World War II Maneuvers

According to newspaper accounts of the maneuvers, a lot of Tennesseans would stop and stare when a tank drove past. (PHOTO: TN Maneuvers Collection, Albert Gore Research Center, MTSU)


Most Americans aren’t used to seeing soldiers, tanks and military airplanes unless they happen to live near a large military base. But during World War II, the U.S. Army used Middle Tennessee for war maneuvers.

During these military exercises, it wasn’t unusual for a farmer to look up and see tanks driving through his cow fields, nor was it unusual for children to meet army soldiers driving across the countryside.

Here are some questions and answers in regards to Tennessee’s World War II maneuvers:

Why did they do so many of the maneuvers in Tennessee?

The terrain in Middle Tennessee is sort of similar to that of France, Belgium and Germany, which is where the U.S. government anticipated that the war would be fought. Also, Tennessee Governor Prentice Cooper and Tennessee Senator Kenneth McKellar reportedly urged the U.S. government to stage them in Tennessee.

A machine gun mounted on the front of a jeep during the Tennessee World War II maneuvers (National Archives photo)

What types of soldiers and weaponry were involved?

Foot soldiers (known as infantry), soldiers that jump out of airplanes (airborne forces), tanks and aircraft were all involved. Fighting forces were divided into two opposing sides – red and blue. Neither side used live ammunition; army officers wandered through the maneuver area and acted as umpires, determining which soldiers, tanks and units has been “killed” and which had prevailed.

Were the maneuvers continuous?

No. There were 7 separate events that took place in Tennessee between 1941 and 1944. Most would last about 2 months, and the army would announce the events in advance.

How did the U.S. Army deal with private property laws?

During the maneuvers, it wasn’t unusual in Middle Tennessee to look out your front window and see something like this! (PHOTO: TN Maneuvers Collection, Albert Gore Research Center, MTSU)

Before the maneuvers were staged, the U.S. Army sent letters to every farmer in the counties in which they intended to operate, asking them to agree to allow soldiers to trespass and promising farmers in advance to reimburse them for any damages. “Our army can’t be ready unless we have practice,” the letter said. “Such practice may be annoying to you as a property owner, but we hope you will make a sacrifice in order to make your army efficient.” Property owners agreed to allow soldiers to “enter, maneuver upon, pass over and bivouac or camp” and “use the water therein or thereon for drinking, cooking and cleaning purposes.”

I don’t know what happened if farmers refused to allow the Army to use their property. In fact, I can’t find a single article that mentions that every happening.

Low attack planes flying above Wilson County during the maneuvers (TN Maneuvers Collection, Albert Gore Research Center, MTSU)

Did the maneuvers affect day-to-day life in Tennessee?

Absolutely. The war maneuvers made parts of the state impassable, wore out a lot of old roads and bridges, clogged up mail delivery, ran hotels out of rooms and some restaurants out of food. (It even disrupted hunting season, which was called off or delayed in war maneuver areas!)

I’m sure a lot of people complained about the inconvenience. But newspapers were far more likely to quote people who didn’t mind.  “Why, mister, they [the U.S. Army] can tear this place up if they want to,” one Wilson County woman told a reporter. “I got four boys in the Army, and they’re learning how to keep alive by tearing somebody else’s place up.”

Did the maneuvers affect towns, or just the countryside?

Both. A vivid example took place on June 12, 1941, when the army simulated a bombing raid on Shelbyville. Residents of the town were ordered to execute a complete “blackout” in advance of the event, and most of the town’s residents stood out in the streets and watched the planes fly overhead.

Soldiers climb through a barbed wire fence during the Tennessee war maneuvers (PHOTO: TN Maneuvers Collection, Albert Gore Research Center, MTSU)

Was property damaged?

