Lewis Hatcher, fan of aviation

Lewis T. Hatcher
Lewis T. Hatcher
Posted: May 10, 2013

Lewis Terry Hatcher, 90, of West Chester, who as a pilot flew 24 bombing missions over Europe during World War II, died Friday, May 3, at Paoli Memorial Hospital.

Mr. Hatcher enlisted in November 1942 and trained as a B-17 pilot. He served with the 15th Air Force, at one point from a base in Foggia, Italy.

He and his fellow airmen completed 24 bombing missions over Germany, Austria, Poland, Yugoslavia, and Italy. But it was the 19th mission, on March 16, 1945, in which he bombed the Schwechat oil refinery in Austria, that he called his "longest day."

The plane took off early that morning with a 6,000-pound payload. It rendezvoused over the Adriatic Sea with hundreds of other planes. The B-17 dropped its bombs on the target and was turning to head back to base when two of the four engines quit, hit by enemy fire.

"Flak had stripped through the right wing and parts of the instrument panel - and oil and gas streamed out, washing into the rear gunner's position," Mr. Hatcher told a veterans' group on Feb. 7, 1991.

"Decision was made not to bail out, but to make a go for it, out of enemy territory. Shortly afterward, a third engine quit, and the plane started losing altitude at the rate of 1,500 feet a minute.

"Notwithstanding all of this, the Hungarian border was reached, and a belly landing ensued on a hilly piece of farmland.

"Miraculously, the entire crew got out without injury. Local farm folk appeared, including one old farmer, who stepped out of the crowd flourishing a bottle of vodka and shouting, 'Do you want a drink, comrade?'

"The answer, 'Why not?' "

The airmen were handed over to the Russians, who in turn led them to safety with American combat troops, Mr. Hatcher told the Military Order of the World Wars.

The story was chronicled by Ken Burns in his documentary The War.

Mr. Hatcher was honorably discharged in 1944. In 1950, he graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in business administration.

Born in Bristol, Va., to Grace and Thomas Hatcher, he was raised in Bel Air, Md., and lived in West Chester for 30 years.

He told his family he had been "in love" with airplanes since the age of 4, and wanted to be like Charles A. Lindbergh. In keeping with that, Mr. Hatcher built a career in aviation, working for 30 years as an aircraft salesman for Atlantic Aviation in Delaware and later for Page Beechcraft at Philadelphia International Airport.

He retired in 1988 as vice president of sales for the Philadelphia area.

In retirement, he stayed active in many aviation groups, including Quiet Birdmen and the Aero Club of PA, of which he served as president from 1974 to 1984.

He was a member of the Union League of Philadelphia and Les Bons Vivants, a gourmet dining club.

Surviving are his wife, the former Theresa Rubert Biesecker; two stepsons, Wayne and Bruce Biesecker; a brother; and six grandchildren.

A celebration service will be at 10:45 a.m. Friday, May 10, at Donohue Funeral Home, 1627 West Chester Pike, Westtown. Visitation starts at 10 a.m. Interment is private.

Donations may be sent to the Aero Club of PA Scholarship Fund, Box 748, Blue Bell, Pa. 19422, or the Home Care Network, Jefferson Health System, 240 Radnor-Chester Rd., Radnor, Pa. 19087.


Contact Bonnie L. Cook at 215-854-2611 or bcook@phillynews.com.

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