The true story of the WWII vets who fought one last battle — in their own hometown — for the right to vote
When a corrupt political machine denied them their right to vote, these World War II veterans took the battlefield one last time, winning the only successful armed rebellion since the American Revolution
Editor’s note: The Fighting Bunch: The Battle of Athens and How World War II Veterans Won the Only Successful Armed Rebellion Since the Revolution, published today, is the story of WWII veterans who won the freedom of the world and returned to find that they had lost it at home. When a corrupt political machine denied them their right to vote, they took the battlefield one last time, winning the only successful armed rebellion since the American Revolution.
Bill White had survived Guadalcanal and Tarawa. Now all that remained was a separation interview with Lieutenant F. L. Dixon, who rattled off a series of questions as he banged away on a typewriter.
The form called for basic information (RACE: W; SEX: M), the date he had joined (12JAN42), the fake birthdate he had used (4May23), and his time overseas (YEARS: 2; MONTHS: 4; DAYS: 11). The Marines wanted to know where they were sending him (401 S. Hill St., Athens, Tenn.) and, finally, why: it was home, Bill said.
It was a long bus ride before familiar tall trees and rolling green fields came into view. The sign made it official: “Welcome to Athens—The Friendly City.” The clock tower appeared, followed by the rest of the grand old courthouse.
Every train car and coach in America was crowded with men coming home from war. They were returning from jungles, fields, the desert, and ships surrounded by water, but they all shared the dream of going home. Someday, when the war was over, they would resume their interrupted lives.
Four sheriff’s deputies wearing gold badges and guns were there to meet the bus. They arrested a group of Bill’s fellow passengers, still wearing their uniforms, for public drunkenness. They’d had a few beers to celebrate being alive, but far from enough to intoxicate a navy sailor.
“What’s going on?” Bill asked a bystander.
“Those deputies meet every bus and every train, and if you’re drinking a beer or anything they’re arresting you and making you pay a fine.”
Bill couldn’t believe it. These boys had risked their lives. And now they were headed to jail and about to lose their mustering-out pay to a bunch of thugs. “Hellfire,” Bill said.
Bill White was at Parris Island, training Marines for the invasion of Japan, when he learned that Grandpa Wiggins had died. Bill returned to Tennessee for the funeral—his first trip home in more than three years. His father sent him to the rationing board to get stamps for the drive into the mountains.
Bill walked to the Fisher Building, where Robert Fisher, president of the local rationing board and owner of a hosiery mill, sat behind the desk that had been his duty station during the war.
Bill asked for five gallons of gas.
No, said Fisher. “Don’t you know there’s a war going on?” Bill considered a number of responses, none of which would get him closer to his grandpa’s funeral. He gave Fisher a look: “Well, I just want five gallons.”
“You can’t have it.”
“Alright,” Bill said. “That’s alright.”
Leaving the Fisher Building he saw a friend on the street. He told him that he needed gas, but “ration boy wouldn’t let me have it.”
“Well that’s easy, Bill,” said his friend. “There stands the chief of police,” he said, pointing. “Give him five dollars and he’ll give it to you.”
Bill ordered ten gallons, twice as much as he needed, rather than risk this humiliation a second time. He watched as the police chief calmly counted out his stamps and put Bill’s money directly in his pocket.
Bill told his father the story when he came home. His father, it turned out, had a story for him, one that had happened while Bill was away. Edd White was proud and quiet, a cavalryman of the First World War. He walked five miles a day to work at the power station on Railroad Avenue. He carried his lunch in a brown paper bag and a pint of milk from Mayfield’s Dairy. While walking past the jail on his way home he saw four deputies stare at him, get in a car, and start the engine. As he walked past the courthouse, the car was in the middle of the street, following him. He lowered his head and kept walking. He walked past the bus station and they were right alongside him. Edd picked up the pace. They accelerated. He didn’t know what they wanted with him or why. But he knew it wasn’t good. He panicked and started running to his house. The car pulled in front of him and slammed on its brakes. Four deputies jumped out with clubs in their hands. He was arrested and taken to jail. Now it was time to figure out a reason. The deputies took his milk bottle out of the bag and passed it around, taking a sniff. “Smells funny,” they agreed. The deputies who protected the roadhouses and honkytonks and lined their pockets with kickbacks from bootleggers and pimps decided the remnant of Edd White’s milk was alcohol. He was fined $16.05, several days’ pay.
