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Hatcher shares railroad memories as event honoree

Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley, right, presents Erwin Nine member and longtime Clinchfield Railroad employee George Hatcher with the key to the town of Erwin during Saturday’s “George Hatcher Day” event. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)
Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley, right, presents Erwin Nine member and longtime Clinchfield Railroad employee George Hatcher with the key to the town of Erwin during Saturday’s “George Hatcher Day” event. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

Erwin Nine member George Hatcher has recounted his experience as a prisoner of war during World War II on numerous occasions.

But on Saturday, Oct. 15, during an event held in his honor, Hatcher took the opportunity to talk about his experience as a longtime employee of the Clinchfield Railroad, in particular his time spent working on the famed No. 1 steam engine.

“I spent 42 years in engine service on the Clinchfield Railroad,” Hatcher said, “and I enjoyed every minute of it.”

“George Hatcher Day” was held Saturday at Erwin Town Hall, one day after the man at the center of attention turned 96 years of age. The event was held as a fundraiser for the Clinchfield Railroad Museum, which Hatcher himself referred to as “a very worthy cause.”

Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley issued a proclamation declaring Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016, “George Hatcher Day” in the town of Erwin. Hatcher was also presented with the key to the town of Erwin before taking the podium to recount his experiences on the railroad to the numerous friends and family members in attendance.

“George is one of those special people that if you know George, you love George,” Hensley said.

Following his graduation from high school in 1940, Hatcher landed a job working part-time at Unaka Stores. But the young Hatcher had his sights set on something else – working for the Clinchfield Railroad.

For Hatcher, railroad work ran in the family. His father worked as a train conductor who, during the Great Depression, relocated his family to Virginia when local work slowed. Hatcher said his family returned to Erwin following the Depression.

After much persistence, Hatcher got a job working for the Clinchfield Railroad on Dec. 7, 1941. As Hatcher pointed out, this was the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

“An easy day to remember, and a day the world will never forget,” Hatcher said.

Following his graduation, Hatcher also traveled to Knoxville where he signed up to join the U.S. Army Air Force. The Army contacted Hatcher on Jan. 9, 1942, and, after training as a radio operator, Hatcher was stationed in England with the Eighth Air Force Heavy Bomber Group, which was responsible for carrying out bombing missions in Germany.

On May 27, 1944, Hatcher and his fellow crewman were on a mission when their B-17 bomber was shot down by German fighter planes. After bailing out of the damaged plane, Hatcher and others in his crew were captured.

The captives were eventually transported to the Stalag Luft IV prison camp, where Hatcher would spend his next eight months. It was also there that Hatcher would come to know of the other members of the Erwin Nine, a group of nine Erwin natives who joined the Air Corps and were all assigned to different planes, yet ended up in the same German prison camp.

Hatcher, along with other prisoners, was liberated by American forces on April 29, 1945. On Oct. 20 of that year, Hatcher received several awards, including six Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts.

“I came back home and went back to work two days later,” Hatcher said. “I was anxious to have something to keep my mind on. I had a lot of memories that was bugging me.”

Some time later, Clinchfield Railroad General Manager Thomas Moore was touring the railroad’s shops in Erwin when came across a nearly 70-year-old steam engine. Moore asked that this steam engine, the Clinchfield No. 1, be restored and put back into service. Hatcher would eventually find himself working abroad the excursion train.

The No. 1 was built in Indiana in the early 1880s and later found its way to the Carolina, Clinchfield & Ohio Railroad in 1908. The engine was later sent over the Black Mountain Railroad in Yancey County, N.C., where it ran until 1955.

The engine was purchased by the town of Erwin in late 1955. The town’s plans to put the No. 1 on display never came to fruition, and the engine was housed for years in one of the local Clinchfield shops before Moore stumbled across it. The newly-restored No. 1 made its first run in late 1968.

Hatcher was asked if he would fire the engine on the rebuilt Clinchfield No. 1.

“I asked who was going to run it, and they said, ‘Your big brother, Ed Hatcher,’” he said. “I said, ‘I’ll fire it for Ed Hatcher but nobody else.’”

Hatcher said he and his brother made many a trip aboard the No. 1, adding the engine was used by Sen. Howard Baker as he traveled throughout the state during his senate runs in 1968 and 1972.

“We made 26 stops,” Hatcher said. “The only problem was when the senator was speaking from the rear of the train, all the people was up front looking at a 100-year-old steam engine.”

While he started out as a fireman on the No. 1, Hatcher later became engineer of the steam engine.

The Clinchfield No. 1 was again retired in 1979, the same year Ed Hatcher passed away. The steam engine is now on display at the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum in Baltimore, Md.

Hatcher retired from the Clinchfield Railroad after 42 years of service. After sharing his railroad stories, he recognized some of his family and friends in attendance and expressed his appreciation for those who came out for “George Hatcher Day.”

“I’m so proud to be here and I’m so glad the good Lord has given me all these years,” he said.