During World War II in the U.S.A., life on the homefront meant ration books, victory gardens and scrap drives, but there was a lot more going on around Murfreesboro.
In Rutherford and other nearby counties it meant thousands of G.I.s used the towns, roads, farms, hills, woods and rivers as a practice ground for combat.
What were the maneuvers?
“Since we were at war during six of the seven maneuvers conducted here, most of the information about the maneuvers was classified and/or strictly curtailed,” said Woody McMillin, author of In the Presence of Soldiers: The 2nd Army Maneuvers & Other World War II Activity in Tennessee. “Consequently, contemporary reporters could not provide details and residents had little information about what was happening in their communities.”
Thus, among other goals the writer wanted to answer a basic question for those who were not yet born, like himself, but in later years would hear bits and pieces about the maneuvers. The question: What were the soldiers doing on my grandfather’s farm?
“The maneuvers were held here in Tennessee because of the climate and terrain,“ McMillin said. “The terrain here is so much like Germany and Belgium with its rolling rivers and hillsides. Twenty-one of the divisions that trained here went to Europe, three went to the Pacific and one went to occupy Japan.
“The maneuvers were used to train large numbers of military units to function as a team. These very large-scale exercises tested how generals handled their men and the men underneath them. They were like a series of football games. The generals were the coaches. There was a blue team and a red team, and you had umpires in the field who made the calls. Afterward, they analyzed what had taken place.”
The large numbers of soldiers were a startling vision before the eyes of civilians, whether they lived in town or country. And many Rutherford Countians got to know some of the soldiers on a personal level.
When Murray Miles was a lad of 12 or 13, his family’s farm on Jefferson Pike, located where the East Fork Recreation Center is today, was often occupied by soldiers. He shares his fondest memory.
“I was taking the milk down to the road in milk cans one Monday morning, and there were two guys down at the end of our driveway. I got to visiting with them. These two guys were with the red army, and they saw the blue army coming, and they lit out for our calf barn and climbed up to a little loft to hide and keep from being captured,” recalled Miles.
“They stayed there all week long with a blue army halftrack right outside the door. Mother would take a milk bucket and fill it with food, and she would cover up the food, and I would take them food the whole week.
“One guy was named Miller and was from Ozone, Tenn., in Cumberland County. The other guy was Hemingway from Nebraska. He and I kept writing to each other during the war through V-Mail letters,” Miles said of the friendship.
Helping his father on the farm, Miles did his best to protect their crops, but he, like most of the population, yearned to help the American troops any way possible.
“I was out in the field one day, and here comes a Jeep load of officers riding right in the middle of our alfalfa field that was just ready to cut,” he recollected. “They were looking for a place to cross the river. I went to see if I could get rid of them. I thought just one Jeep wouldn’t do much harm but didn’t know that down on the road was a whole convoy of ambulances, and the whole bunch came down through the permanent pasture. My daddy gave me a fit about that.
“There was a bridge crossing the Stones River right next to our property. Each Monday, the Army would ‘bomb’ the bridge. The way they bombed it was with a Piper Cub airplane and dropped a sack of flour on it. Then the army could not use the bridge for the rest of the week. They would place an umpire on either side to keep the army from coming across.
“We were down at bridge one night and here came another Jeep of officers trying to get across the river. Dad let me go with them ... We went down to the crossing (a ford on the river), came back to bridge on the other side. I just walked across the bridge, but they had to go back around and ford the river again. They then picked up their convoy and crossed the river again. What a thrill it was for me to ride in a Jeep. That was just No. 1 at age of 12 or 13. They did not destroy much of our property. They backed into a fence a time or two, but they were always present because that bridge was bombed,” Miles said .
“On the weekends, whole companies would camp out somewhere in a wooded area. When they moved out, we would go over the area and you could always find things that were left such as blankets, canteens, etc.”
Spying Gen. Patton
Among other sights, some Tennesseans spotted Gen. George Patton who was here for the war games in 1941.
“I remember George Patton coming down Main Street in his tank,” said Watertown’s Edsel Floyd in Wilson County. “Daddy woke us up at about 5 o’clock. He came right down by West Main Street and turned by Cumberland Presbyterian Church and went toward Statesville. He was in a light tank and his head was out the turret.”
Floyd who was then about 12 or 13, also stumbled upon a Thompson machine gun that a soldier must have lost.
“I found it when just walking across the hill, and there it was on the ground at Jones Hill Cemetery. We had been following these soldiers for months around here, and we knew what it was, and I knew I didn’t have any business with it,” said Floyd, who promptly turned in the weapon.
Seven large-scale maneuvers, also referred to as exercises, operations and problems, were held in Tennessee from 1941 until late March of 1944.
The logistics of feeding, transporting and caring for the needs of thousands of young men were overwhelming. There were rules for soldiers and civilians alike, but some of these rules were made to be broken.