Oh, yes. Countless fences, driveway and crops were damaged, and a U.S. Army department known as the Board of Rents and Claims wrote more than 20,000 reimbursement checks. By the end of the war, the army had installed more than 5 million feet of wire fencing in Tennessee and repaired more than 1,000 bridges damaged by its tanks and trucks during the maneuvers. Even with all this work, however, many of Middle Tennessee’s roads and bridges were in a sorry condition by war’s end.

The most famous instance of damage occurred when a tank from Patton’s Second Armored division accidentally drove through Bell Buckle’s city hall. “The city hall was not on the map!” Patton reportedly joked.

Two Tennessee children say hi to some of the soldiers on maneuvers in Middle Tennessee, on April 28, 1943. (Tennessee State Library and Archives photo)

What are some of the personal stories that came out of the maneuvers?

At a time before television, many people in Tennessee thought the maneuvers were the most exciting thing they had ever experienced. The most interesting event of the day was when soldiers marched past, a warplane flew overhead or a tank rolled by. “When those steel monsters clattered through the streets of the small towns here, all of the townspeople turned out to line the sidewalks and look at one of Uncle Sam’s most potent fighting machines,” the Chattanooga Daily Times reported on June 30, 1941.

John Hood, a former state representative from Murfreesboro, says he remembers the maneuvers very well. “I had a friend whose father owned a grocery store, and we would buy food from the store and sell it to the soldiers and make a little money in the process,” he said. Sometimes we’d trade food for insignia.”

Researcher Tressa Bush dug up this photo from the National Archives that shows troops crossing a pontoon bridge across the Cumberland River

Hood says his family would hear gunfire at night and look out their window to see soldiers firing weapons (with blanks, of course) in their front yards. “It sort of frightened us, but it was very exciting,” he says.

Were the maneuvers dangerous?

More so than you would think. More than 250 soldiers died while stationed in Tennessee during maneuvers, most of them in truck and jeep accidents, plane crashes and failed river crossings.

Two tragedies stuck out. On June 6, 1943, 19 soldiers died when a U.S. Army truck crossed a wooden guard rail and fell 30 feet onto a train track in the Woodbine section of Nashville—in what may be the deadliest traffic accident in Tennessee history. Nine months later, a raft crossing the Cumberland River near Hartsville capsized, killing 21 soldiers.

Did reporters travel with the maneuvering armies?

Reporter Marion Coleman (PHOTO: TN Maneuvers Collection, Albert Gore Research Center, MTSU)

Yes. During active maneuvers, two or three times a week, reporters from the various newspapers would run stories in newspapers all over the state, starting off with the vague identifier “WITH THE SECOND ARMY ON TENNESSEE MANEUVERS.”

One of these reporters was a woman—Marion Coleman of the Chattanooga Times and later Associated Press. One of Coleman’s descendants later donated her papers to the Walker Library at Middle Tennessee State University.

Did the soldiers get to take time off while in Tennessee?

American Legion Post No. 5 members standing outside a bath house (also known as Hume-Fogg High School) which served soldiers during the Tennessee maneuvers in 1944. (PHOTO: TN State Library and Archives)

Yes, which is why churches, schools, YMCAs and even some private homes were converted to USOs and other social venues for soldiers. The most popular weekend destination was Nashville—which, according to Woody McMillin’s book In the Presence of Soldiers, had no less than 22 specially arranged places where servicemen could relax, take showers and sleep. This sudden addition of tens of thousands of servicemen brought with it the expected mischief; Middle Tennessee law enforcement officers had to deal with far more crime than normal when soldiers were in town during the maneuvers.

Soldiers crossing a river in Middle Tennessee during the maneuvers (National Archives photo)


Did the soldiers make permanent connections to Tennessee?

Some did. Researchers such as McMillin and Tressa Bush have uncovered stories of many former soldiers who moved to Tennessee after the war because they liked what they saw of the place during the war. Also, obviously, many Tennessee women met and married soldiers that were stationed in Tennessee during the war. “I would have no way of estimating how many marriages came out of the maneuvers,” says Smith County researcher Tressa Bush. “I think it’s safe to say that the number was in the hundreds.”