VFW Magazine — August 2012
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Ex-GIs Battle For The Ballot
Kelly Gibson

In 1946, a group of WWII veterans overthrew a political machine in the small community of Athens, Tenn., to take back their local government with the support of local VFW members.

Abraham Lincoln, during his first inaugural address in reference to the turmoil brewing between the North and the South, wisely stated: “The government, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it.”

And Lincoln’s words rang true shortly after WWII, when the people of McMinn County, Tenn., banded together to overthrow a political machine that had taken advantage of the small community for several years.

Throughout its rich history, McMinn County in southeastern Tennessee had been politically tangled. During the Civil War, residents narrowly voted against Secession from the Union. The railroad that ran through the county was essential in providing support for both Union and Confederate troops. And it was McMinn County’s own Harry T. Burn, a first-term member of the state legislature, who cast the deciding vote in 1920 to ratify the 19th amendment, allowing women the right to vote.

So it came as little surprise when McMinn County found itself in the middle of a political firestorm in August of 1946.

The 1936 race for McMinn County sheriff became hotly contested after Democratic candidate Paul Cantrell won by a landslide against a Republican ticket that had been in control since the Civil War. After each election for the next decade, it became increasingly clear that Cantrell, a cog in the powerful Tennessee political machine run by then-Memphis Mayor Ed Crump, could not be defeated.

VETS RETURN

Amidst the growing power of the Crump machine, some 3,526 young men left the quiet country roads and rambling hills of McMinn County for battle overseas. In the summer of 1945, they began returning home to find that their small town had fallen victim to a corrupt government.

One Saturday Evening Post reporter wrote: “Soldiers now returning from the front do not seem satisfied with the conditions they find at home. They have done their job, but they fail to discover that we have done ours. They find in the land they love the old political gangs, racial intolerance, scoundrels in public office, irresponsible strikers and the lascivious night-club air of those who have fattened on war and death…they find cant, greed, luxury, hypocrisy, lust and avarice.”

Bar fights between veterans and local law enforcement officers became commonplace.Officers received a kickback for every ticket issued and every person arrested, so innocent passers-through would often receive unlawful tickets or harassment by local authorities.Gambling and bootlegging ran rampant in the community.

According to a report by the Daily Post-Athenian (Athens, Tenn.) In 1946, at a rally, a GI speaker said, “The principles that we fought for in this past war do not Exist in McMinn County. We fought for democracy because we believe in democracy but not the form we live under in this county.”

So the young men who had fought for their country stood up to fight again— this time in the voting booths. An all-GI ballot appeared in Athens for the August 1946 election. Cantrell had moved from McMinn County sheriff to Tennessee state senator. He endorsed incumbent Pat Mansfield, who had replaced Cantrell. Knox Henry, a veteran who served in North Africa during WWII, hoped to overthrow Mansfield.

Because of the county’s history of voter intimidation and ballot box stuffing, members of the veteran ticket sent numerous requests to state and national leaders requesting assistance in holding a fair, honest election—all requests remained unanswered.

As Election Day neared, the veterans rallied recruits from neighboring counties, including members of the VFW Post in nearby Blount County (Post 5154 in Louisville is still active today) to help watch election sites in Athens, McMinn’s county seat. They prepared to use any action necessary to ensure a fair election.

ELECTION DAY BATTLE

Trouble began early election morning.Sheriff Mansfield arrested Walter Ellis, an ex-GI serving as Precinct 1 election judge, without cause. It wasn’t until much later that Mansfield would accuse Ellis of committing ballot fraud. After Ellis was removed, Mansfield ordered some 20 armed deputies to guard the courthouse.

Tension remained high through midafternoon.Tom Gillespie, a farmer, arrived at Precinct 11 to vote. Allegedly, Mansfield’s men observed Gillespie voting “the wrong way,” and he was asked to leave because he supposedly was voting in the wrong precinct. When Gillespie protested, claiming that he had always voted there, Deputy Sheriff Windy Wise hit Gillespie with brass knuckles, then shot him. Gillespie sustained a flesh wound to his back and was removed from the voting site for treatment.

Meanwhile, fighting broke out at other nearby precincts. Election judge Bob Hairrell, also an ex-GI, was beaten by Minus Wilburn, the election deputy stationed at Precinct 12 by Sheriff Mansfield. Officials illegally closed the 12th Precinct polls early, locked the doors and guarded the entry.

