By Lisa Whaley
From the moment I stepped into the town of Erwin, I began hearing references to the “Erwin Nine.” Even with no other information, there was something about that phrase that caught my interest.
Who were the Erwin Nine and why were they so important?
I am a reader who loves any book I can find, so I promptly did a quick Amazon search and placed my order. “The Erwin Nine’ by Hilda Padgett arrived in my mail last week.
And I spent the next five days immersed in the tale.
The story is a familiar one, I’m sure, with most of our readers. During World War II, nine young men from the town of Erwin joined the U.S. Army Air Corps to fight for their country.
None of them served together.
Each was shot down at different times over different locations.
Yet each ended up in the same prison camp — Stalag Luft IV.
And each lived to return to their home in the mountains of Tennessee.
That miracle alone — especially in a town the size of Erwin during that time — was enough for these brave veterans to be remembered.
But like the title they earned — “Erwin Nine” — there was so much more to the story and there was much more than just one story.
“The Erwin Nine,” instead, tells nine stories about nine remarkable individuals and the town that loved and supported them..
Take Clyde Tinker, for example, shot down on his first mission on Feb. 8, 1944, yet remembered more than 70 years later as a strong, husky fellow who was an asset when things got tough, according to his crew members. Tinker apparently didn’t like to talk much about his war experiences, but he purchased and opened Tinker’s Tavern on Carolina Street after he returned home. It became a popular place for veterans to gather together.
George David Swingle was another of the Erwin Nine, who joined the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942. Swingle was forced to bail out after his plane was disabled on his 24th mission. The date was April 27, 1944. Swingle landed on top of a house, breaking his leg as it went through the roof. He went to Stalag Luft IV in late July or early August, eventually teaming up with fellow Erwin resident Homer Stanley Norris. The two became fast friends, eventually meeting up to attend college together at the University of Tennessee.
By the way, the town of Erwin is named for Swingle’s grandfather, D.J.N. Ervin.
Each story of “The Erwin Nine” tells a tale of heroism, but also deep roots for these boys from Tennessee. And their names — Tinker, Swingle and Norris, as well as James. Hensley Jr., Allen Alford, George Hatcher Jr., J. Fred Miller, Dick Franklin and Richard Edwards Jr. — will forever be remembered as an example of some of the best and the bravest to be found in Unicoi County.
At last week’s 9/11 First Responders Tribute at the Unicoi County High School, George Hatcher — an original Erwin Nine shot down over Germany on May 27, 1944 — received a special tribute and a standing ovation that could not have been more deserved.
May we always remember men and women like the Erwin Nine, whose courage and commitment define patriotism for us all.