World War II veteran Wilbur Stauch “Will” Hattendorf, Sr., lived in Canton for more than half a century before his death in 2015 at the age of one hundred. He is one of thousands of veterans buried at the Georgia National Cemetery. A distinguished businessman, community leader, and decorated war hero, Will left a legacy of valiant service to his country.
Months before the United States formally entered the war raging in Europe in 1941, Will and his younger brother, Richard, enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps, the aerial warfare branch of the military in World War II. The brothers grew up in Wheaton, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago.
“My brother, Rich, attended the University of the South at Monteagle. I drove down to get him one time, and on the way back we saw an Army convoy. On a whim we decided to join the Air Corps,” Will told an area newspaper in a 2012 interview.
That decision marked the beginning of the military careers of the two men who went on to earn the name the “Flying Hattendorf Brothers.”
Will and Rich soon found themselves in Texas taking flying lessons and training at Randolph and Lubbock fields where they earned their wings while awaiting orders. They then joined the 55th Fighter Squadron, a Lockheed P-38 Lightning Fighter Group in Washington. The Lockheed P-38 Lightning was the newest and most impressive American fighter plane at the time and was armed with four fifty-caliber machine guns and a twenty-millimeter nose cannon. The P-38 incorporated a distinctive twin-boom design that led the Germans to dub it “Fork-tailed Devil.”
The brothers first saw their planes three days after arriving at the base. “We walked across the tarmac toward a cluster of bumps that turned out to be horseshoe-shaped revetments [embankments]. We stopped in the first revetment and couldn’t believe our eyes,” Will told the newspaper. “The Lightning had counter-rotating props that made for smooth handling, gentle to the touch, and fast as, well, lightning.”
In the summer of 1942, four weeks after marrying his long-time sweetheart, Elizabeth “Betty” Wernle, Will headed for action in Europe and Africa alongside the 82nd Fighter Group and his brother, Rich.
After completing fifty-one combat missions with several victories, Will was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with sixteen oak leaf clusters, and other awards. During his tour of combat Will was credited with three confirmed kills and downing two fighter jets and one twin-engine aircraft.
“A lot of the guys made Ace [five kills] by intercepting flights of trimotors out of Italy,” the Airman recalled. “They were slow and vulnerable, but the rest of us would have to pour on the coal to engage their German escorts, usually the respected Messerschmitt Bf 109s. As flight leader it was my responsibility to protect my men.”
When Will rotated back to the States, he was promoted to captain and became base operations officer at the Santa Rosa Army Air Base in California until 1946. While there he was reunited with his brother, who was wounded in action, and they lived next door to each other.
Will and Betty returned to the Midwest in 1947, where he began a twenty-three-year career in the building-stone business, first in the Chicago area and then as vice president of the Georgia Marble Company headquartered in Tate, Georgia. In 1971 he began a new career with the U.S. Department of Commerce, where he rose to southeast regional director for the Economic Development Administration.
In his community, during his four decades of service with the Cherokee Hospital Authority, he served as board member and secretary. Following the hospital’s transition to Northside Hospital-Cherokee, he remained on the board of the Hospital Authority of Cherokee County and served as its chairman until his death.
Will also served as president of the 82nd Fighter Group Association, attending its reunions every year. Following his death the group hailed him as the statesman and conscience for the association.
Others remember him as well. “Will Hattendorf is fondly remembered by Thomas M. Brady American Legion Post 45. He was a fifty-six-year member,” Post 45 Adjunct Lynn Rollins states. She recalls that Will was honored during a Post event celebrating members with more than fifty years in the American Legion, and he also spoke about his experiences growing up with the American Legion.
Will was also an active commissioner of the Housing Authority of Canton and member of the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Kiwanis International, Lions Club International, Rotary International, and the Chamber of Commerce. Over the years he was president and board member of the National Building Stone Institute, a trustee and former choir member of Canton First United Methodist Church, and president of the Canton Men’s Golf Association. For many years he was a member of the Canton Tree City Commission as well.
Will and his wife had two children, Wilbur S. “Bill” Hattendorf, Jr., of Massachusetts, and the late Delia Hattendorf Fine.
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Canton writer Rebecca Johnston is a Cherokee County native and graduate of Cherokee High School and the University of Georgia. Rebecca has won several Georgia Press Association awards for her writing, including the 2007 First Place Award for Serious Columnist. She currently writes for Enjoy Cherokee Magazine.