An old war story turns up in handwritten letter

Published 1:42 pm Friday, June 12, 2020

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Some stories never fade…they just stay stashed away in cedar chests, photo albums, and in boxes in the attic or on the top shelf of a closet until they are discovered years later by family members.
After C. Edgar Williams died, his son found among his father’s possessions a five-page handwritten letter from an Army comrade during WWII. The letter, written by then Army flight student John Fetzer 75 years ago, shares some insights into the young soldier’s life as he prepares for war as a pilot of a B-24 bomber.
A copy of the letter was sent recently to Fetzer’s widow, Helen, by Williams’s son, Eddie, who lives in Buford, Ga.
The letter, dated August 19, 1944, was sent to Williams by Fetzer during flight school. Williams was one of Fetzer’s flight instructors. In the letter, Fetzer shares that he and his fellow student pilots are having trouble adjusting to flying the AT-10 trainer, a plane designed to prepare them to fly multi-engine bombers. In the letter, Fetzer explains to his flight instructor why he wants to be a pilot and why he gets so frustrated when he made mistakes all flight students make.
He writes: “The AT10 is quite a problem for me and I think it is for most everyone of the boys. I am about to get where I can taxie it. The procedures are my biggest trouble, and I am easy to get excited when I do something wrong, but I guess I’ll get checked out tomorrow if I don’t mess up too bad.”
Fetzer shared that in a flight the day before, his instructor, Lt. Billie M. Owens, asked about his life before the Army. “I told him I was raised on the farm…I told him that if I could fly that plane and handle the rudders like I could a Georgia cultivator I wouldn’t have anything to worry about. I told him I used to get chewed out for making a skip in the corn or cotton.”
Fetzer then expressed his frustration at getting excited too easily when he made a mistake. He wrote that part of his problem was caused by the job he gave up to join the Army. Fetzer told Williams he was working for the Tennessee Valley Authority before he joined the Army and had risen in pay until he was earning $450 per month. In the back of Fetzer’s mind was the troubling thought that if he didn’t make it out of flight school, he stood the chance of becoming a private and earning just $50 a month.
Fetzer had grown up during the Depression and knew how hard it was to come by money and even an education. In his letter, he wrote: “My dad had lost a good farm during the Depression and we didn’t have anything. He rented a farm. He shared that both he and his sister wanted to go to college, but there was no money. Fetzer said he and his sister decided that he would get a job and pay her college expenses for the first year. Then she could get teaching credentials after the first year and teach the next year, sending him through the first year of college.
Fetzer noted in his letter that after he graduated from high school in 1935 he got a job in a saw mill, unloading logs and loading lumber for 15 cents an hour and $1.50 per day. He wrote that he worked all summer, but still didn’t have enough to pay for his sister’s first month of college, but the family was able to borrow $25 more to cover the shortfall. He seen that he was going to have to find a better paying job. That, he did with TVA, making 45 cents an hour for a common laborer’s job. “Boy, was I glad,” Fetzer wrote.
His sister completed her first year of college and was unable to get a teaching job. “When it came time for her to go back to school the next year I was making 60 cents an hour, the next year I was making 95 cents an hour, and when she graduated from college in 1940 I was making as much for one hour’s work as I was for 10 hours work when she started to school and I never got to go on to school because I thought I would be leaving a job making too much money to go then,” Fetzer shared in the letter.
In 1941 and 1942 Fetzer wrote that he was a structural steel worker foreman for TVA on the Ocoee Dam. As such he erected the structural steel for the powerhouse, moved all the valuable equipment, erected a river bridge, and for a year and a half he had about 15 or 18 men working for him that were making $1.50 an hour. “I was making $1.75 per hour at that time. I really worked and I don’t think the TVA lost any money on me for I did my best to get everything done efficiently and in the safest manner possible,” he wrote.
The TVA kept Fetzer out of the Army from 1940 until he signed voluntary induction paper in 1943 “without me asking them or ever saying anything to anyone about the Army or deferment. I really didn’t care too much for the deferment for people that didn’t know what kept me out and about the job I had, probably thought I was a draft dodger,” Fetzer wrote.
Fetzer was working on Fontana Dam in North Carolina when he joined the Army. He noted that his sister was teaching high school English at Fontana High School and had paid him every cent of money he let her have to go to college.
Fetzer ended his letter by telling Williams, “I guess you don’t care about all these things I have told you, but I just wanted to tell you about the hard time I had getting ahead, mostly because you were so good to me and I wanted you to know had badly I want to make good in flying. I want to know flying as well as I can and I want to be a safe pilot and I really want a commission as bad as anyone would want it.”
The letter must have touched Williams for him to have kept it all those years. His son upon finding the letter searched for information about Fetzer and was able talk with his daughter, Marie Fetzer Bryant, and his widow, Helen, who now resides at Sycamore Springs Assisted Living in Elizabethton.
Williams’s father died in 1995. His son shared that Williams was disappointed to be selected as an instructor and not going into fighter pilot duty. “He later transitioned into B-24 bombers as John did, but late in the war. Dad was getting his crew together and preparing for participation in the invasion of Japan when the war ended. Like John, after the war Dad had a successful career (civil engineer) and was highly respected in his community and the state, serving his church, on the school board, and state engineering board. It is interesting how similar John’s life was to my Dad’s!”
Fetzer upon his return to civilian life served in the Air Force Reserves until 1967, attaining the rank of captain. When the war ended, he returned to work with TVA and was transferred to Elizabethton to work as an ironworker foreman at Watauga Dam in 1947. In 1948 he was the main ironworker foreman in building the Butler Bridge for the Nashville Bridge Company.
He worked as a foreman on various projects throughout Upper East Tennessee. In 1959, Fetzer was selected as an assistant business agent for the Iron Worker Union and served in that position for eight years.
He later worked for Modern Woodmen as a financial representative.
Fetzer served on the Elizabethton City Council for 16 years and was a strong supporter of public schools, the hospital, airport, parks, playgrounds, and public library.
Fetzer’s widow, Helen, also served in the Army Air Corps during WWII and enjoyed a long career as a teacher and education administrator.
No wonder they call this generation “the greatest generation.” They had grit, determination, were hard workers, and gave so much to this country and local communities.

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