In the Presence of Soldiers: The Tennessee Maneuvers During World War II

Episode 55

Ray Notgrass: On today’s Exploring History podcast, we’ll discuss military activity within the United States that helped lead to victory in Europe in World War II.

Titus Anderson: [music in background] Welcome to Exploring History with Ray Notgrass, a production of Notgrass History.

Ray Notgrass: An army has to be ready whenever battle lines are drawn. When a conflict erupts, military leaders can’t say, “OK guys, let’s get ready.” They have to BE ready for whatever happens, when it happens. That is why military forces are constantly training, engaging in war games, and conducting what are often called maneuvers–so they will be ready when the call comes.

During World War II, the U.S. Army conducted practices or maneuvers in several states, but the largest and best known were the Tennessee Maneuvers that took place in 22 counties of Middle Tennessee, mostly just east and south of Nashville. Over a million soldiers–some estimates are as high as one and a half million–practiced and sharpened their skills on the hills and rivers and in the small towns of the region where Charlene and I live.

Seven maneuvers took place, from July of 1941, before the United States was even in the war, through early 1944, when victory was getting closer. Several well-known and key Army generals, including General George Patton, led these maneuvers at different times. The Army chose Middle Tennessee because this area has similarities to the Rhine River region of Europe where American soldiers would one day be fighting to liberate the countries of Europe from Nazi occupation. The campus of Cumberland University in Lebanon was the headquarters, and Nashville was the main railhead for the activities.

The maneuvers were organized to address specific “problems” as they were called, such as how to move troops across a river, how to seize a specific target, how to move an armored force over rolling hills, and so forth. The soldiers were organized into Blue and Red forces to provide realistic settings of conflict. The soldiers worked from Monday morning to Thursday or Friday afternoon, and then had the weekends off. During the week, troops crept along the countryside, paratroopers landed in farm fields, howitzers blasted the ears of local residents, and tanks and jeeps rumbled down country roads. Sometimes planes practiced bombing runs by dropping large sacks of flour onto the streets of towns and villages. Pontoon boats and other watercraft loaded with soldiers crossed rivers in all kinds of weather to make landings. A typical maneuver to address a “problem” lasted about four weeks, and then the soldiers returned to their respective home camps or forts across the country.

Civilians watching a tank during the Tennessee maneuvers.

Civilians watching a tank during the Tennessee maneuvers. Photo courtesy the TN Maneuvers Collection, Albert Gore Research Center, MTSU.

Over the years that the maneuvers took place, the equipment of the great arsenal of democracy changed from the nearly flat helmets and horse drawn wagons used over twenty years earlier in the Great War (now called World War I) to the M-1 semi-automatic rifles and newly developed tanks that emerged during the Second World War.

The efforts to bring these maneuvers off were monumental. Of course the soldiers had to be transported to Middle Tennessee, but also all of their equipment, supplies, food, vehicles, and everything else they needed had to be brought in to Nashville and then distributed to the various places where the troops were stationed. Much of this area did not have paved roads, and electricity was still being introduced to some communities following the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1933. Then the soldiers had to sleep somewhere, so pup tent cities sprang up all over the region.

The people who lived in the areas where maneuvers took place simply had to adjust, and adjust they did. Army vehicles chewed up acres of farmland. The maneuvers destroyed many farm fences, and the Army had to settle up with local landowners for their replacement. But local residents understood that these men, many of them 18 to 20 year old draftees, were sacrificing their time and in some cases their lives for their country, so the local people were willing to sacrifice their resources for the war effort as well.

Lt. General Lloyd R. Fredendall and Tennessee Governor Prentice Cooper discuss damage caused to farm lands during the maneuvers.

Lt. General Lloyd R. Fredendall and Tennessee Governor Prentice Cooper discuss damage caused to farm lands during the maneuvers. Photo courtesy the TN Maneuvers Collection, Albert Gore Research Center, MTSU.

