Erwin banners focus on hometown heroes

By KATE COIL

With social distancing guidelines preventing major gatherings for holidays like Memorial Day, officials with the town of Erwin have found a unique way to honor the community’s veterans.
The Erwin Hometown Hero’s Program seeks to honor military veterans from the community with banners depicting their time in the service. The banners have then been hung throughout the town to display Erwin’s pride in its veterans. The banners were put up before the Memorial Day holiday and will remain up through the Fourth of July.
Jamie Rice, communications specialist with the town of Erwin, said residents could sponsor a banner depicting a friend or family member by paying $50. The banners are hung on 18 different utility poles downtown with a different veteran on each side, honoring a total of 36 veterans.
“Families were so eager to honor their loved ones and share their stories with me.,” Rice said. “It was certainly an emotional project for me at times. I had all these photos laid out on my dining room table as my 6-year-old little boy was playing in the next room. Imagining what their mothers felt seeing their babies go to war. Most of them were just kids, barely 18 years old.”
Erwin has also recently worked to promote one of its own unique military stories, that of the Erwin Nine. During World War II, nine young men from Erwin volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army Air Corps. While none of the men served together despite being from the same hometown, they were all shot down at different times during the war and all somehow managed to be taken to the same prisoner of war camp in Nazi Germany: Stalag Luft IV.
Miraculously, all nine both survived the camp and a forced death march at the end of the war. All nine men eventually returned home to Erwin. Dick Franklin, the last surviving member of the Erwin Nine, died in 2019 at the age of 94. Banners similar to those now on display for other veterans honored the Erwin Nine in 2017.
Rice said Franklin’s story was one of the many she encountered during the project.
“I read the story of one of the POWS, Dick Franklin, from World War II,” she said. “He skipped High School Band practice to hitch hike to the recruiting office. He and his buddy flipped a coin to decide if they were going to join the army or the navy.”
Rice said the community has been extremely supportive of the banner project and there are plans to continue it in the future
“We have had such a positive reaction from everyone in the community and the timing has been perfect,” she said. “With all our community events cancelled during the COVID-19 pandemic, this is a great way to honor our veterans while practicing social distancing guidelines. These banners will be used for two seasons, and then replaced with a new group of soldiers. We sincerely hope that this program is a daily reminder to our citizens and visitors that freedom is not free. Many families are still grieving and paying the price for our freedom.”