When I was a kid the entire country was covered in a thin patina of combat veterans. The local car salesman served on a PT boat, the owner of the shoe store jumped into Normandy with the 82d, and one of my dad’s co-workers earned the Silver Star as a combat engineer in Italy. They all dressed like the Blues Brothers. As soon as the pastor uttered the final Amen they would all herd out to the front of the church to smoke. About an hour was all they were good for between cigarettes.
The plot device has been exercised so many times in Hollywood as to have become a trope. Dishonest local law enforcement has the muscle to impose their nefarious will on innocent local townsfolk. Then some moody combat veteran comes back home and is forced to make things right. Whether the setting is the Old West or modern urban America, the story of the ex-soldier with the skills and the will to face down corruption is reliable box office gold.
When John Rambo disassembled the little town of Hope, Washington, with his liberated M60 in First Blood he defined a generation of movies. However, it turns out that there was actually a real-world historical precedent. Back in 1946 a group of combat veterans fresh from winning World War 2 took up arms to liberate an oppressed people closer to home. What is even more amazing is that they shot up the town, deposed the criminals, and came out of it heroes.
It’s tough for those of us outside of Chicago to imagine today, but back in the 1940’s many parts of America were dominated by ruthless well-organized political machines. Two-bit, sawed-off dictators suppressed voting, shook down local citizens, and generally enhanced their lot at the expense of the little guy. In no place was this worse than in Athens, Tennessee. Athens is the McMinn County seat.
In 1936 the E.H. Crump organization based out of Memphis enthroned Democrat Paul Cantrell as McMinn County Sheriff. Democrats riding on FDR’s coattails used intimidation tactics to seize this position and engage in systematic police brutality, predatory policing, voter intimidation, and general political corruption. The Sheriff and his deputies were paid a fee for every person they incarcerated. This led to gross abuses of power.
The tactic was called “fee grabbing.” Busloads of tourists passing through the county were pulled over and random citizens were ticketed for crimes such as drunkenness whether they had been drinking or not. In the decade between 1936 and 1946, this shakedown racket netted more than $300,000. That would be around $4.5 million today.
The corrupt Democratic Sheriff Paul Cantrell used his deputies to intimidate voters. Dead people and the underaged voted when it benefitted Cantrell and his minions. With most of the county’s young men off fighting the war, Cantrell hired ex-convicts as deputies. It really was like a bad movie.
At the height of the war, two veterans home on leave pushed back against the political machine and were killed for their trouble. Word of this filtered out to the troops on the front. Ralph Duggan, a Navy veteran who served in the Pacific and later became a prominent lawyer, said, “I thought a lot more about McMinn County than I did about the Japs. If democracy was good enough to put on the Germans and the Japs, it was good enough for McMinn County, too!”
Attempting a Political Solution
Around 3,000 young men from McMinn County had gone off to fight, roughly one-tenth of the population. Upon their return, these combat-hardened warriors formed the GI Non-Partisan Voting League. They remained politically neutral and fielded three Republicans and two Democrats for the upcoming local elections. Veteran ID was required for admission to meetings. Local businessmen sick of the oppression funded their efforts. Their formal motto was, “Your Vote Will Be Counted as Cast.”
When the corrupt Sheriff moved to interfere local veteran Bill White organized what he called a “fightin’ bunch.” He later stated, “I got out and started organizing with a bunch of GIs…I learned that you get the poor boys out of poor families, and the ones that was frontline warriors that’s done fighting and didn’t care to bust a cap on you…So that’s what I picked. I had thirty men and…I took what mustering out pay I got and bought pistols.” The fuse was lit.
The corrupt Sheriff brought in 200 armed deputies from other precincts on election day, August 1, 1946. These deputies were paid the princely sum of $50 per day for their services (more than $650 today). GI poll-watchers complained of voter fraud and intimidation and were arrested for their trouble.
Around mid-afternoon, an elderly African-American farmer named Tom Gillespie was physically prevented from casting his ballot by a crooked patrolman named C.M. “Windy” Wise. When the old man objected, Wise struck him with a set of brass knuckles. Gillespie dropped his ballot and ran for the door. Wise then drew his sidearm and shot the old man in the back.
