher said of the medals. “But when I was a prisoner of war, I was still assigned to my outfit, the Eighth Air Force. I didn’t ever change it. I did what they told me to do — I went on a bombing mission and didn’t come back.”
For Hatcher, possessing the awards was less about encasing them in the shadow box — doubt had begun to enter his mind. Hatcher is known throughout the region for sharing his account as a German prisoner of war. After recounting his story, he is often asked what awards and decorations he had received. He always included the service stars for six European-African-Middle Eastern campaigns in the list, but he said began to wonder if had been misrepresenting the truth all the times he had answered.
“When they took them away from me, I felt like I had been telling them a lie about it,” he said. “I wanted to clear the air, and I wanted to know when I told the story that it was going to be true.”
And Hatcher’s battle to receive the medals would not be fought alone. After receiving the response, Hatcher sought the help of Unicoi County Register of Deeds Debbie Tittle. Tittle said she pulled Hatcher’s DD 214 recorded in 1945, and the form indicated Hatcher was entitled to the awards.
Tittle went to work quickly. In late-January 2012, she wrote a letter to U.S. Sen. Bob Corker. Corker’s office provided assistance throughout the process. Tittle also assisted Hatcher in completion of an application to correct the military records preventing Hatcher from receiving the medals.
“We were just bound and determined that it was not going to get lost in the shuffle,” Tittle said.
“She’s responsible for me getting these medals back,” Hatcher said.
But further help was needed, as this application had a space for the applicant to name his or her counsel. Enter attorney Erwin-based attorney William Lawson, himself a Marine Corps veteran. Lawson would serve as Hatcher’s counsel for the purpose of the application, and the application was submitted to the Department of the Army in May 2012.
“Senator Corker’s office got involved, Ms. Tittle got involved, I got involved as a veteran and an American, and we got his stars back,” Lawson said.
Months of back-and-forth correspondence followed the original application. In July, the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records determined Hatcher’s records be corrected to reflect his entitlement to the stars. The stars arrived in December.
“It took a lot of time and a lot of people to correct a senseless decision by somebody,” Hatcher said.
Hatcher’s Sliver Star and Bronze Star were presented to him by Lt. Cmdr. M.F. “Rusty” Wishon, who is retired from the Navy.
“It’s not frequent that we have the opportunity to have such a hero in our presence and, to me, George Hatcher is a true hero, as many guys sitting here today are true heroes, in my opinion,” Wishon said during the ceremony. “I love to be around military people who served their country unselfishly, and George Hatcher has done that. And you have the rights and all the privileges in the world to get what you deserve back. He had it once, and bureaucracy took it away. Now bureaucracy has brought it back to him.”
State Sen. Rusty Crowe presented Hatcher with a proclamation recognizing his receipt of the medals and read a letter from U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander.
After the ceremony, Tittle said she is grateful to those who helped bring the awards to Hatcher.
“We’re just very thankful,” Tittle said. “We’re very thankful that everybody carried together and we were able to see it to fruition. We didn’t know how long it would take. ... We’re very honored that George has everything that he’s entitled to, because he’s entitled to everything as far as we’re concerned.”
Hatcher’s doubts about his awards have been laid to rest, as he said the stars mean that his being truthful with his service decorations. He also expressed his appreciation for those who helped him get his awards back.
“My cup is certainly running over because I didn’t know I had so many friends,” Hatcher said.