When GI’s began returning to McMinn County from World War II, they found themselves the targets of unfair arrests. The corrupt law enforcement learned to see the GI’s mustering out pay as easy money.
Veteran Bill White recalled his return home after the war: “I got discharged. I went home on the bus. And when I got off the bus there was four deputies standing there flipping over all the service minutes. I thought that was kinda odd. The deputies were running around, four or five at a time, grabbing up every GI they could find, and trying to get money off of ‘em. I watched a lot of that going on. And the more I watched it, the sicker I got. And then they killed a GI or two. Shot 'em and killed 'em.“
It didn’t take long for White and the young veterans of McMinn to start discussing their troubles. "We knew that there was something bad wrong when we got back over here. And what was wrong was, we had no freedom. We were over there fighting, and being killed every day for freedom, and we didn’t have none.”
The GI’s decided to form their own ticket for the next local election, and to make sure that the votes were counted fairly. Bill White remembered the process,“Well, we formed a ticket, got candidates to run for every office in McMinn County. And they started putting up signs and things. Those deputies went out and beat up them GIs putting up signs and tearing them down. They had another meeting and they thought about what the deputies were doing and I got up and said, 'Listen, … do you think they’re going to let you win this election?’ I said, ‘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.’
"They said, ‘Naw, we don’t want to do that, we don’t want to do that.’
"I said, ‘You better do it or you’re wasting your time.’
"Jim Buttrum got up and said, ‘Well Bill, I’ll recommend you to be the GI leader. Organize to keep them from taking the election.’
"I said, ‘That suits me.’ And they voted me in as the GI leader to organize a fighting bunch to keep them from beating up GIs and keep them from taking the election. That was right down my alley, I liked that. So I got out and started organizing with a bunch of GIs. Well, I learned that you get the poor boys out of poor families, and the ones that was frontline warriors that’s done fighting, and didn’t care to bust a cap on you. I learned to do that. So that’s what I picked. I had thirty men and … I took what mustering out pay I got and bought pistols.”
In an effort to pursue justice through the law, the GI’s drafted a petition that the local election be supervised, and sent it to the FBI, the attorney general of the United States, and the governor of Tennessee.
The day of the election came, without a response to the GI’s petition. Sheriff Pat Mansfield hired 200 men, giving them $50 a day to help make sure he won the election. The men knew to put phony ballots in ballot box before the first vote was ever cast, intimidate voters with armed guards, and most importantly, to take the ballot boxes from key precincts to the county jail where only Cantrell supporters could watch the counting. In a supreme act of irony, the building normally used to keep law-breakers in, would be used on election day to keep law-abiding citizens out.
The GI’s sent men to watch the polls for any corruption. Tensions between Cantrell’s men and the veterans immediately began to escalate. “Deputies started beating up the GIs we had as poll-watchers,” White said. “If they objected to anything they was doing, beating them up and putting them in jail.”
To make matters worse, the GI’s candidates got cold feet. “We had a GI headquarters down there and I come down there about 8:30,” White remembered. “Jim Buttrum was in there, the head of the GI ticket, the campaign manager. He locked the door on me. I was hollering through the door at him.
"He said, ‘My God! You gonna get us all killed, you gonna get us all killed.’
"I said, ‘Jim, if you don’t like what we’re doing, you can just leave out of here.’ Well that’s what Jim Buttrum done, he left out of there. All those men that we had running for office joined him, and they all left. And just left me and my gang there. Well, that was all right with me, they didn’t want to do no fighting. No way, they wasn’t warriors. They had been in the military, but they wasn’t frontline warriors.” Bill knew he had to act quickly if he was going to end the corruption in McMinn County. He turned to his men, “Boys,” he said, “get out. Get in touch with every GI you can, and get them back here. We’re going to organize big.”
White’s men dispersed and got word to every veteran they could find. "The first thing you know, there was about 200 of them there. Pat Mansfield sent some deputies down there to see what we was doing. We grabbed them, and captured them, and put them in an old tire place, and made prisoners out of them. We got seven of them down there, coming down there. We whooped around on them a little bit, and disarmed them, just to give us that many more guns.”
In the meantime, conditions at the polls were devolving into all-out lawlessness. Tom Gillespie, a black farmer came into the Athens Water Company building to vote. One of Cantrell’s men positioned himself behind Gillespie to observe his vote, but when he was observed to be preparing to vote “the wrong way” the Cantrell man told Gillespie, “You’ll have to get out of here. You’re voting in the wrong precinct.”
Gillespie protested, “I’ve always voted here before.”
In response, the Cantrell man slugged Gillespie with brass knuckles, and shot him, wounding him in the small of the back as he stumbled out the door.
Cantrell’s deputies next directed their attention to the GI election clerks, who were witnessing the count, forcing them to sit where they couldn’t watch the count.
Meanwhile, Bill White discovered that one of his prisoners had the keys to the armory. He sent several of his men down to raid it. They returned with sixty thirty-ought-six rifles, and two Thompson submachine guns, and all the ammunition they could carry. “They brought them back down there to the GI headquarters in a big two-ton truck. I got up in the truck, and passed out all sixty of them, and a bandolier of ammunition apiece, and still had some ammunition left over.”
At this point, the GI’s got word that Cantrell’s men were taking ballot boxes into the jail where they could count them without interference. “I said, ‘Boy, they doing something. I’m glad they done that. Now all we got to do is whip on the jail.’ They had two or three precincts they took up there to that jail. That was their bad mistake. I said, ‘Boys, let’s go.’”
White divided his men into two groups. One lined up on a bank overlooking the jail, and the other stood in the street. “I said, ‘Boys, I’m going to tell them to bring the ballot box out of there, and if they don’t we’re gonna open up on them.’ I hollered in there, I said, ‘You damn thieve grabbers, bring them damn ballot boxes out of there!” That’s just what I said.”
The deputies didn’t make a move.
“I had a shotgun, a pistol, and a rifle,” White remembered. “I pulled the pistol out, and started firing down there at them. Well, when I did that, all that whole line up there started firing down there in there. A lot of them got in the jail, some of them didn’t, some of them got shot laying outside. And the battle started.