The Fighting Bunch: The Battle of Athens and How World War II Veterans Won the Only Successful Armed Rebellion Since the Revolution
- By Chris DeRose
- St. Martin’s Press
- 352 pp.
- Reviewed by Tom Glenn
- December 11, 2020
American GIs overthrow Tennessee autocrats in this inspiring, if overstuffed, real-life tale.
The Fighting Bunch is a rollicking adventure so full of action that the reader can barely keep up. It tells the true story of a group of World War II veterans who returned to Athens, Tennessee, at the end of the war and took on — and eventually beat — the corrupt “machine,” an illegal gang who ruled the town and much of the surrounding area by force of arms.
The tale centers on election day, August 1, 1946, when the veterans, called the GIs, tried to vote but were attacked, arrested, and jailed by the heavily armed sheriff’s deputies who ran the town. There were so many men on both sides of the battle that it’s impossible to keep track of them all. I counted 40 named individuals before I quit trying to remember who was who.
Fortunately, the text starts with a section titled “Players” that lists the most prominent participants, divided into “The Fighting Bunch” and “The Machine.” The most active among the GIs — that is, the fighting bunch — was Bill White, a Marine who returned from the war to find his town a dictatorship. His principal opponent was the machine’s head, Paul Cantrell, sheriff of McMinn County and later state senator and chair of the McMinn County Court and the McMinn Democratic Party.
The first half of the book tells of the various GIs’ combat experience, covering much of World War II in both the European and Pacific theaters, and recounts their experience when they returned home and found that they couldn’t vote for local, county, or state officials. The machine owned the town, made money on kickbacks from illegal businesses (including gambling and prostitution), extorted money from the citizenry, and arrested, jailed, and fined anyone who opposed it.
The only possible resolution was armed conflict. The GIs assaulted the jail where the machine was holed up. They used a variety of firearms, including some left over from the war, and finally blew up a wall of the building using dynamite. After some hours, the machine members fled. The victorious GIs proceeded with the election, and machine members and representatives were soundly defeated.
The book tells what happened to each of the principal GIs after their victory. They went on with their lives and worked to make Athens a town where they wanted to live. Members of the machine, on the other hand, escaped, mostly without injury, and moved away to pursue their chicanery in other venues.
Author Chris DeRose tells this story with an impressive amount of detail. He interviewed 36 people, including those who remembered the fight firsthand and surviving relatives. He also scoured contemporaneous press reports. The reader learns the wartime history of each of the GIs, complete with the dates and location of their service. The machine’s members and supporters receive similar attention. The setting where the battle takes place is described in specifics only possible from a careful review of photos and maps from the period.
I came away from it all with the feeling that the author included so much detail so that he’d have enough to fill a book-length manuscript. The complete description of the battle itself would only require something like 10 pages. The events leading up to it and its aftermath wouldn’t require that many more. The end result is a volume bloated with more facts than I needed to understand the story of what happened.
Nor was the writing itself as effective or deft as I would have liked. Often, I found myself going back to reread sentences or paragraphs to be sure I understood what was intended. And too frequently, the text used more words than necessary to express an idea.
These flaws notwithstanding, The Fighting Bunch is a worthwhile read. The willingness of Bill White and his comrades to take on the machine for the good of the community moved me. Their success cheered me. Their bowing to the will of the voters encouraged me. I ended up thinking better of my homeland.
Tom Glenn, a linguist in seven languages, spent the better part of 13 years in Vietnam during the war there. His work was signals intelligence targeting the North Vietnamese. Now a fulltime author, he has six books, 17 short stories, and several nonfiction articles in print.