How World War II Vets Won the U.S.'s Only Successful Rebellion Since 1776 | Opinion

The following essay is an excerpt from Chris DeRose's new book, The Fighting Bunch, due out from St. Martin's Press next month.

In August 1946, Newsweek reported from Athens, Tennessee, where veterans of World War II had won their final—and most unexpected—battle, dislodging a corrupt political machine after a six-hour firefight. Reporters described "tension growing" through a "hot, still day" and "300 armed special deputies brought in by Sheriff Pat Mansfield to 'guard' the ballot boxes." The scene sounded more like Germany or Japan than America: a voter shot for trying to cast a ballot; GI poll watchers arrested, assaulted and having to jump through glass to escape being held hostage.

The "[a]rmed deputies took two ballot boxes to the jail for counting, refusing to permit GI observers." A small group of veterans—the fighting bunch—demanded a public count of the ballots and, when they were refused, opened fire. The full story of the battle—the only successful rebellion on U.S. soil since the Revolution—remained shrouded in mystery. Newsweek readers wanted to know the full story. But the GIs weren't interested in talking. In my new book, The Fighting Bunch, I can finally reveal the full story of the Battle of Athens, Tennessee. Some of these long-sought details appear in Newsweek for the first time—nearly 75 years later:

Bill White's mother and sister were surprised to see him home. "Turn off the lights," he said, "get on the ground, and stay there. I don't know if they know where I live." And as quick as Bill had arrived, he was gone.

He ran back to GI Headquarters. Only a handful of those who had left to get guns returned.

They brought back shotguns, rifles, pistols, squirrel guns and a war souvenir German Mauser.

"We need some more firepower," said Bill. And they definitely needed more ammunition. They knew there was one place to find it. Mink Powers, owner of a downtown Athens garage, offered to take them in his wrecker. Several other drivers offered their cars.

The caravan pulled up in front of the national guard armory, a white brutish building one mile west of town. Some of the GIs had served in the guard, while others had attended wrestling matches and magic shows there, giving them some familiarity with the layout. Mink's two-ton truck emptied out and the GIs demanded the keys from Sergeant Perly Berger, the armory caretaker. "You won't find them in my pocket," he said.

The group hurried into the strong room. There were plenty of .30-caliber M1917 rifles. One lucky GI grabbed a Thompson submachine gun. They draped themselves with bandoliers of bullets, took everything they could carry, and drove back to town.

The GIs had opened their headquarters with such fanfare—a sign of their political viability a block from the courthouse. They had passed happy days there, answering encouraging phone calls and greeting enthusiastic supporters. Now here they were, divvying up guns and ammunition.

Then Bill White and the fighting bunch walked out of headquarters for the last time. They made a right on Jackson Street, past the First National Bank and the waterworks with its shattered glass door, on a sidewalk stained with the blood of Shy Scott and Ed Vestal, GI poll watchers who wanted nothing more than to witness an honest count but barely escaped with their lives. They walked past the Post-Athenian building, with its giant blank tally board. Had it been any other county in America, they'd be watching that tally board filled in, precinct by precinct, recording a landslide for the GIs. They crossed Hornsby Street and stopped in front of Tennessee Wesleyan College. A reporter noted them "milling around in the center of the street," draped in ammunition, carrying guns. They were waiting for last light to make their move on the jail.

Walt Hurt of The Knoxville News-Sentinel walked up to them. "What is your purpose here?" he asked.

"We just want to see an honest election," said one.

"A fair count," said another.

Hurt roamed the neighborhood interviewing people on the street. They fretted about their relatives in the crowd. "At least he knows how to use a rifle," said one.

"I guess there is no other way," said another. "You have to fight fire with fire."

Hurt noted women in the street, "wringing their hands...wives, mothers, and sweethearts...their sorrow and fear was genuine and one you'll remember." Grandfathers, fathers and uncles of the boys drove around hoping to convince them to come home, "dreading what might happen."

battle of Athens, TN
A man looks through the hole blasted in a hedge in front of the McMinn County jail during the siege of the building by supporters of the G.I. independent party in the Battle of the Ballots. Bettmann Archive/Getty

One woman told Hurt: "I guess most of us older ones had lived through it so long we had just grown helpless about it. A great many of us never voted. We simply felt there wouldn't be any use."

Hurt detected "a deadly seriousness about them." By now he'd been watching Bill and the GIs for nearly an hour. Resolute. Armed. Waiting for sunset. "They didn't appear to have increased their ranks much," he wrote, but "their ranks hadn't thinned any either. And there was no less purpose evident than when we had first questioned one of them an hour earlier."

Ed Harris of the Knoxville Journal felt the "electrifying spark you feel just before a kickoff at a championship football game."

Allen Stout resumed his broadcast over WROL: "The crowd is converging on the county jail at this time. But no violence has been reported. Everyone here acts as if they are waiting for a time bomb to explode. That may happen."

The sun disappeared from the horizon and the light was fading. Whatever lines had been crossed, the one between Jackson and White Streets was something else altogether.

Bill White knew he could get arrested. He knew he might be killed. But he had already made that decision—to fight even though he could die. And from his perspective, he'd made it with a lot less of a personal stake. He had joined the marines just steps away at the old post office, which now stood between him and the jail, and swore to defend America against all enemies. "If it was worth going over there and risking your life, laying it down, it was worth it here, too," Bill said. "So we decided to fight."

The boardinghouse facing Jackson Street sits on a little hill. In the backyard is an embankment, thirteen feet high, covered with trees, vines, bushes, and tall grass, overlooking White Street, roughly even with the second story of the jail. The GIs moved quickly around both sides of the house through the backyard and to the embankment.

Reporter J.B. Collins watched "shadowy, armed figures...moving to a hillside opposite the jail. They took position and waited."

One hundred and twenty feet away from them was the massive brick fortress, headquarters of the McMinn county sheriff. It seemed out of place among the colorful storefronts, the grand old courthouse and its shady square. For years, people had gone out of their way to avoid the building and the people inside.

"Bring those boxes out and there won't be any trouble," someone yelled from the GI side.

An answer came from the jail. "You're going to have to come get them."

"That's what we're going to do."

Kenny ran into the jail and found his father. "Lay down on the floor," Minus told him.

"Why don't you call the law?" someone shouted from the jail.

"There ain't no damn law in McMinn County!" someone yelled from the embankment.

Enough talking, Bill thought. He pulled back the bolt on his rifle.

"I heard a bolt click," came a voice from near the jail. The deputies outside scrambled to get in.

Chuck Redfern was on the air in his studio across from the courthouse: "You're listening to WLAR, the friendly voice of the Friendly City." Gunfire exploded in the background.

Chris DeRose is the New York Times bestselling author of five books.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.