The Battle of Athens, TN: The Second Amendment in Action

Though most of them are gone now, the United States was once awash in WW2 combat veterans.

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 grizzled warrior coming home to fight corruption has become iconic.

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. 

The movie First Blood established a genre.

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.

The Setting

Crooked politicians were an unfortunate way of life in many parts of the country in the 1940s. This is E.H. Crump, one of the most notorious of the day.

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.

E.H. Crump became emblematic of political corruption during this era.

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.

Tourists were forced to cough up bribes or face arrest.

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.

With the fit young men off fighting in the war, the cops in McMinn County were little more than uniformed thugs.

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.

Guys like these typically enjoy a fairly refined sense of justice. They came home ready to make things right.

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

The fellowship of warriors offered a non-partisan foundation for political action.

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.”

This is a photo of a High School rifle team from the period. Young people were considerably harder then than is the case today.

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 Catalyst

The local crooked Sheriff made no bones about the fact that he and his men were going to count the ballots in private. The result was a foregone conclusion.

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.

A local farmer named Tom Gillespie was shot for trying to vote against the local Sheriff.

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. 

The McMinn County government was simply rotten throughout. Local veterans resolved to take care of business.

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.” 

Bill White’s orders were, “Get the hell out of here and get something to shoot with. And come back as fast as you can.”

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!”

Once the local veteran’s group obtained the weapons they needed they used them just as they had been trained.

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 Guns

The M1917 Enfield is not as svelte and pretty as the M1903 Springfield. However, it was a rugged and accurate combat rifle.

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 carried American combat forces to victory around the globe.

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 M1A1 Thompson submachine gun was ungainly and sinfully heavy, but it hit like a freight train downrange.

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 was the definitive WW2 version of John Browning’s classic combat handgun.

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.

The Fight

This is a snapshot of a few of the local veterans who comprised the “fightin’ bunch” as they rained suppressive fire down on the occupied county jail.

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.

The liberal application of high explosives turned the tide of the battle. The Fighting’ Bunch methodically blew up the deputies’ patrol cars.

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.

The Aftermath

A few determined American patriots with guns proved to be more than a match for corrupt politicians and their paid lackeys.

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.

Knox Henry, the GI candidate for Sheriff, had served with distinction in combat in North Africa.

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. 

Veterans across the country were inspired by events in Athens, Tennessee, to clean out their own towns and cities.
These are the crooked Sheriff’s thugs disarmed and incarcerated after the fight.

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 Battle of Athens was the very embodiment of the Second Amendment in practice. When the political situation became intolerable it was armed American patriots who finally put things right.

The elderly farmer Tom Gillespie survived. Windy Wise did three years in prison for his shooting. When the dust settled, the Good Guys won.

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About the author: Will Dabbs A native of the Mississippi Delta, Will is a mechanical engineer who flew UH1H, OH58A/C, CH47D, and AH1S aircraft as an Army Aviator. He has parachuted out of perfectly good airplanes at 3 o’clock in the morning and summited Mount McKinley, Alaska, six times…always at the controls of an Army helicopter, which is the only way sensible folk climb mountains. Major Dabbs eventually resigned his commission in favor of medical school where he delivered 60 babies and occasionally wrung human blood out of his socks. Will works in his own urgent care clinic, shares a business build-ing precision rifles and sound suppressors, and has written for the gun press since 1989. He is married to his high school sweetheart, has three awesome adult children, and teaches Sunday School. Turn-ons include vintage German machineguns, flying his sexy-cool RV6A airplane, Count Chocula cereal, and the movie “Aliens.”

{ 27 comments… add one }
  • Garth December 5, 2021, 11:55 am

    Has a lot of familiar subject matter as the not too recent 2020 November elections.

  • Jed A Peeler November 11, 2021, 3:45 pm

    We did basically the same thing in 1995 when President Clinton tried to use my Village of Mt. Prospect as a trial site to confiscate ALL of our firearms by ransacking our homes with agents dressed like Nazis, then dumping the guns into dump trucks. I organized a militia of 100,000 people in less than two weeks and we faced off versus our communist village council and the State of Illinois. We were all armed and ready to fight. They backed down in the face of superior firepower. We were willing to go all out. If we had not succeeded, American citizens would probably not have their firearms today.

  • bill rose November 9, 2021, 2:11 pm

    This were American’s when America was free, and unfortunately, a scenario that won’t happen in today’s America. Socialism is transforming our country, without the resistance required to squash it and its propagandists. Our children & grandchildren will pay dearly for our lack of will in this regard…

  • LarryFrom10EC November 9, 2021, 2:13 am

    This was the only successful armed insurrection in US history. There is a book and movie about it. The movie is very accurate on the fighting scenes.

  • John Boutwell November 8, 2021, 8:36 pm

    Does anyone else see the similarities to what needs to happen to the corrupt officials of today?

  • KimberproSS November 8, 2021, 5:08 pm

    When I see what is happening in the country today, how far will the progressive liberals push before something like this could happen. Of course they would call in the national guard and I am hopeful in the case of corruption and abuse of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights that the National guard would side with the people.

