Wilson County Sheriff Robert Bryan accepts a wreath from a member of the Tennessee National Guard Honor Guard during Sunday's ceremony at Averitts Ferry, site of the 1944 tragedy. (Steven S. Harman / The Tennessean)
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On the last night of U.S. Army training exercises in Tennessee in 1944, after days of heavy rains, 23 soldiers boarded a small assault boat on the Cumberland River to prepare for combat in World War II.
When the boat overturned, only two made it safely to shore, just south of Hartsville.
Seventy years after the tragedy, about 150 area residents, WWII re-enactors, Boy Scouts, American Legion members and even a family member of one of the fallen soldiers gathered Sunday on the banks of the Cumberland at Averitts Ferry to commemorate the 21 soldiers who drowned in the early morning hours of March 23, 1944. They were honored with a 21-gun salute from the American Legion Honor Guard of Post 281 and a white-flowered wreath that was lowered into the water.
“They made a tremendous contribution ... during their training here that saved thousands of lives,” said Woody McMillin, author of “In the Presence of Soldiers,” a book documenting the training in Tennessee. “(The training maneuvers) taught many valuable lessons and allowed us to perfect combat skills so that when soldiers went into harm’s way, they did it in the most efficient way possible.”
The tragedy happened during the last of seven simulated combat exercises conducted across the state during WWII called the Tennessee Maneuvers. From 1941 to 1944, more than 850,000 U.S. soldiers participated in those training exercises.
The soldiers who died came from several states. There was one from Tennessee, James Kirk of Pocahontas, whose sister, Oleta McCullar, attended the ceremony.
At age 19, she heard of the mishap at Averitts Ferry before learning her 27-year-old brother was among the dead. She lost another brother who served in France.
“A lot of families paid a heavy price for the freedom we enjoy today,” McMillin said.
Prior to the fatal maneuvers, it had rained for days and the river was filled with debris, making it difficult to cross. Some soldiers, sensing how dangerous a river crossing would be, hid in the woods and in a nearby barn to avoid participating, McMillin said.
Demonstrating the power of the raging Cumberland, one body was found two months later in Nashville, 81 nautical miles from the ferry, according to McMillin.
Jerry MacFarland, an Army colonelwho helped supply material for McMillin’s book, helped organize the event, which he and McMillin had been thinking about for several years.
“We determined early on that at some point we need to have a ceremony honoring these people,” MacFarland said. “(They) protected our freedom.”