The situation back home had been “a big surprise” to Bill. His family had consciously left it out of letters. “I had plenty of worries over there,” Bill said. Now he was home, and “everything, everything, everything you’ve been told you’re supposed to be fighting for wasn’t there.
Still, McMinn County was scene to a jubilant, rolling reunion, with welcome-home parties almost every night, and spontaneous embraces in the streets and sidewalks as old friends saw each other for the first time in years. Happy to be alive. Happy to see their friends alive. In many cases these encounters were the first confirmation that their friends had survived. The newspapers were filled with wedding and birth announcements as GIs raced to make up for the years the war had taken.
Their shared service made the GIs closer, despite years and thousands of miles apart, than they had been as students and teammates. GIs who were otherwise strangers were often more comfortable talking to each other than their own families.
The VFW ran out of membership forms and resorted to blank sheets of paper. There, in a basement room of the Robert E. Lee Hotel that hadn’t been used since Prohibition, GIs could relax and tell stories without fear of arrest. Joseph Frye Jr. had become the most powerful man in France for a week when his unit liberated the Rémy Martin distillery in Cognac; Felix Harrod, a B-24 pilot, had been ready to crash-land in the Adriatic when his crew managed to change the engine in midair; and Carl Anderson nearly had his finger chopped off when he refused to give the Germans his wedding ring. Tom Dooley had somehow acquired a monkey, which he brought to the bars and the VFW.
But the war stories and confessions and laying out big plans for the future kept leading back to the problems they had at home. “It wasn’t really a town anymore,” said Jim Buttram. “It was a jail.” He’d fought his way through Tunisia, Sicily, and Normandy, and was wounded twice, all in the name of democracy he didn’t have in Athens.
Ralph Duggan thought it was “like Nazi Germany,” run by deputies who “were nothing but a lot of swaggering, strutting, storm-troopers, drunk most of the time, beating up our citizens for the slightest reason.”
The situation was intolerable. They were all agreed. Now what were they going to do about it?
An ad in the Post-Athenian called on all ex-servicemen and women, “regardless of creed or color,” to attend a GI mass meeting at the courthouse for Thursday, May 9, 1946.
Over 300 veterans answered the call, presenting proof of military service at the door. Five GIs were nominated for sheriff and other countywide offices. Each candidate made brief remarks, sounding similar notes of “unity and cooperation.”
The GIs were used to missions and maps. McMinn County was home to 2,971 farms, which would be divided by sector and canvassed. They formed “combat teams” and “combed the Blue Ridge Mountain foothills like they’d never been combed before—even by revenue men.”
The five candidates set out on the trail every day, “sunup until after dark,” along with other GIs. Every “county road” was posted with placards, “regardless of its remoteness.” Volunteers dropped campaign leaflets out of a Piper Cub airplane. They mounted loudspeakers on trucks and drove the streets of town.
The GIs knew the people were with them. Their biggest task, they thought, was convincing them that they could make a difference. Their message hammered home the promise, whether it came through radio or newspaper or fell from the sky: “Vote GI. Your vote will be counted as cast.”
GI campaign manager Jim Buttram could be found inside wearing a crisp white shirt with the sleeves rolled up and black pants, smoking a cigarette with one hand and greeting visitors with the other. “Be sure to vote—what we need most of all is your vote!”
Phones rang in the dead of night at the homes of GI supporters. Somehow the ones with whispered threats were less scary than the ones with total silence. Menacing postcards appeared in the mail. “I don’t suppose there was one of us who wasn’t threatened,” said Buttram.
Knox Henry, GI candidate for sheriff, was threatened on three occasions. In case he didn’t get the message, a deputy clubbed one of his friends in the street, right next to him. Before the votes were counted, Henry would have to survive a serious attempt on his life.
Deputies roughed up GIs caught putting up posters. The sign was stolen off the front of GI headquarters and destroyed. An all-GI meeting was held to discuss the harassment and violence.
Bill White was there. He felt everyone was being naïve. “Listen,” said Bill. “Do you think they’re going to let you win this election? Those people been taking these elections for years with a bunch of armed thugs. If you never got the guts enough to stand up and fight fire with fire you ain’t gonna win.”
It went over badly. “Naw, we don’t want to do that,” said one GI.