“There were warnings to the civilian population: Don’t give them directions, food or shelter. The exercises were to harden the soldiers for combat,” McMillan said. “I guess Southern hospitality just couldn’t help but help them. They were supposed to camp in the woods, but many slept on porches, corn cribs and in barns.”
As for food, well, for a lot of soldiers from other parts of the U.S., it was their first taste of Southern-fried chicken and biscuits and gravy, as many a country cook fed the soldier boys in their kitchens and in their yards. A few even got hot scrambled eggs but had to use their palms as plates.
“As I remember it, the reds and the blues were practicing and fighting each other, and the reds were on our place for some little time, more than a month,” recalled John Pickard. “You weren’t supposed to feed them, but grandmother was always big on doing that. She would fry eggs on the wood-burning cook stove, and they’d line up at the kitchen door, and she’d dish them eggs out, and they’d go to flipping them hot eggs back and forth, cooling them in their hands. She handed them right out of the skillet.
“It was against the law for them to come in the house, but my grandmother had one of them come in the house and play the piano, and some of them would sing on the porch.”
Pickard remembers mornings when he would go to the barn to milk the cows and the hayloft would be filled with sleeping soldiers.
“The halftracks and bigger trucks, they’d tear up the field, the branch, the fence. They went everywhere. The government would reimburse us. They’d send you rows of fence wire and barbwire to compensate for tearing up the fences,” he said.
Two men in Rutherford County who were cognizant of the impact of having so many military personnel in the area were Judge Harold Earthman and Chamber of Commerce president Tommy Martin. The duo organized a delegation to send to Washington, D.C., to plead the problem to Congress and ask for more commodities. The results were that more food and supplies were routed to the county seat.
Connections to the general
Murfreesboro was the childhood home of Jean Marie Faircloth, who married Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Thus, the Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce organized the Mrs. Douglas MacArthur Bond Cavalcade May 12-14, 1942. By the end of the year the Volunteer State had raised $96 million from the sale of bonds and stamps. Six years after the war ended, MacArthur, his wife and son returned to Murfreesboro on April 30, 1951, to thank the Tennesseans for their help in the war effort.
A crowd of about 20,000 gathered to view a parade at the town square, while formal activities were held at Jones Field on the Middle Tennessee State College campus. Among the media covering the event were NBC TV, Fox Movietone News, photographers from Life and Time magazines and many print journalists.
Earl Roberts remembers hearing a few conversations between his mother and Mrs. MacArthur, who had been childhood friends.
“After Gen. MacArthur died, she would visit here pretty often. I enjoyed sitting and listening to the tales she would tell about her husband,” said Roberts. “One thing impressed me most of all. Someone asked her, ‘Why don’t you write a book about all this?’ She said, ‘My husband has written a book. I don’t need to, and there are a lot of things that need to remain unsaid.’”
Ferreting out the details
Author McMillan researched for a week at the National Archives in College Park, Md., and brought back a two-foot-high stack of documents. He also looked at every page of newspapers from the 22-county area from 1941 to 1944, a chore that took more than eight months.
The book contains about 100 photographs, most of them never-before-published, which he gleaned from the U.S. Army Signal Corps Archives, and a few photos were given to him by individuals.
“I’ve put complete descriptions of all the maneuvers problems in the appendices. That makes the narrative less cumbersome for casual readers,” said McMillin. “The appendices also include a list of fatalities, division/corps generals and a complete list of the U.S. Army maneuvers in World War II (showing other states that hosted the simulated combat).
“A great deal of the information in the book comes from now-declassified government documents and provides a clear picture of what occurred. As I’ve been speaking across the maneuvers area, it’s been great to put the pieces together for some residents who lived through the time and had questions about what they saw and experienced. The newspapers at the time offered limited coverage.”
McMillin, whose late father served three years with the Jungliers in the U.S. Army during WWII in the Pacific, offers his book for $30 when he makes personal appearances, generally speaking to civic clubs across the mid-state. The writer earned a mass communications degree at Middle Tennessee State University and worked in the mid-1970s at “The Lebanon Democrat” and radio station WCOR. During his career he worked with the state Commission on Aging, Nashville Electric Service, Dye, Van Mol and Lawrence public relations, Bridgestone/Firestone and Metro Nashville Schools.
“I don’t think I heard one negative story,” he relates of his visits with hundreds of eye witnesses to the maneuvers. “Bad things happened (crime, murder, venereal disease). People just remembered the good.”
Nevertheless, the years of maneuvers in Middle Tennessee were serious business. There is no way to know how many of those young men who sat in foxholes in Wilson County wound up giving their lives on the field of combat across the ocean. And many gave their lives in preparation.
“There’s a great sadness when you start writing these stories. A great number of soldiers who never left here, well, they went home in a coffin. I think every soldier who died here during the maneuvers was just as significant as any soldier who died in combat,” said author McMillan, whose research allowed him to be in the presence of soldiers.