By Brad Hicks
The story of the Erwin Nine would be virtually unbelievable if it wasn’t true.
Nine Erwin natives all joined the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. Each man was assigned to a different plane and all were shot down at different times. Yet, all nine airmen from this small mountain community ended up as prisoners of war in Stalag Luft IV, one of more than 50 prison camps in Germany during the war.
Each one the nine men returned home following his liberation.
The story of the Erwin Nine has been a source of pride for Unicoi County for more than 70 years, but it is a story the Town of Erwin has done little over the decades to spread.
Red, white and blue banners reading “Proud Hometown of the Erwin Nine” will soon hang from the light poles found throughout downtown Erwin for all to see. But days before the banners went up, the most appropriate of individuals received an advanced look at the displays that will now greet those passing through Erwin’s downtown.
The banners were unveiled during a ceremony held May 3 at Erwin Town Hall. Tasked with removing the cloth covering one of the banners to allow those in attendance to get a look were Erwin Nine member George Hatcher and Charlotte Edwards, widow of Erwin Nine member Richard Edwards. They were joined by Teresa Lewis and Don Alford, children of the late Allen Alford, also a member of the Erwin Nine.
The excitement was immediately evident.
“You’re a genius,” Hatcher said to Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley before offering up a hug.
“Oh, it’s beautiful,” Edwards said after helping to remove the banner’s cover.
Hensley said town officials have been advised over the past few years that Erwin has a story to tell, but the town is failing to tell it.
“And one of the stories that we’re most proud of and one that really has a significance to the whole world is the story of the Erwin Nine,” Hensley said.
Officials went to work, trying to come up with a way to spread the story of the Erwin Nine. Hensley said their efforts focused on the different banners regularly hung throughout the downtown area, as the banners tend to catch the eyes of those passing through.
“So we thought by putting up these banners, when a motorist, tourist, individuals come and see these and they see ‘Hometown of the Erwin Nine,’ in their mind they’re going to say, ‘What’s the Erwin Nine?’” Hensley said. “We can tell them our story and hopefully that story will get spread across the nation.”
Hensley said another tale in the annals of Erwin’s history that has spread far and wide – that of the 1916 hanging of Mary the circus elephant in the local rail yard – was told further through last year’s Erwin Elephant Revival. A new chapter in the story of Mary was written as a result of last year’s Elephant Revival, as the event raised thousands of dollars for the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee located in Hohenwald.
Banners displayed around downtown helped advertise the Erwin Elephant Revival in advance of that event.
The Erwin Nine banners were designed by Erwin Communications Specialist Jamie Rice who, as president of the RISE Erwin group, helped to organize last fall’s Elephant Revival.
“I think the story of the Erwin Nine is a very interesting story,” Hensley said. “I think it’s part of our world history that needs to be shared.”
The Erwin Nine banners will remain up through at least July 4 and possibly longer, Hensley said. She said one of the banners will be displayed permanently at the Unicoi County Veterans Memorial Park.
The 96-year-old Hatcher has done his part to tell the tale of the locally-renowned group. He has recounted his experiences as a POW and member of the Erwin Nine to a number of civic organizations, students and church groups across the area and throughout the region. He also wrote a book detailing his account.
Hatcher, who was liberated from German captivity on April 29, 1945, said he was encouraged to share his WWII story by a doctor at the Mountain Home VA, as Hatcher, following his retirement from the railroad, was having difficulty shaking the memories of his time as a POW.
“I wanted the public to know what my generation went through, and it’s just plain and simple,” Hatcher said. “There’s nothing extra about it. When I tell my story, the first thing I tell them is, ‘I am no hero,’ and I’m not. I’ve never done anything that I can brag about, but I served my country the best I could.”
While Hatcher takes a humble approach when describing himself, he had high praise for the banners that will hang in downtown Erwin.
“I don’t know the words to say,” Hatcher said. “It’s so wonderful, great. Somebody really knew what they were doing when they designed that, the poster, and I think it’s just wonderful and I feel so proud to be an American. I feel so proud of Unicoi County and Erwin, Tennessee.”
“I couldn’t believe it,” Edwards added. “It’s beautiful.”
Like Hensley, both Edwards and Hatcher feel the banners will help Erwin accomplish its goal of spreading the celebrated story of the Erwin Nine.
“People that don’t know about it, they’ll come through here and see that display and they’ll be wanting to ask a lot of questions about ‘Who is the Erwin Nine?’” Hatcher said.
The men making up the Erwin Nine are George Hatcher, Dick Franklin, Richard Edwards, Allen Alford, Clyde Tinker, Fred Miller, Stan Norris, Jim Hensley and George Swingle. Hatcher and Franklin are the only two living members of the Erwin Nine.