Sheriff Mansfield traveled to the 11th Precinct to count votes. Former-GIs and election judges Charles Scott, Jr. And James Howard Vestal were asked to stay in the front of the office while Sheriff Mansfield and several other Cantrell men counted ballots in the rear. The vets Were not allowed to leave the area, and were locked in the building. When they protested, the deputies got violent.

“They were right at us, trying to slug us with knuckles and their guns,” Vestal recounted. “He [Charles] broke the glass and we stumbled through.”

As the men escaped the locked office, Wise was quick to pursue, raising his gun and pointing it at the ex-servicemen.Vestal and Scott, both unarmed, threw their hands up and walked slowly across the street toward a gathering crowd.

Wise returned to the office, and Vestal and Scott were escorted to the hospital to treat their wounds from the broken window.Chief Deputy Boe Dunn, along with six other deputies, ran to secure the ballot box. As the deputies drove away with the ballot box, a crowd began to shout, “Get your guns boys, get your guns!”

The veterans, initially unarmed to promote a peaceful election, decided it was time to meet force with force, so the group gathered at a local tire shop.Two armed deputies approached war veteran and election commissioner Otto Kennedy and a small group of vets. A scuffle broke out between the groups.

The WWII vets stationed in the garage held their fire, waiting for more deputies to appear. As the vets waited, the crowd grew. Reportedly, thousands lined the surrounding blocks until the first shot rang out. By the end of the skirmish, the Veterans had apprehended four deputies.

‘ALL HELL BROKE LOOSE’

As the polls closed for the evening, Sheriff Mansfield and his men attempted to secure the ballot boxes, bringing them to the jail to be counted.

The veterans knew they’d have to move the ballot boxes to a neutral location to stop any ballot counting irregularities. Outside of the jail, approximately 12 hours after the first act of aggression, the battle began.

Ralph Duggan, a veteran-leader, said they had no choice but to meet fire with fire. Shots rang out around 9 p.m., according to Sheriff Mansfield in a Chattanooga Daily Times report.

“Counting of ballots stopped when the gunfire broke out, but in the returns reported, the veteran-backed ticket reportedly was ahead 3-1,” the report read.

It’s unclear who fired the first shot, but a vicious shooting spree between exgis and officers ensued.

“The room I was in received most of the fire,” Ken Wilburn, who was 14 at the time of the incident, told the Dalton (Tenn.) Daily Citizen in 2008. “Glass kept falling and falling. Bullets would hit the plaster and it kept falling... Then I crawled through to another room and sat behind a [brick] wall for close to five hours. All hell broke loose.”

Thousands of rounds were exchanged, with no end in sight.

Around 1 a.m., the vets cut telephone lines to slow communication as reports that members of the National Guard were being mobilized to calm the situation.As 2 a.m. neared, the deputies inside the jail threatened to kill three vet hostages should the firing fail to cease. Neither side showed any sign of backing down.

At 3 a.m., the veterans decided enough was enough. In a last effort to end the battle, they detonated three bundles of dynamite—one destroying Mansfield’s Car, one landing on top of the jail porch, and the final bundle rattling the jail wall.After the explosions, Mansfield and Cantrell’s men knew they’d been beaten.

VICTORY FOR THE PEOPLE

According to an official statement released the following day by the allveteran group, “The GI election officials went to the polls unarmed to have a fair election as Pat Mansfield promised.They were met with blackjacks and pistols. Several GI officials were beaten and the ballot boxes were moved to the jail. The GI supporters went to jail to get these boxes and were met by gunfire.”

Chuck Redfern, station manager and announcer for WLAR radio station in Athens, himself a veteran, remembered the fighting some years later as some of the most brutal he’d experienced.

“But no one died,” Redfern said. “I was a Marine in the South Pacific, but I came closer to getting killed that night than I did in the war. That is the miracle of the battle and, in fact, it changed politics in the county forever.”

During the fighting, crowds had overturned automobiles and set them on fire.

As the sun rose over the battle-ravaged streets of Athens, veterans continued their watch to keep order.

Cantrell and his men conceded the election to the veterans. After the final uncompromised ballots were counted, the former-GI ticket had won fairly.

The veterans of McMinn County cast a stone into the political pond and gained national media attention. The ripples from the veterans’ efforts affected other communities, ranging from Oklahoma to New Jersey. One Arkansas veteran, quoted by the Knoxville (Tenn.) Journal in August 1946, said that “rioting would look ‘mild in comparison if there are any irregularities’ ” in his local election.

All other uprisings were settled peacefully, but each acted as a reminder to corrupt leadership that the public would no longer stand for electoral injustice.

A 1946 New York Times editorial by Eleanor Roosevelt said it best: “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.”
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