It was 70 years to the day when 21 soldiers gave their lives for their country during the World War II maneuvers in Wilson County, and on March 23 officials from Wilson and Trousdale gathered at Averitt's Ferry in memory of those who served.
On the evening of March 23, 1944, as the military maneuvers of World War II were finishing up, soldiers were lined up ready to board pontoon boats to cross the Cumberland River at the site of the old Averitt’s Ferry in Trousdale County. This would be the last part of this exercise and everyone involved would be glad to see it end.
"The weather had been rough," said Woody McMillin, author of In the Presence of Soldiers, to the crowd who attended the memorial service. "The area had several days of severe weather, and the Cumberland was choppy, high water levels as the soldiers tried to climb into the pontoon boats in total darkness."
Twenty-five armor, infantry and airborne divisions of the United States Army tried to cross the Cumberland River, and the last boat capsized, dumping 23 members of Company B, 104th Infantry Regiment, 26th Infantry Division, along with guns, ammo and a 60 mm mortar into the river.
"Out of the crew, only two made it to shore," said McMillin. "To understand how bad the Cumberland was that night, a body washed ashore two months later on lower Broadway in Nashville. The boat washed up 81 nautical miles in Stewart County."
"This has always been something important to my family," said Larry Tomlinson of Lebanon. "My mother's sister, Eliana and her husband George ran the ferry for all those years. This ceremony has a lot of meaning to my family. We are thankful for [retired Col.] Jerry [McFarland] for putting this together."
The 21 men that lost their lives were: Pvt. Grover R. Briggs of Guntown, Miss.; Pfc. Lee O. Criswell, 22, of Muncy, Pa.; Sgt. Kenneth A. Doebler, 19, of Williamsport, Pa.; 1st Lt. John E. Dunski of North Chicago, Ill.; 2nd Lt. Richard P. Grosvenor, 24, Winchester, Mass.; Pfc. Feliz A. Edlinski, 20, of Pottstown, Pa.; 1st Sgt. Bernard J. Jackimeczyk, 27, of Northhampton, Mass.; Pfc. James R. Kirk, 27, of Pocahontas, Tenn.; Pfc. Leonard S. Kocaj, 26, of Naticoke, Pa.; Pvt. Dominick V. Lavallo, 25, of New York, N.Y.; T/3 Edward C. Monchick, 23, of Roxbury, Mass.; Pfc. John F. Netto, 26, of Northhampton, Ma.; Sgt. John J. Paisley, 24, of Wilmington, Del.; Cpl. William J. Petit, 25, of Providence, R.I.; Staff Sgt. Joseph F. Plona, 28, of Gardner, Mass.; Sgt. John Puclowski, 26, of South Boston, Ma.; Pfc. Leonard M. Sielski, 20, of Erie, Pa.; Pvt. John F. Smallcomb of Exeter, Pa.; T/5 Frederick A. Stille Jr., 24, of Richmond, Va.; Pvt. Leroy C. Strand of San Antonio, Texas; and boat driver, Pfc. Arthur Sikora of the 536th Engineer Light Pontoon Company, of Syracuse, N.Y.
On hand during the ceremony was Oleta McCullar, sister of Kirk, one of the fallen soldiers. McCullar, who lives 100 miles from site, said Sunday was her first time visiting the site
"I didn't have any idea how this would be," said McCullar. "But I'm real glad that I came. I had often wondered about this place."
McCullar was presented several proclamations. One from Speaker of the Senate Ron Ramsey and one from Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto. Rachel Warren, on behalf of the mayor, presented the proclamation.
During the ceremony, American Legion Post No. 281 presented the colors and a gun salute for the fallen soldiers. Trousdale County Sheriff Ray Russell, Wilson County Sheriff Robert Bryan and Lt. Steve Gatlin of Wilson County presented the ferrying and laying of the wreath. Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver (District 40), Rep. Susan Lynn (District 57) and Senator Ferrell Haile (District 18) along with Trousdale County Historian John Oliver and the help of retired Jerry McFarland read proclamations and gave the history of Averitt's Ferry and the maneuvers.
Pastor Todd Elliot gave the closing prayers
Between 1941 to 1944, more than 85,000 soldiers took part in training or "War Games" in 22 communities across Tennessee. The maneuvers were organized to simulate realistic combat and war-zone conditions and to prepare soldiers for military service overseas. Tennessee's climate was similar to those the soldiers would encounter in Germany.
Cumberland University served as 2nd Army headquarters during the maneuvers doing that time.
"I grew up in Gordonsville, and I remember the soldiers around our farm," said Reba Bellar of Lafayette. "I remember them fighting red versus blue about a mile from my house. I had a soldier walk me to school and home again every day. My mother fried chicken a many of times for the soldiers. I reckon they didn't get many home-cooked meals during the training.
"I remember when this happened. It was a terrible tragedy, and I didn't understand why it happened."