  • Deplorable November 8, 2021, 4:39 pm

    “…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.”

    Looking around, not much has changed. The Clinton Crime Family, the Biden Crime Family, Commiefornia, etc., etc. Except now we’ve got the legacy and (anti)social media and the DOJ running interference for them. About time for some Afghan vets to bring vengeance on the whole sorry lot of them.

  • jack hoffman November 8, 2021, 2:47 pm

    Good story until partisan politics entered. The reason that democrats were in power was the south went that way because the abolishinists and Lincoln were GOP. Corruption is now Republican in the south. Same people; different party.

    • Shanz November 8, 2021, 4:03 pm

      That’s so convenient for Democrats. They did all the racist tyrannical shit but nope it’s now Republicans? Plz explain.

    • JD November 8, 2021, 6:08 pm

      Fact Checkers say this is false.🙄

    • John Boutwell November 8, 2021, 8:39 pm

      Put the pipe down son.

  • Joe Bhe November 8, 2021, 1:26 pm

    God bless America!

  • PAPAA993 November 8, 2021, 1:04 pm

    Amen 🙏 to the greatest generation!

    We need to act the sooner the better to stop all of this commie “woke”,”LGBTQRSTUVWXYZ” BS nonsense! 🤬

  • JayW November 8, 2021, 1:00 pm

    I watched a black and white movie about this in the past year. I don’t remember the name but it was probably made in the 1950’s. There is also the movie “An American Story” 1992 loosely based on the Battle of Athens, Tennessee. The book “The Fighting Bunch” by Chris DeRose gives a full accounting of the “battle”.

  • nathan h fryer November 8, 2021, 11:33 am

    I’m a US Army vet…and this story makes me damn proud of this country…This is our home!…and no one is ever gonna take it from us…WE the People!…are the keepers of this nation…NOT corrupt politicains!…And if you wanna try to corral us in…BRING YOUR LUNCH!!

  • Michael A Keim November 8, 2021, 11:09 am

    Gee, corrupt democrats. Deju vous all over again

  • Don Greca November 8, 2021, 10:37 am

    I love history and I love this country. The second amendment is the ONLY reason we are still free at all. We are on the cusp of losing our Republic and this story gives me hope. God Bless America and God Bless those great people of the greatest generation.

  • Thomas Bauman November 8, 2021, 10:01 am

    I DON’T THINK ANYBODY HAS THE BALLS TO DO THE RIGHT THING ANYMORE. WE NEED TO GET OUR PRESIDENT OUT OF OFFICE THATS FOR SURE. WHY DO WE HAVE A DEMOCRATE PARTY IN THE FIRST PLACE? THEY ARE ALWAYS AGAINST THE REST OF AMERICA. THEY ARE ANTI-AMERICAN IS WHAT I SEE.

    • nathan h fryer November 8, 2021, 11:40 am

      Amen Mr. Bauman!….The DC “gathering” was a microscopic event…compaired to what it could’ve been.

  • Larry Reade November 8, 2021, 9:51 am

    This is the ultimate reason why the Second Amendment exists, not to go target shooting or even hunting. Don’t allow the Leftists to disarm our country or we will become just like all the other defenseless countries around the world, full of “subjects” & not citizens, with rights.

  • Frank November 8, 2021, 9:50 am

    Thank you, Will. I can’t imagine a more appropriate article for the current direction of our nation. It should be required reading for all of the “open” and “closeted” marxists in our society.

  • Austin Rogers November 8, 2021, 9:34 am

    I know of another little town in Tennessee a but further north that could use a good sweeping.

  • Rijrunr November 8, 2021, 8:23 am

    My dad is in the Marine photo you show in this article. The caption is spot on. I once saw my dad pull a bunch of parking tickets out of the glove compartment and said I need to stop at the station and take care of these. I was thinking he was planning to pay them. No. He walks in and throws them on the chiefs desk. The chief says. “ What do you want me do do with those Bill?”. My dad say” IDK chief. They belong to you.” And we walked out. Truth is my dad was one of those well respected vets in a small town. I once saw him physically throw a bunch of kids out of a restaurant for cussing in front of women and causing a ruckus. We ate for free. BTW. By the end of the war, he turned 18. He left work in a glass factory to fight. His dad died in a mine explosion when he was 12. They were tough SOB’s in those days… Anyway. Thought I would share….

    • Timm Heisey November 8, 2021, 10:20 am

      Thanks for sharing about your dad. My grandfather was a ship captain at Pearl Harbor. It was always amusing to me to watch some punk in public get slapped and reprimanded by him.

  • Dan Gore November 8, 2021, 7:53 am

    Looks like this needs to happen again. If you know what I mean!🤔🤔🤔🤔🤔

    • Jon Dough November 8, 2021, 9:22 am

      I completely agree Dan… But on a much larger scale

  • Jackpine November 8, 2021, 7:00 am

    Inspirational slice of US history, thank you.

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