Little shaped this country more than railroads and World II, and Hatcher was in the thick of both.
The Erwin native died Monday at age 97 — serendipitously some might say — on Memorial Day, the day Americans honor those who died in service to the nation’s armed services. Thankfully Hatcher came home from World War II, but his struggles are worth remembering on Memorial Day, Veterans Day or any day of the year.
Hatcher was one of nine U.S. servicemen from Erwin who served a year together in a German prisoner of war camp. “The Erwin Nine,” as they came to be known, did not serve in the same planes and were captured at different times and places, yet they all wound up in the same camp.
The Army Air Corps radio operator’s B-17 bomber had been shot down in Germany on a bombing mission in the weeks before the D-Day invasion. After destroying the plane’s radio equipment as he had been trained, Hatcher parachuted out of the plane and landed right in the enemy’s hands. He witnessed the execution of the B-17’s Jewish navigator before his eventual transfer to the prison camp, where he had little food. He even traded a German soldier his 1940 Unicoi County High School class ring for a loaf of bread. Before his ordeal ended, Hatcher and other captives spent days packed like sardines in hot boxcars with no water. When he was finally liberated on April 29, 1945, Hatcher had his first real meal and shower since his capture.
Returning to the states, Hatcher resumed the career he had started in 1941 — working on the railroad. Alongside his brother, Ed, Hatcher spent years on the storied Clinchfield No. 1, first as a fireman and later as engineer, hauling coal throughout the Southeast. The railway was synonymous with Erwin itself, and the Hatcher brothers were right there in the thick of it all.
The day after Hatcher’s 95th birthday, the last train rolled out of the Erwin railyard on Oct. 15, 2015, as the decreasing demand for coal ended 135 years of tradition. A year later on his 96th, the town honored him with “George Hatcher Day” to celebrate his time on the Clinchfield No. 1.
The George Hatchers of this world are leaving of us all too fast. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 362 World War II veterans die on average each day. Only 558,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II were living in 2017. Of the Erwin Nine, only Dick Franklin remains.
Hatcher lived a life few could imagine. He never shied from telling his POW story, but he always maintained that he was not a hero, just one of the millions who signed up to serve.
To honor George Hatcher, though, is to honor the history of this region and this country. He will be missed.