Nashville History Corner: Remembrances of World War II

Jun 16 2019
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Nashville History Corner: Remembrances of World War II

By: Ridley Wills II

1. I learned of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor when I was visiting my grandmother Wills at her home Far Hills (now the Governor’s Mansion) on Curtiswood Lane in Nashville. We heard the attack announced over the radio on a cold Sunday afternoon. My parents, my brother and sister, an aunt and uncle, and three first cousins, along with my grandmother, were mostly gathered in the sitting room where we usually congregated after Sunday family dinner. I was 6 years old at the time. I specifically recall the excited reaction of Senter Crook, who was my aunt Mamie Craig’s husband. He had an inboard motor boat docked at a marina on the Cumberland River near Nashville. Senter loved his boat and thought it might be in some danger. I recall him saying that he better get over there and make sure it was OK.


2. I remember taking part in war-related scrap paper drives that were organized by Parmer School, on Leake Avenue, which I attended from 1940 until 1948.


3. Sometime after the Army’s General Medical and Surgical Hospital, Thayer, was established on White Bridge Road, Mr. O’Brien, a grandfather of my best friend, Jimmy Meadows, was employed there as a security guard. As Mr. O’Brien lived with the Meadows a few houses down the street from my home, I often talked with him about his victory garden, the war, and the German prisoners who were convalescing at the hospital. German prisoners were still at Thayer Hospital in the fall of 1945 when I was almost never used 6th-grade substitute on the Parmer School football team. The Germans wore white bathrobes and pajamas as they sat in the bleachers or stood along the sidelines and watched us play.


4. I remember seeing minesweepers being built and launched at the Nashville Bridge Company on the Cumberland River, across from downtown, and recall being proud that ocean-going Naval ships were being made in my hometown 1,300 miles from the sea and that fighter planes were also being made at Nashville’s Vultee plant.


5. I recall that we had a victory garden in our back lot where my father hybridized iris. I also recall that my parents bought War savings bonds for themselves and for me and my brother and sister.


6. The song which sometimes came to mind during the war started with the words “Over There, Over There. . .” It was a World War I song which we played and heard during World War II. I also remember playing for hours with a metal toy soldier collection which I prized. We also had a map of the world into which my father stuck pins to show the progress of the war in both theaters. Later, a friend in the army brought home a Japanese bayonet which was of great interest to me and the other kids in the neighborhood. One of my first cousins used it to impersonate a Japanese officer. Inadvertently, he stuck himself in the thigh with it, causing considerable bleeding but no serious damage except to his pride. 


7. I was aware of the existence of the Air Force Classification Center on Thompson Lane near the L&N Railroad overpass. I also knew a little about military activities at Seward Air Force Base in Smyrna, at Fort Campbell, and at Camp Forest, outside Tullahoma. On weekends during World War II, Nashville was flooded with soldiers and airmen from these installations. I would see them everywhere - sleeping in the main waiting room at Union Station, waiting at the Greyhound Bus Terminal on Commerce Street, at the YMCA which provided all sorts of services for them, including dances on Saturday nights) and at the First Presbyterian Church on weekends, where they were fed and where they spent nights on cots in Fellowship Hall and in our Sunday School Building.


8. For several summers, I rode the Tennessee Central and Southern railroads in the company of my older brother and soldiers, on my way to camp. I was headed to Asheville, N.C. where I was met by a van which took me and other campers to Camp Sequoyah near Weaverville, N.C.. I recall sitting up with the soldiers all night on the train because pullman berths were difficult to obtain. I also remember celebrating at Camp Sequoyah when the word came that the war was over.


9. I also remember gasoline rationing. It seems to me that my parents were given cards or script which entitled them to buy limited amounts of gasoline. Years later, I heard that when a Vanderbilt intern married during the war, he collected all the gasoline cards he could so that he and his bride could drive all the way to Cumberland State Park for their honeymoon. They ran out of gas in Sparta coming back to Nashville.


10. I recall that John K. Maddin, who was married to my mother’s sister, Elizabeth, was a member of the Civil Air Patrol during World War II. I was impressed that he had an aviation map of the United States on the wall of his library. The map showed airline distances between airports and the location of beacons and other information of interest to aviators and air controllers. I also recall that citizens, children and adults, were encouraged to memorize the silhouettes of friendly and enemy aircraft so that we could identify the latter should Nashville be attacked. We had a beacon on the top of the highest hill in Percy Warner Park. I would hold my breath to not take a breath until it completed its 360-degree sweep.


11. Joe Werthan Servicemen’s Center was established during the war by Joe Werthan, of Werthan Bag Company. It was located on Elliston Place just north of Father Ryan High School. All enlisted men were invited to spend nights there without cost.


12. On Saturdays, I nearly always attended the Happiness Club at the Belle Meade theater. There, before the feature, usually a Western, came on the screen, we watched the war news, which often seemed to consist of watching German soldiers goose-stepping down a street in Warsaw.or somewhere else in Europe.


13. I looked on President Roosevelt as a hero; I remember that he was often at Warm Springs, Ga., because of his polio, and distinctly recall that I was walking down the middle of Belle Meade Boulevard, probably looking for street railroad spikes (the streetcar line had been abandoned a few years earlier), when I heard someone shout from a car that President Roosevelt had died.


14. As I was only 11 years old when the war ended and as no members of my family were active in the war much less killed, I don’t think it significantly influenced my life. As a young boy, I looked upon it more with fascination than with horror.

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