February 7, 2020

1946. Report on the Battle of Athens, Tennessee

The Battle of Athens
"Workmen, under the direction of an interim government, replacing windows shot out at the McMinn County jail during a gun battle between GIs and the sheriff and his deputies" (source)
The text below is adapted from two scripts for a report Bill Downs made in August 1946 after visiting Athens, Tennessee in the aftermath of the Battle of Athens. He had been in the area to cover a story in Oak Ridge.
Bill Downs


August 2, 1946

More than a thousand GIs, ex-servicemen fresh from combat all over the world, today hold control of the town of Athens, Tennessee—a control that they gained only after an all-day election struggle that ended in blockhouse fighting which they learned overseas.

The little Tennessee hill town of about 10,000 persons was quiet when I left there a few hours ago, but lean-jawed farmers in overalls stood grimly before the wrecked jail just looking—and waiting in case trouble broke out anew.

Trouble started with the opening of the polls yesterday. Ballot observers for the GI fusion ticket running against the entrenched McMinn County machine said they were refused their right to watch the polls. The ex-servicemen were jailed. After that, incident piled on incident, climaxed by a bloody five-hour battle when the GIs stormed the county jail in the middle of town where sheriff's deputies had taken the ballot boxes.

Although Athens has quieted, there still is great confusion. I found it impossible to get an accurate check on casualties. Some unconfirmed reports that three men besieged in the jail had been killed have been denied by leaders of the ex-servicemen's group. But it probably is a safe estimate that between 20 and 30 men were injured in yesterday's fighting. Several of these wounded are said to be in a critical condition.

I spent an hour and a half in Athens this afternoon. The crowd that, at dawn this morning, had overturned, wrecked, or burned some 14 automobiles belonging to the sheriff and his deputies, had partially dispersed. The street in front of the jail was blocked by the wreckage of the cars.

And in control of the jailhouse—and incidentally the town—were the ex-soldiers who said "we just got plain tired of being pushed around by a bunch of thugs."

One GI leader said that the entire ex-servicemen's ticket had been voted into office over the machine. The final vote count, according to the GIs, will give them a four-to-one margin.

Incidentally, the ex-servicemen would talk with me only after I had assured them I would use none of their names. No one knows what will be the legal outcome of the Athens, Tennessee incident—and if there are repercussions, they want no one man singled out. "We are in this thing together," they said, "and we are right."

However, technically, right now Athens is a town without law. Mayor Paul Walker was available—whether he left town or not has not been determined. The sheriff has disappeared. Only a couple of city commissioners are around, but they claim they have no authority to act in an executive manner. The chief of police is still behind his desk, but he has only four policemen. The chief, however, assured the GIs that if they behaved themselves, he could manage all right.

The new group of officials do not take office until September first. During that time, presumably the newly elected GI executive body for McMinn County will act in an ex officio capacity.

The ex-servicemen I talked with in Athens today were neither "toughies" nor irresponsible kids. For the most part they are veterans between 20 and 35 years of age—with the stamp of combat in their eyes. Many of them had been up for two days and nights, and had the familiar fatigue marks on their faces that were so familiar during the Normandy breakthrough days and the Battle of the Bulge. They realize they have taken a serious step. But they are willing to stand by their action as a right of any American to guarantee his vote.

"You don't know," they told me. "It was a dictatorship down here. While we were overseas the local machine politicians got such a hold on the people that elections were a farce. They even warned us not to vote—that no matter what happened, they would win. Until we came back from overseas, people were afraid to run against the machine. But we showed them that we weren't. The results of the election show that the people are on our side."

That is the way these ex-GIs are talking, Bob. And they mean business.