by Barbara Whitaker
I grew up in Middle Tennessee and heard stories about the Second World War all my life. I thought I knew a lot about what went on the area. I have been using places in Tennessee as settings in my books or as background for my characters. To ensure that I was accurate and to add depth to the novels, I researched numerous aspects – from the military presence to industrial plants to medical facilities. Here are a few things I learned, some of which I had not known before I started my research.
Historically Nashville wasn’t as industrial as Memphis or Chattanooga so it’s not often though of in terms of World War II defense industries. Yet Nashville did produce war materials. The AVCO plant has produced aviation equipment for years. In my research I learned that the Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation constructed the Nashville Plant to produce aircraft for the war. The Vultee A-31 Vengeance dive bomber and the P-38 Lightning fighters were the main output. And a third of the employees were women. Another example of how women filled critical roles in industry while the men were in uniform.
Other Nashville industries were involved in production of war materials. Nashville Bridge Company built minesweepers for the Navy. Dupont supplied synthetic fibers for parachutes; General Shoe made combat boots and Werthan Bag manufactured sandbags.
South of Nashville, in the Columbia area, Monsanto Chemical Company produced phosphorous and Union Carbide produced whetlerite charcoal for gas masks and amorphous carbon electrodes for steel production.
Although I knew about military bases in Middle Tennessee, I never knew much about Camp Forrest or what an important role it played during the war. Situated near Tullahoma, the Army expanded the Tennessee National Guard’s training center in 1940 when the National Guard units were federalized. After the attack on Pearl Harbor Camp Forrest became home to the Eighth and Eightieth Infantry Divisions as well as a training and induction center for men entering the Army. Numerous infantry, artillery, engineering and signal corps units trained at Camp Forrest.
Ethnic German and Italians, as well as Japanese civilians, were interred at the beginning of the war. In 1942 800 civilians were interred at Camp Forrest. In 1943 German prisoners of war arrived. Approximately 24,000 prisoners were held there during the war and as many as 68,000 were processed through the camp before internment at other facilities. With wounded POW’s in need of medical care, Camp Forrest was chosen for one of three POW Hospitals across the country.
Since the terrain of Middle Tennessee closely resembled that of Europe, the area became the site of what were known as Tennessee Maneuvers. Camp Forrest provided logistical support for these simulated combat exercises. Spread over twenty counties, the headquarters for the maneuvers was at Cumberland College in Lebanon. Between 1942 and 1944 hundreds of thousands of troops honed their combat skills in Tennessee – including General Patton’s 2nd Armor “Hell on Wheels” and the 2nd Rangers famous for their assault on Pont-du-Hoc on D-Day. I found a book by Woody McMillin “In the Presence of Soldiers” about the Tennessee maneuvers. It looks like it would be an interesting read. Click here for a good article about the maneuvers and the book.
After the war the Army surplussed Camp Forrest. The Air Force created the new Air Engineering Development Center, later renamed Arnold Engineering Development Center for Air Force General “Hap” Arnold, on the site. Since the war this facility has become the most advanced and largest complex of flight simulation test facilities in the world.
Another WWII military site in Middle Tennessee was Smyrna Army Airfield. Designated a specialized four-engine (heavy bomber) pilot training airfield, cadets practiced flying both B-17’s and B-24’s while stationed in Smyrna.After the war, the Air Force took over the site and renamed it Sewart Air Force Base for Tennessean Allan J. Sewart Jr. who died in a bombing mission over the Solomon Islands in 1942.
Berry Field, better known today as Nashville International Airport, became an Army Airfield prior to WWII with the 105th Observation Squadron. Later the B-25 Mitchell, a medium bomber, flew out of Berry Field. The Berry Field Air National Guard Base still occupies the site.
The best known military base in Middle Tennessee is Fort Campbell, home of the 101st Airborne Screaming Eagles. Camp Campbell was established in 1941 on land that straddles the Tennessee-Kentucky line near Clarksville, Tn. and Hopkinsville, Ky. During WWII this newly established base trained the 12th, 14th and 20th Armored Divisions and the 26th Infantry Division. And on a personal note, the 276th Armored Field Artillery Battalion and their sister units trained at Camp Campbell. My father-in-law was in the 276th AFA and during his training at Camp Campbell he met and married my mother-in-law.
Camp Campbell also housed German prisoners during World War II. Many of these men were utilized by farmers in the area to alleviate the labor shortage.
For more information about German POW’s in Kentucky, read “German Jackboots in Kentucky Bluegrass.”
I also researched the medical facilities in Middle Tennessee related to the war effort. Thayer General Hospital in Nashville was one of the Army’s General Hospitals established across the country to treat wounded military personnel. Hospitals in the “Zone of the Interior” were named while those that served overseas were given numerical designations. After the war the Veterans Administration took over the facility.
Dr. Oliver Carmichael, President of Vanderbilt University, was actively involved in establishing the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps which trained nurses across the country to alleviate the nationwide shortage of nurses. Other Nashville hospitals participating in the Cadet Nurse training program were Meharry Medical, Nashville General, Protestant and St. Thomas Hospitals.
Men and women from Middle Tennessee who were not in the military during the Second World War worked to win the war, too. Farmers stayed behind to raise the much-needed food. Women went to work in various capacities to fill the vacancies the men left behind. Men who for various reasons were unable to serve in the military worked on the homefront. Production ramped up. Belts were tightened. Everyone contributed in some way. Had they not, the Allies might not have defeated the Germans and the Japanese and our world would be very different today.