These changes to the lives of local residents involved not only enduring the mock battles, but also entertaining the troops on the weekends. Schools opened up for weekend dances. Soda fountains served troops until they ran out of ice cream. Churches welcomed the soldiers to Sunday services, and afterwards families invited soldiers to enjoy home cooked meals. Many communities did not permit the showing of movies on Sundays, but the Army convinced the leaders of these communities that moviegoing was an accepted and important part of the troops’ relaxation, and the local ordinances were suspended for the duration. This new social integration took some adjustments. Many of the troops were not from around here. They were from northern and western states, and everyone had to adjust to and accept the cultural differences that became obvious.

Soldiers gathered for Sunday worship during the maneuvers.

Soldiers gathered for Sunday worship during the maneuvers. Photo courtesy the U.S. Army Signal Corps, Library of Congress.

Charlene and I have heard stories that people who were children during the maneuvers have told. Here’s one example of cultural adaptation. One family served meals to northern soldiers who had never heard of biscuits. When the mother came around with more biscuits, she would say, “Would you like a hot ‘un?” At least one soldier thought that was the name of this breaded delight, so one day he asked, “Could I have a hot ‘un?” Charlene’s mother, who was a young girl during the maneuvers, remembered that soldiers paid her mother for doing their laundry and then they left the family a large sack of dried beans when they departed from the area. This might not sound like much to us today, but for a family still struggling after the Depression it was a huge gift. The melding of cultures took a more serious turn with a few marriages being formed between soldiers involved in the maneuvers and young local women. After the war, the new husbands moved to the southern towns where they had been temporarily stationed or the brides moved to the hometowns of their soldier husbands.

A few soldiers got into trouble with the local police, but by and large the visiting troops were kind, gracious, and grateful for how the local people treated them. The maneuvers unfortunately sustained some tragedies such as plane crashes, boats that sank in rivers, and other accidents that took the lives of troops and local citizens.

Tennessee was involved in the war effort in other ways as well. Factories in the large cities produced airplanes and other vital war materials. Tennessee was home to several military camps, later called forts, that housed thousands of troops. A little further east, the secret city of Oak Ridge helped in the development of the atomic bomb that ended the war against Japan.

The town of Carthage, Tennessee, hosts an event called the Tennessee Maneuvers Remembered on the first weekend in May. Charlene and I attended this event last year and thoroughly enjoyed it. Collectors brought displays of artifacts and memorabilia. People who were children during the maneuvers shared their memories and the stories that older generations told them. On Saturday afternoon of the event a mock battle took place in the streets of Carthage between opposing forces. The gunfire (blanks, not live ammunition) was extremely loud as the sound of rifles ricocheted off the walls of city buildings, but it occurred to me that those sounds were probably nothing compared to the sounds of real battles that soldiers endured in the cities and towns of Europe during the war. The Tennessee Maneuvers Remembered has a Facebook page that gives more information. If you’re in the area of Carthage, Tennessee, on the first weekend in May, I hope you’ll take part in the event. I think it will be something you’ll long remember. If your children have a special interest in World War II or military things, they will be thrilled.

Mock battle reenactment at the Tennessee Maneuvers Remembered festival in Carthage, Tennessee.

Mock battle reenactment at the Tennessee Maneuvers Remembered festival in Carthage, Tennessee. Photo courtesy Charlene Notgrass.

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Europe by Allied troops, many of whom trained in these maneuvers. The number of World War II veterans still with us is steadily decreasing as more and more members of the Greatest Generation pass from this life. It is right and fitting that we remember and honor the men and women who gave so much for the freedom of the world.

I’m Ray Notgrass, the child of a Tennessee veteran of World War II, and someone who never wants to forget the sacrifice and service of my parents’ generation. Thanks for listening.

Titus Anderson: This has been Exploring History with Ray Notgrass, a production of Notgrass History. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast in your favorite podcast app. And please leave a rating and review so that we can reach more people with our episodes. If you want to learn about new homeschool resources and opportunities from Notgrass History, you can sign up for our email newsletter at This program was produced by me, Titus Anderson. Thanks for listening!

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