I was 7 years old when World War II started, and I recall vividly Sunday, December 7. We had just gotten home from church when Daddy got a call from somebody telling him to turn on the radio. We went up to the bedroom where he tuned in the old Philco set he had there, and we listened mesmerized to the news account of the Japanese sneak on Pearl Harbor. Afterward, we got in the car and went to my grandparents’ house up on Fifth Street. Several people were there, all gathered around the large upright radio.
I don’t think I understood the full import of what was happening. But because Daddy had taught me to read by having me read the headlines in the newspaper, I was probably more aware of the war going on in Europe and Asia than most kids.
The war brought big changes to our lives. Rationing meant that meat, butter, chocolate, and many other manufactured items were in short supply. It meant drives to sell stamps and war bonds in school. It meant collecting scrap for the war effort. Daddy, who was now working for his father at the Kitchen Lumber Co., had a “B” sticker for gasoline because lumber was an essential industry. That meant he could get about eight gallons a week. Most people got an A sticker, good for only four gallons a week. About the only people in town who got C stickers were doctors—they still made house calls in those days.
Mother joined the war effort by helping people sign up for ration books at the city elementary school. Many people from the hills could not read or write and had to have somebody fill out the forms for them. She loved to tell the story of the old fellow who was answering questions about his family. She had gotten the names of his children and asked for their ages. “How’s that?” the old fellow asked. “Years,” Mother yelled. “Oh, they’ve all got pretty good sized ears,” he replied.
The war put us all into the recycling business, saving cans, rubber and other articles for the war effort. At school we bought war stamps with our spare change. If you collected enough stamps you could exchange them for a war bond.
The war really came home as young men started leaving to join the various branches of the service. Several of my cousins were among the first to go. My favorite older cousin was Tom Baird, son of Uncle Clifford. Tom joined the Marines, and I followed anxiously all of his adventures throughout the South Pacific as the Marines fought in one bloody battle after another. Tom won several medals for bravery, and was wounded a couple of times. But he survived the war.
Daddy was too old for the draft, but when the Navy created its famous Sea Bees, a play on the initials CB for Construction Battalion, he signed up. Because of his experience and qualifications, he was immediately made a chief petty officer, a carpenter’s mate. I remember the deep anguish I felt at Daddy leaving. I just wasn’t sure how we could manage without him. As it turned out, the Navy’s doctors found traces of an old lung problem and after only five months—a month short of the time needed to receive eventual G.I. benefits—Daddy was given a medical discharge and came home. He would have been a great Sea Bee, but I was thrilled when the Greyhound bus rolled into the Jellico station and I saw Daddy sitting there by the window waving to use. Even though he was in the service for only five months, Daddy had great stories to tell. He was a captivating storyteller, and people never complained when he would repeat his stories. I wish I had written them down.
In 1944, the war in Europe was going well. The Allies had invaded the continent in Normandy on June 6 and were making inroads into German-occupied territory. In Jellico, people waited anxiously for word of loved ones. We watched the newsreels of the fighting and wept when word came that one of Jellico’s sons had been killed or wounded. But the war came home to Jellico in a dramatic and personal way on the night of July 6, 1944. A Louisville & Nashville Railway troop train speeding through the Narrows jumped the tracks. The engine, tender and four cars plunged into the waters and boulders of the Clear Fork 50 feet below. The casualty toll was 34 killed and 75 injured, including the train’s engineer.
The train was carrying more than 1,000 soldiers to Fort Benning, Georgia. It had stopped in Corbin, Kentucky, before heading south through the mountains of Campbell County, Tennessee. An article in The LaFollette Press on August 24, 2001, reported:
The relief engineer was supposed to take over at Corbin, but he never showed up. The first engineer was angry about having to continue with the train.
“He was very mad and possibly under the influence of alcohol,” a rescuer said. In addition to the engineer’s condition, a steep grade before the Narrows gave trains a boost of speed. Thanks to the engineer and the grade, the train was speeding by the time it reached the Narrows’ first sharp curve.
The people of Jellico and the surrounding area mobilized immediately to help out. Dozens rushed to the scene to help with the rescue effort. Dr. Ned Watts, a prominent Jellico physician and by then our family doctor, was the first doctor on the scene and the only one for several hours, valiantly treating the wounded until help arrived.
Many of the soldiers, some wearing only their olive drab underwear, were brought into homes in Jellico to spend the rest of the night until the Army arranged transportation for them. The next day Boy Scouts went door to door collecting clothing and shoes for the survivors. We drove by the site the next day and I remember being impressed with the twisted wreckage of the engine and cars, and the rescuers still crawling over them, some with acetylene torches, trying to free the bodies still trapped in the tangled steel.
Here’s how the Press article described the scene:
Think of the absolute worst place in the world for a train wreck and you’ll have a picture of the Jellico Narrows in Campbell County. It looks like something out of a model train layout. The gorge cuts down 50 feet to the Clear Fork River, a rocky and shallow current capped in white. Limestone, peppered with trees and scrub and mud, lines the descent. A road follows the gorge up above on one side, with the train tracks on the other side. The tracks occasionally dart through tunnels or veer off away from the gorge. But where the wreck occurred, the tracks are right on top of the gorge.
The river was a jumble of twisted metal, smoke, flames, steam and bodies. When the locomotive plunged over the side of the gorge, it took with it its tender and four cars. The kitchen and baggage cars burned, and two coach cars turned over and burned at the gorge’s brink. The engineer and others died pinned underwater. Others burned to death from the steam. Some bodies were trapped under the cars, other bodies splayed out over the flat rocks. Some survivors had to cross the river barefoot and stood there shivering. Those pinned were screaming.
I also remember being impressed in hearing about the reporters who were calling from New York and Chicago trying to get information on the wreck for their newspapers. I already was an avid newspaper reader, but this was the first time I had an inkling of how the reporters got their stories.
The end of the war
When V.E. Day and a few weeks later V.J. Day finally came, it was like emerging from a long dark tunnel. Unlike subsequent wars in which life on the home front went on pretty much as usual, everybody was involved in WWII. The able-bodied men were off to fight the war, the women picking up the slack in jobs formerly held almost exclusively by them. Children were involved in collecting material for the war effort, spending our hard-earned pennies on Victory Stamps, and waiting anxiously for a father, brother, cousin or other relative to come home safely.
When the first atomic bomb fell on Japan, we finally learned the real purpose of the Secret City that had been built near Knoxville. Oak Ridge was a key part of the top secret Manhattan Project that developed the bomb. Many area residents had gone to work at Oak Ridge, never having a clue what they were building.
But the war’s end didn’t bring back the status quo. The world had changed, and Jellico along with it. Things would never be the same. Even bigger changes were around the corner that would change our lives even more, television, air conditioning, super highways, jet planes.
But at that moment, as the world celebrated the respective victories in Europe and Japan, all we knew was that the lights had come back on. The darkness of war was over, for the moment.
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