When Veterans Declared War on the Police
After World War II, the veterans of McMinn County stood up to corrupt cops
by MATTHEW GAULT
The armed men assaulted the government building early in the evening. Many brought guns home from the war, others carried weapons looted from a National Guard armory hours earlier.
The men demanded the officials turn the building over to them.
The officials refused and gunfire lit up the night. Shotgun blasts pockmarked the red brick building. Rifle and handgun bullets ricocheted off the pavement. Homemade molotov cocktails arced through the air. But the fighters mixed them wrong. The fires didn’t catch. But it didn’t matter.
Dynamite was on the way.
This was the Battle of Athens — a little known and poorly understood piece of American history. In 1946, a group of armed and angry World War II veterans went to war against the local police … and won.
To understand what happened in Athens it helps to understand McMinn County. Athens sits in the middle of the county, which itself sits in the middle of Tennessee. Today the county boasts a population around 52,000. Seventy years ago, it was closer to 30,000.
“Geography and infrastructure both played a role,” local historian Joe D. Guy wrote in The Hidden History of McMinn County. “Situated 60 miles from Knoxville and Chattanooga, with no interstate highways and only the narrow, winding, two-lane Lee Highway connecting them, Athens, Etowah and McMinn County were far removed from much of the influences of the bigger cities.”
The county was mostly farmland and had almost no industry. Wooden bridges ran over most creeks and almost all the roads were dirt. Almost no one had a telephone. It was a county ruled by tradition, good ol’ boy networks and political machines. “Many things were still done the old way,” Guy wrote.
The old way meant local politicians held a lot of sway over day-to-day life. In 1936, Paul Cantrell was elected sheriff and moved up to the state legislature in 1942, installing Pat Mansfield as his successor. According to the locals, both men loved collecting money.
“The sheriff and his deputies received a fee for every person they booked, incarcerated, and released; the more human transactions, the more money they got,” wrote Lones Seiber in a 1985 article for American Heritage magazine about the battle.
“Deputies routinely boarded buses passing through and dragged sleepy-eyed passengers to the jail to pay their $16.50 fine for drunkenness, whether they were guilty or not. Arrests ran as high as 115 per weekend,” Seiber wrote.
Seiber alleged that Cantrell and his cronies gathered funds from local bars and cat-houses. The law took bribes to look the other way. According to local records, Sheriff Mansfield had earned more than $100,000 during his four year term. And that’s just what was in the official books.
The Department of Justice investigated McMinn in 1940, ’42 and ’44. It filed no charges.
In 1941, more than 3,500 men — roughly 10 percent of the county’s population — went to fight in World War II. Cantrell and his cronies stayed behind. Everything changed when the war ended, and McMinn’s soldiers came home.
At first, the returning veterans just wanted to celebrate. “There were several beer joints and honky-tonks around Athens; we were pretty wild,” veteran Bill White told Seiber.
“We started having trouble with the law enforcement at that time because they started making a habit of picking up G.I.s and fining them heavily for most anything — they were kind of making a racket out of it.”
The local cops continued to harass the veterans, who decided to do something about it. The county would hold elections in August 1946, and the men formed a non-partisan political party to actively campaign against Cantrell, Mansfield and corruption.
The townsfolk, long tired of the harassment by the police department, backed the vets. It looked like things would change in McMinn County. But when the summer finally came, tensions ran high and the small town of Athens exploded into violence.
“It was miserably hot … there was no escaping it,” Guy wrote of Aug. 1, 1946. Cantrell and Mansfield appointed 300 special deputies to keep the peace during the election. Armed guards patrolled every ballot box at every precinct in the county.
Early in the morning, the police made their first arrest. Walter Ellis was a legal representative of the G.I. party. The cops threw him in jail for doing his job … of protesting election irregularities. The law planned to keep the peace through heavy patrols and violence. When the ballots closed at 4:00 p.m. they would take the ballot boxes from the precincts, escort them to the jail and count them in private.
At 3:00 p.m., a deputy fired the first shot of the day. An old black farmer named Tom Gillespie stepped into the 11th precinct building to cast his ballot. Deputy Windy Wise turned the man away and beat him with brass knuckles. When Gillespie fled, Wise shot him in the back.
The gunshot started a chain reaction. People were already on edge after years of abuse and the heat of the southern August day didn’t help. Police cruisers ran up and down the streets. Deputies took veterans hostage at the 11th precinct. Veterans took deputies hostage at their headquarters. “The veterans took the hostages to the woods, 10 miles out of town, beat them, and shackled them to trees,” Seiber wrote.
The police managed to get all the ballot boxes to the jail, reinforced the red brick building, readied themselves for a siege and began counting the votes. The veterans began arming themselves.
One veteran broke into the local National Guard armory. According to his own account he “took all the rifles, two Thompson submachine guns and all the ammunition we could carry.” He and his men returned to the veterans’ headquarters and distributed the arms.
The soldiers assaulted the jail after the sun went down. “The veterans bombarded the jail for hours, but Cantrell and his accomplices, secure behind the red-brick walls, refused to surrender,” Seiber explained.
Then, a few hours before dawn, bundles of dynamite arrived. The veterans lit the first fuse and hurled it at the jail. It rolled under a police car, exploded and tossed the vehicle through the air and on its back.
The vets lit and tossed three more bundles of explosives. The building shook with the force of the explosions. One of the bombs destroyed Mansfield’s car. Another destroyed the jail’s porch. Defeated, the deputies rushed from the besieged jail and surrendered to the crowd.
“The townspeople set upon the captured deputies,” Seiber explained. The people cut the throat of one unpopular deputy and a stray bullet shattered the jaw of another. The people kicked and beat Wise — the man who shot Gillespie and started the violence. The veterans pulled the fallen cops away from the crowd and locked them up in the jail.
By some miracle, no one died. Gillespie and the throat-slit deputy both survived.
The next few days were tense in McMinn County. The veterans knew they’d broken just about every state, local and federal law on the books. For three days they imposed a kind of martial law on the city of Athens.
The veterans patrolled rooftops, ran checkpoints and harassed travelers while they waited for a reprisal that never came. On Aug. 4, Mansfield resigned his post and requested the G.I. candidate take over his position.
On Aug. 5, a state representative traveled to Athens under the armed protection of the G.I. party, counted the ballots and officially declared the G.I. party the victor in all the local elections. Change had come to the county. The only criminal charges filed were against Wise, the deputy who shot a man in the back. The courts sentenced him to three years in prison.
“After any war, the use of force through the world is almost taken for granted,” Eleanor Roosevelt wrote of the incident. “We may deplore the use of force but we must also recognize the lesson which this incident points for us all. When the majority of the people know what they want, they will obtain it.”
“The decisive action which has just occurred in our midst is a warning, and one which we cannot afford to overlook.”
“Stubborn sumbitch,” Jayson Legg says with a chuckle as he looks up into the tree.medium.com
“Thank you for your service” is a phrase that’s going to get tossed around a lot today.medium.com