Election Day proved Bill right. The machine assembled hundreds of armed men and took charge of the polling places. GI election observers were assaulted, arrested, and taken as hostages. Their supporters were intimidated and, in one case, shot. The deputies had taken the ballot boxes into the jail, where they would be counted in secret. Nearly every GI gave up and went home. Bill knew that it would be all over unless someone lit a fire under the handful that remained downtown:
“Well! Here you are!” Bill said. “After three or four years of fighting for your country. You survived it all. You came back. And what did you come back to? A free country? You came back to Athens, Tennessee, in McMinn County, that’s run by a bunch of outlaws. They’ve got hired gunmen all over this county right now at this minute. What for? One purpose. To scare you so bad you won’t dare stand up for the rights you’ve been bleeding and dying for. Some of your mothers and some of your sisters are afraid to walk down the streets to the polling places. Lots of men, too! Because they know what happens. A car drives by in the night and shoots out your windows. If that doesn’t scare you enough, they’ll set fire to your house or your barn. They’ll beat up members of your family and put them in jail. For no reason! Is that the kind of freedom you were supposed to be fighting for? Do you know what your rights are supposed to be? How many rights have you got left? None! Not even the right to vote in a free election. When you lose that, you’ve lost everything.
“And you are damned well going to lose it unless you fight and fight the only way they understand. Fire with fire! We’ve got to make this an honest election because we promised the people that if they voted it would be an honest election. And it’s going to be. But only if we see that it is. We are going to have to run these organized criminals out of town, and we can do it if we stick together. Are you afraid of them? Why, I could take a banana stalk and run every one of these potbellied draft dodgers across Depot Hill. Get the hell out of here and get something to shoot with. And come back as fast as you can.”
The GIs had opened their headquarters with such fanfare—a sign of their political viability a block from the courthouse. They had passed happy days there, answering encouraging phone calls and greeting enthusiastic supporters. Now here they were, divvying up guns and ammunition.
Then Bill White and the fighting bunch walked out of headquarters for the last time. They made a right on Jackson Street, past the First National Bank, and the waterworks with its shattered glass door, on a sidewalk stained with the blood of two veterans, who wanted nothing more than to witness an honest counting of ballots. They walked past the Post-Athenian building, with its giant blank tally board. Had it been any other county in America, they’d be watching that tally board filled in, precinct by precinct, recording a landslide for the GIs. They crossed Hornsby Street and stopped in front of Tennessee Wesleyan College. A reporter noted them “milling around in the center of the street,” draped in ammunition, carrying guns. They were waiting for last light to make their move on the jail.
Walt Hurt of The Knoxville News-Sentinel walked up to them. “What is your purpose here?” he asked.
“We just want to see an honest election,” said one.
“A fair count,” said another.
The sun disappeared from the horizon and the light was fading. Bill White knew he could get arrested. He knew he might be killed. But he had already made that decision—to fight even though he could die. And from his perspective, he’d made it with a lot less of a personal stake. He had joined the Marines just steps away at the old post office, which now stood between him and the jail, and swore to defend America against all enemies. “If it was worth going over there and risking your life, laying it down, it was worth it here, too,” Bill said. “So we decided to fight.”14
Edsel Underwood had won a Silver Star in France. Grenades were falling and killing men all around him. “Determining the source of the grenades but with no knowledge of the enemy’s strength,” Underwood “leaped a hedgerow and disposed of enemy soldiers who had been inflicting casualties upon his company.” That was the key to understanding their decision. They were stepping into the unknown at significant risk. But they had done it before.
The boardinghouse facing Jackson Street sits on a little hill. In the backyard is an embankment, thirteen feet high, covered with trees, vines, bushes, and tall grass, overlooking White Street, roughly even with the second story of the jail. The GIs moved quickly around both sides of the house through the backyard and to the embankment.
“Bring those boxes out and there won’t be any trouble,” someone yelled from the GI side.
An answer came from the jail. “You’re going to have to come get them.”
“That’s what we’re going to do.”
“Why don’t you call the law?” someone shouted from the jail.
“There ain’t no damn law in McMinn County!” someone yelled from the embankment.
Enough talking, Bill thought. He pulled back the bolt on his rifle.
Chuck Redfern was on the air in his studio across from the courthouse: “You’re listening to WLAR, the friendly voice of the Friendly City.” Gunfire exploded in the background and was carried on the airwaves to homes across the county.
Excerpted, with permission, from The Fighting Bunch: The Battle of Athens and How World War II Veterans Won the Only Successful Armed Rebellion Since the Revolution, by Chris DeRose. © 2020 by St. Martin’s Press. All rights reserved.