As published in the Murfreesboro Post, Ken Beck, February 13, 2011
Editor’s note: This is the first in a two part series on Middle Tennessee’s role in training soldiers for World War II.
During World War II in the U.S.A., life on the homefront meant ration books, victory gardens and scrap drives, but there was a lot more going on around Murfreesboro.
In Rutherford and other nearby counties it meant thousands of G.I.s used the towns, roads, farms, hills, woods and rivers as a practice ground for combat.
In May 1941 a supply depot was opened on South Walnut in Murfreesboro. The first soldiers arrived in June and July and camped and trained near Christiana, Kittrell, Bell Buckle, Wartrace, Shelbyville Manchester and other communities.
In exercises from 1941-1944, more than 850,000 military personnel trained in the Volunteer State during seven separate maneuvers across 22 counties. Twenty-five of the U.S. Army’s 92 divisions learned to attack and defend here. One out of every seven men overseas by March 1944 had trained in one of the Tennessee maneuvers.
With the release of his book In the Presence of Soldiers: The 2nd Army Maneuvers & Other World War II Activity in Tennessee, Statesville native Woody McMillin has completed a monumental task.
The research took him hundreds of hours of poring over newspaper articles from the 1940s. It carried him to every county where the maneuvers occurred, and he talked to hundreds of men and women.
“Most of the people I interviewed were teens when it happened. Their memories were pretty vivid of what they saw and what they experienced,” said McMillin, 56, who was editor of his school newspaper when he graduated from Watertown High in Wilson County in 1972.
Going back in time
The writer was prompted to tackle the book after years of remembering the talk of those who were here when it happened.
“The whole time I was growing up, I heard the maneuvers stories,” McMillin recollected, who never wearied of the digging into the past. “I loved every minute of it. It’s been the most fun thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
The story became more personal than expected as he tracked down the details of the worst night in Tennessee maneuvers history when 21 soldiers drowned in a tragic accident on the Cumberland River at Averitt’s Ferry (in Trousdale County near Beasley’s Bend).
“I went out there one day. I’m there looking around, and a woman pulls up and says, ‘Can I help you?’ I told her I was there to gather information about the accident. She was the daughter of couple that lived there when the accident took place. She gave me some information and that spurred more information. But to stand there and look out at that water and think about that night. Think about 21 men going into that water.”
The maneuvers took soldiers across rivers, into towns and across the countryside in huge numbers. As they moved about in tanks, trucks and Jeeps and on foot, they mowed down crops, cut barbed-wire fences, left gates open and often left farmers scrambling to round up hogs and cattle. In fact, many of the G.I.s had never seen a cow and were fascinated to watch the country folk milk them.
“In the end I think the majority of farmers here really didn’t care (about the damage done to their property),” McMillin said. “They saw that as their contribution to the war.”
City folks also made contributions as the citizens of Murfreesboro opened lounges at a variety of sites around town. The First Presbyterian Church, which had 24 of its members serving in the military, turned its basement into a servicemen’s lounge in September 1942. Holloway High School offered periodic entertainment for African-American soldiers. In 1943 other churches in town, such as First Baptist Church, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, First Methodist Church and the Murfreesboro Church of Christ, opened lounges on their properties.
While the men in uniform enjoyed what comforts could be provided to them when off duty, they also left some of their pay in the coffers of local businesses. Dudley Fletcher, who was then president of the Murfreesboro Chamber of Commerce, estimated that soldiers on leave the weekend of Oct. 3-4, 1942, spent between $100,00 and $150,000 in the city.
These were definitely exciting times with all the activities coming and going, particularly the war games which took place inside and outside the city limits.
A boy of 10 years old when the G.I.s began to show up, Earl Roberts lived about three blocks off the Murfreesboro square on Main Street and continues to carry vivid memories of the era.
“I remember sitting on the corner of Main and Maney one day. We had tanks come through, and we sat and watched them, and they turned the corner there at Main and Maney,” Roberts said.
“I remember my mother coming out and saying, ‘Get off that corner. Those things could misturn and get you.’ So I moved away. An hour later, one tank turned too short and cut the telephone pole at the corner in two, and if I had been sitting on the corner I would have been hit by a tank.”
Roberts and his brother also peddled candy to the soldiers by riding their bicycles into the countryside where the G.I.s were camped.
“A fellow here, Mr. Sap Sawyer, sold us the candy, and he wanted to make sure the boys out in the field got candy. He said he would only let us have it if we would sell it to the soldiers for a nickel a bar, and if we sold it for any more than that, he wouldn’t sell us the candy. I remember we paid 75 cents for a box of 24 pieces of candy, and if we sold them all (for $1.20), we made 45 cents a box.
“I couldn’t help but feel bad after one soldier gave me $10 to go to the store and buy him some things. I had the candy bars and his change, but when I came back, the soldiers were gone. I talked to my father, and he told me there was nothing I could do to find him. He said, ‘You put the rest of that money to the war bonds.’ I bought a couple of $25 war bonds with money that I made from selling candy,” said Roberts, who wasn’t the only youngster who became a candy salesman.
Former state representative John D. Hood was about 11 when the maneuvers began. He recollects selling candy and collecting souvenirs.
“I lived on Church Street, a block off of Main, which was State Route 10 back then. Quite often there would be a column of soldiers marching through town,” Hood said.
“A good friend of mine’s father ran a grocery store on Church. The soldiers were all hungry and tired. Mr. P.V. Irby would give us boxes of candy, and when they would take a rest stop, they would just grab the candy from us. They would give us a dollar bill, and say, ‘Keep the change.’ They were so glad to get the candy.
“I remember waking up in the middle of the night, and the blue and red armies would be having a battle in our front yard. I would look out the window and think that I would go out in the morning and pick up the shells, but there were none. They had cleaned up behind them.”
While playing maneuvers was a favorite pastime for Hood and his pals, he had a hobby: “I collected military insignias, and I remember talking a major out of an Oak Leaf cluster,” said Hood, who still has the collection.
McMillin’s book captures many similar tales and insures the story of the Middle Tennessee maneuvers will not be forgotten.
“I found a bigger story that never has been told,” said McMillin, whose book goes into a myriad of details about the maneuvers, both from a military and civilian point of view. “It was something I thought about for a long time and assumed someone had done it—not just the local history but the national history that happened in this area. All of those war games here and for there not to be a record of that—I thought it was too important not to document.”
Where to find the book
Author Woody McMillin is scheduled to sign his book 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 19, at the Rutherford County Convention and Visitors Center, 3050 Medical Center Parkway. At 1 p.m. he will present a seminar on the maneuvers and display WWII artifacts.
He will speak at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 17, at a meeting of the Auburntown Historical Society in the fellowship hall behind the Auburntown Church of Christ.
Readers also can purchase a copy of the 488-page, hardcover book, In the Presence of Soldiers: The 2nd Army Maneuvers & Other World War II Activity in Tennessee, by mailing a check or money order for $35 to: Woody McMillin, 830 Summerly Drive, Nashville, TN 37209. Checks should be made out to Woody McMillin. For more information, call McMillin at 353-1890 or send an email message to firstname.lastname@example.org.