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How 'The Fighting Bunch' Took On Corrupt Local Government, And Won

122320_provided_fightingbunch_01.jpg
McMinn County Living Heritage Museum / East Tennessee History Center
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Provided by the Author
Deputies' cars were among the casualties when GIs fought back against corrupt government in the Battle of Athens.

On Aug. 1, 1946, a group of veterans who survived some of World War II’s toughest battles took up arms against their own government.

Soon after returning from the front lines to Tennessee, they found a political machine policing the citizens for profit and engaging in blatant corruption. They tried to take on the machine by running a nonpartisan GI ticket.

But when Sheriff Paul Cantrell and his men interfered with free elections, violently attacking voters who didn’t support them, barring election observers and seizing ballot boxes, the veterans had enough. They turned to violence — and ultimately mounted the only successful armed rebellion on U.S. soil since the American Revolution.

That remarkable — and today, largely forgotten — story is the subject of Chris DeRose’s new book, “The Fighting Bunch.” The book traces the men from their combat days to the climactic battle, and the surprising rapprochement that followed.

DeRose explained on St. Louis on the Air that he found it essential to cover the men’s experiences overseas in addition to the events of Aug. 1, 1946.

“You can’t understand that fateful step they took outside the jail — to march on the jail with guns to risk their lives, to risk their freedom, and demand those ballot boxes from the sheriff — you can’t understand this singular event until you understand what they went through overseas. To see the guy next to them get killed. To lose their friends. To be injured and shot at themselves. To be asked to kill other people. And to be put in harm’s way, halfway around the world.

“These were guys who had never left their county. And they’re fighting in Pacific jungles, and they’re fighting in European fields. And they’re being told that they are fighting for the free world against the slave world. ... And if you don’t understand that these men went off and risked their lives for that proposition, and came home to a democracy that did not exist, then you can’t understand what they did that night in the jail.”

Just about everyone who participated in the Battle of Athens is now dead. But DeRose was able to access never-before-published primary sources, including a series of taped interviews one man did with his family decades after the events in question.

As a Marine, Bill White fought the Battle of Guadalcanal and endured the hell of Tarawa. Back home in 1946, he was certain his fellow veterans were being naive to think they could challenge the machine running McMinn County.

“Listen,” he told them, as recounted in DeRose’s book. “Do you think they’re going to let you win this election? Those people been taking these elections for years with a bunch of armed thugs. If you never got the guts enough to stand up and fight fire with fire you ain’t gonna win.”

A fellow GI told White that sure, he could organize a group to keep the machine from stealing the election. He thought it would distract the Marine and give him something to do. White promised to organize a “fighting bunch” — a decision that proved critical when the chips were down on Election Day.

“If you’ve seen the last four Clint Eastwood movies, he’s that character, but like 19 years old,” DeRose said of White. “He’s this 19-year-old curmudgeon with this incredible heart for his friends and family and community. … He called it. He thought this was always going to come down to violence and was prepared to do whatever was necessary to restore democracy to his hometown.”

DeRose noted that there is simply no comparison between the well-documented, often violent voter suppression and fraud in McMinn County and the claims being made by certain factions of the Republican Party today: “I think the men in the fighting bunch in 1946 would have loved to have participated in an election like the one we just had in America.”

He added, “These are people who were getting guns pointed at their faces and being driven out of polling places with no opportunity to inspect or watch the count. We had a free election in America, a fair election in America. The voter fraud in ‘the Fighting Bunch’ should serve as a contrast.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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