Hatcher died Monday — Memorial Day — leaving behind a community of people who knew him as a leader, a church deacon, a survivor, an inspiration and a man who loved his home. He was a veteran, a fireman, a husband and a father. Many called Hatcher, one of the last surviving members of the famed “Erwin Nine,” a hero, though he never called himself that.
“George was his own personality, I can’t think of a better human being than he was,” Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley said. “He had compassion for everyone and he loved his community.”
Mark Stevens knew Hatcher well while he was the publisher of the Erwin Record for 13 years, and got to know him even better after he interviewed Hatcher for his book, “Clinchfield No. 1: Tennessee’s Legendary Steam Engine,” alongside co-author Alf Peoples.
“He was just well-known throughout the region and in Unicoi County,” Stevens said. “I really don’t think there is a better loved person in Unicoi County than George Hatcher was.”
Hatcher was born in Erwin on October 14, 1920, and his life shifted toward working on the railroad in his early 20s alongside his brother, Ed. He signed up to work on the railroad on Dec. 7, 1941 — the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The brothers’ lives changed course as they enlisted in the war effort and George left home with the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1943.
While serving in the war, Hatcher was captured and spent a year in a German POW camp along with eight other young men from Erwin. The nine men had all enlisted in the Army Corps, and while none served together and were captured at different times and different locations, they all ended up at the same POW camp, and would be famously known as “The Erwin Nine.”
George was one of two surviving members of “The Erwin Nine.” His death leaves Dick Franklin as the sole surviving member of the group.
It’s hard to tell how many people heard his story throughout the years he told it as a keynote speaker at high school graduations, church services and various veterans events throughout the region.
Though the Army wanted Hatcher to continue his service, he was honorably discharged in 1945, and soon after picked his life back up by the tracks. In 1968, he and Ed cemented themselves in Clinchfield Railroad history for running the Clinchfield No. 1 — a now-100-year-old steam engine.
Stevens details the brothers’ career with the locomotive in his and Peoples’ book. Ed ran the engine while George fired it, and over the years, the brothers gained fame through their work on the engine, even penning the occasional autograph in between chats with passengers.
“It never got old,” George is quoted in Stevens’ book. “I was proud to work on a steam engine. I was proud to work on the No. 1. I welcomed the people asking questions. I’d let people ride it for a little while.”
Peoples said at 66 years old, he has known George “since I could sit on his knee,” and remembered him as someone who was always there when he needed him.
Peoples also became an engineer, and remembers how much George inspired him when he was a child and teenager when they worked on the railroad together.
“He was someone who would always take up for you, he’d help you all through life,” Peoples said.
Later in life, Hatcher got recognition for his work as a fireman on the Clinchfield No. 1 after he returned home from the war. In 2016, he got to switch gears and give a speech about his life on the railroad to a crowd of about a hundred people for “George Hatcher Day” in Erwin.
“When you have these people who are like George Hatcher who are humble, who have loved their community for so long and have been known around the region as being from Erwin and being that kind of special person, it’s a loss,” Stevens said.
“There has never been anyone else like George Hatcher, there never will be anyone else like George Hatcher. He was one of a kind.”
Email Jessica Fuller at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Jessica on Twitter @fullerjf91. Like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jfullerJCP.