Word of this egregious act made the rounds fairly quickly. When Republican Election Commissioner and local Party Chairman Otto Kennedy asked Bill White, the ad hoc commander of the “fightin’ bunch,” what he planned to do. White replied, “I don’t know Otto; we might just kill them.”
The corrupt deputies closed the polling place, seized the ballot box, and took two poll watchers hostage. In response, somebody in the agitated crowd shouted, “Let’s go get our guns!”
Bill White dispatched his lieutenant Edsel Underwood to the local National Guard armory. Underwood returned with sixty M1917 bolt-action Enfield rifles, a pair of Thompson submachine guns, three M1 Garand rifles, five M1911 pistols, and ample ammunition to feed them all. Now with more than sixty trained, experienced, and motivated veterans well-armed and itching to fight, the corrupt local Law Enforcement began to realize they had bitten off more than they could chew.
The M1917 Enfield rifle was a British design that incorporated features from the proven German Mauser system. Utilizing a front-locking, dual-lug bolt action with a Mauser-style claw extractor, the M1917 was widely produced in the US by Remington, Winchester, and Eddystone Arsenal. The M1917 saw widespread use during World War 1.
The M1 rifle is referred to today as the Garand after its Canadian designer John Cantius Garand. However, every WW2 combat veteran I have ever known just called it the M1. A semiautomatic gas-operated design that fed from an eight-round en bloc clip, the M1 offered a quantum advance in firepower over the bolt-action weapons of the day. Though heavy at 9.5 pounds empty, every vet I have met who used the weapon for real revered it.
The Thompson submachine gun was obsolete at the outset of WW2. The M1928A1 was a slightly modified version of the same weapon used by John Dillinger during the Roaring Twenties. These guns were boat anchor heavy and ridiculously expensive. The subsequent M1A1 was somewhat simplified and saw ample use in all theaters. Around 1.5 million copies were made during the war.
The M1911A1 pistol was a national treasure. Designed by firearms luminary John Moses Browning as a replacement for the anemic .38-caliber revolvers used during the Spanish American War, the M1911 and the .45ACP round it fired set a standard for terminal performance yet to be bested. Most anyone who wore a uniform during WW2 would have been intimately familiar with Browning’s epically powerful hogleg.
Some 55 armed deputies retreated to the local jail with the ballot boxes and barricaded themselves inside. They were armed with a single Thompson SMG as well as a variety of rifles, shotguns, and pistols. In response, White and his men made a tactical assessment of the situation and dispatched an overwatch element to the nearby bank to establish a base of fire. White then called out, “Would you damn bastards bring those damn ballot boxes out here or we are going to set siege against the jail and blow it down!” Somebody squeezed a trigger, and the otherwise peaceful little town erupted in a hail of gunfire.
When the deputies failed to surrender, somebody amidst the fightin’ bunch produced dynamite. Explosive charges were thrown underneath the sheriff’s patrol cars, flipping them upside down in the street. Charges were detonated against the front door as well as on the roof of the jail. With this, the besieged deputies had had enough and surrendered.
Miraculously, no one was killed during this tidy little war. Many to most of the deputies were injured, some severely, but no one died as a result of combat action. When the ballots were tabulated the GI Non-Partisan League won in a landslide.
Bill White was himself installed as a Deputy underneath respected combat veteran Knox Henry, the GI candidate elected Sheriff. By early September the local mayor, as well as all four corrupt aldermen, had resigned. This marked the irrevocable downfall of the local political machine.
The Battle of Athens inspired similar less bloody uprisings against entrenched corrupt politicians across Tennessee and much of the rest of the country. The GIs frequently found that the practical aspects of governance bore their own unique challenges. However, the corrupt politicians of the E.H. Crump machine learned the hard way that the Second Amendment to the US Constitution really does guarantee all the rest.
The elderly farmer Tom Gillespie survived. Windy Wise did three years in prison for his shooting. When the dust settled, the Good Guys won.