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Hometown Heroes banners remind residents of soldiers’ sacrifices

Top photo, Fred Hollier is one of many veterans whose photos are now displayed in downtown Erwin on the aptly named “Hometown Heroes” banners. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk) Above, veteran Keith Tolley, right, and his son, Jerrod Tolley, stand below Keith’s banner on Main Avenue in downtown Erwin. (Contributed photo)

By Richard Rourk

Independence Day is one of the holidays where so many in the United States celebrate the freedoms that others sacrificed for and for Town of Erwin Communications Specialist Jamie Rice, this was the perfect time to unveil banners that honor Unicoi County residents who have served from Unicoi County.

The Hometown Heroes Banners are a way to acknowledge those that have given up so much, so that we are able to live the American dream, according to Rice.

“I hope that when people drive down Main Street and see these photographs it will be a daily reminder that freedom is not free and there are families grieving for their loved ones who never came home,” Rice said.

Rice also said that new banners with the names and photos of other local veterans will be placed downtown in the future.

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Inspired by the town’s efforts, The Erwin Record has reached out to several area veterans and their families in order to share their stories.


Hazel Berry, who served in the Navy during World War II, fondly remembers the time she spent in the service.

“I was so young when I decided to join,” Berry said. “I cried because once I signed up, I was told that I had to leave my family and friends before Christmas. At the time I worked for Eastman and I left for Nashville to sign up and once I signed up I was told I had to leave out on Dec. 3.” Berry did leave her family and friends behind, but fortunately came back to see them.

“I had a good life in the Navy and it taught me so much,” Berry said. “It’s a wonderful thing to serve and you can always be proud of it.”


James Jay Britt, who was lost in the Vietnam War on Dec. 31, 1968, was a marine from Erwin who received a Purple Heart after paying the ultimate sacrifice for the freedoms that we all appreciate today.

“Jay was a neighbor and it’s important that he and Richard Bannister (who is also being honored downtown with a banner) be remembered for everything that they sacrificed,” historian Lewis Thornberry said. “Jay and so many paid the ultimate sacrifice, but for the ones that returned home, they went on to lead a new generation. Those men and women became teachers, coaches, neighbors and church leaders that molded the lives of so many.”


William Douglas Harris, from Erwin, was an Air Force sergeant that served in Vietnam and has since passed away.

“My grandfather was a great man and to have his picture downtown is an honor,” Harris’ grandson Adam Buchanan said. “It’s important to show all the veterans that we care and appreciate all of the sacrifices that they made for us.

“These men and women that served are a different breed; they have the heart and guts to do what most people couldn’t.”


Fred Hollier was a young Texan when he joined the Marines and after a tough boot camp, went on to serve in WWII.

“Bootcamp was tough, they were hard on us but we came out better for it,” Hollier said. “I only got in trouble once, I forgot to shave one time.”

Hollier, who has two Purple Hearts and a Governor’s Tri Star award, remembers his time overseas well.

“I got hit in the foot and some in the back,” Hollier said. “It was so hot there (in the Pacific); temperatures would hit 115 degrees and we often had limited to no water,” Hollier said. “One time the man that was supposed to clean the barrel (usually filled with oil) and to put fresh water in forgot to clean. We took a sip of the water and it tasted like gas; we couldn’t use it.”

For Hollier, the opportunity to serve was one that was rewarding.

“I joined as soon as I could. I always wanted to be a marine,” Hollier said. “I think they should have boot camp in high school; it really does change you for the better.”


Keith Tolley, of Erwin, served in the Army from 1969 until 1970 when he was sent home from Vietnam after receiving a Purple Heart for injuries received from a mortar.

“We were fighting, and a mortar blew up right in front of me,” Tolley said.

Following his injury, he was sent to Japan and then back to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Washington, D.C., for a year of surgeries including a plate being placed in his head. Tolley still has fragments in his head from the explosion.

“The only thing that bothers me is headaches,” Tolley said.

According to Tolley, it’s important to remember those who served.

“This (Hometown Heroes) banner is a good thing to remember those, especially those that lost their lives,” Tolley said. “We also have our names up at the monument up there beside Gentry Stadium at the Veteran’s Park, so my children, grandchildren, and one day, their children will be able to have a place to visit.”


Jonathan Landon White Jr., from Erwin, served in the U.S. Army from December 1942 until March 1946.

White received the E.A.M.E. ribbon, Campaign Medal with 3 Bronze Battle Stars, American Theatre Medal, Victory Medal, Purple Heart, Combat Infantryman Badge and the Expert Infantry Badge. White was also included in a book by Ken Ford, titled “Assault on Germany: The Battle of Geilenkirchen.”

According to White’s daughter, Cheryl White, he was a very private man and did not seek any glory for his service.

“My father was a great man, who proudly served this country, but would not accept anything free for his services,” White said. “My mother would say that he could receive free things all the time, like tags for his car and he would refuse. He was a great man and it is important that this generation remembers these heroes.”

These are just some of the stories of just a few of the brave men and women in Unicoi County who were willing to and sometimes did pay the ultimate price to secure the freedoms that we all enjoy today. If you have the opportunity to listen to what a vet is willing to share with you, treat yourself to history and listen.