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Memorial ceremony Sunday marks anniversary of local tragedy

By John Oliver Special to The Democrat • Updated Mar 22, 2014 at 12:32 AM

On Sunday, historians from three counties will recognize the 70th anniversary of a tragic event.

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. This would be the last part of this exercise and everyone involved would be glad to see it end.

The weather was rough. It had been raining and the night air was cold. The Cumberland River was running swift and  high, due to the heavy rains. 

The soldiers were in full combat uniform with heavy rain coats on top of that. They were tired and anxious to get these war games over with.

When it came time to cross the river, men clamored aboard the pontoon boats and one by one they made their way across. It wasn’t an easy crossing for any of the boats. The current kept pushing the boats back towards the shore and they had to be pushed out again and again, before they could start the small outboard motors each boat carried.

Then, one last boat, one last crossing…and, tragedy struck.

The boat was mid stream. The small motor stalled. The boat began to turn in the current. Twenty-two men aboard, guns and ammo, plus one large 60 mm mortar…water splashed over the side…men shifted…then the boat capsized!

Weighed down by their heavy gear, the men had little chance to swim or even resurface after being tossed into the frigid water.

One man made it to shore.

Twenty-one men drowned.

It was the worst accident of the Tennessee maneuvers.

A special memorial service will be held this Sunday at the actual site of the accident. On Averitt’s Ferry Lane, in the King’s Community of Trousdale County, officials from Wilson County and Trousdale County, along with several military groups will meet at 2 p.m. to recognize the sacrifices made by the 21 young men, all of whom were preparing for war, preparing to defend our country, preparing to lay their lives on the line in the defense of liberty and freedom.

The public is invited to attend the ceremonies.

On display will be a rifle belonging to one of the drowned soldiers. The weapon was retrieved as the river was being dragged to recover the bodies and given to a local resident. Today it is in the personal collection of that man’s relatives who will be bringing the rifle to the ceremony. 

Parking is on farmland so trucks or four wheel drive vehicles are suggested. To get to the site from Lebanon, take Highway 141 north approximately five miles to Beasley’s Bend Road. Turn left on Beasley’s Bend Road, go approximately five miles more, then turn right on Averitt’s Ferry Lane. The lane goes straight to the river crossing site.

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