The army, perceiving in the Cumberland River and the hilly country to the south and north a similarity to the Rhine and Western Europe, decided to send divisions into the state for their last preparations before actual combat. Between September 1942 and March 1944, nearly one million soldiers passed through the Tennessee maneuver area.
The Headquarters Lebanon, Tennessee was chosen as headquarters and Nashville as the principal railhead. Over the hills and valleys of twenty-one counties, “Blue” and “Red” armies engaged in weekly strategic “problems”, with troops moved in and out according to a calendar of “phases” that lasted about four weeks each. During these phases, units became skilled fighting forces by operating at the large unit level over extended distances. The skills learned in the classroom and during hand-to-hand training were used in the simulated battle maneuvers. The maneuvers provided commanders an opportunity to perfect the skills necessary to successfully move large formations with major logistical requirements on and off the battlefield. During this maneuver, the military’s scenario had Nashville in the role of Cherbourg, France, but, of course, without the bombing! The first and second problems usually took place east of Davidson County, but the third problem in each phase would poise attacking Blue troops against Red troops in defense around Donelson in Davidson County and Couchville in Wilson County. This force would advance to the east toward hilly terrain. In one instance, a problem involved the Berry Field defense in Nashville against Blue airborne troops.
Maneuvers paused at noon on Thursday or Friday each week. A light plane would fly over the mock battle lines, sounding a siren. Then thousands of soldiers would seek recreation in Nashville and the county seat towns. Facilities in most towns were limited, despite the U.S.O. and the American Red Cross efforts to have adaquate wholesome activities available for soldiers. Movie theaters and cafes were continually packed with patrons. Drug store soda fountains were forced to shut down at least twice a day for cleaning and restocking.
Each army PX was strained to the limit. Churches opened their doors and set up lounges; and schools opened their gyms for weekend dances. The Grand Ole Opry had never drawn such crowds than during these months when Middle Tennessee hosted the army’s preparations for the eventual invasion of Normandy in 1944.
The march was halted at the Cumberland River. When they arrived at the river’s banks a colonel and engineer major were trying to discern the best way to cross a river at a flood stage. It was an extremely dark damp night, but when the moon peeked from behind the clouds, Carnevale could see logs, trees, and debris bobbing in the swift current. The unit they met on their arrival at the river’s edge had tried all day to build a bridge across the river. Each time they reached the middle of the river the bridge was swept away by the raging waters. Carnevale heard the engineer major remark to the colonel to forget the river crossing as the three-month long maneuver ended at 4:00 a.m. Carnevale interrupted by adding, “Colonel, it isn’t worth it. It’s dangerous. The maneuvers end in four hours.” The colonel quickly walked up and down the bank. He stopped abruptly, raised his stick and yelled, “We cross.”
So, the soldiers began constructing the bridge using numerous small pontoon boats. From somewhere they found these little three horsepower outboard motors. After attaching the motor to the back of the boat, Carnevale and about twenty other men got in the first boat and started across the river. Halfway across the river the motor conked out, but by the grace of God they dodged the river’s debris and made it to the other side. The second boatload of twenty-two men started across, but as they neared the riverbank the boat sank. Sinking so quickly to the bottom of the river the men didn’t have time to react or to cry out. They were weighted down with their overcoat, raincoat and field packs. Carnevale stayed in the area for two additional months while bodies were recovered. While the training was rough as hell, he and his unit made it through it and shipped out for the front.
Jack Cunningham’s firsthand account of Tennessee Maneuvers 1st Lt. Jack Cunningham of C Battery, 29th FA Battalion recounted his experiences during the large-scale war game maneuvers conducted in Tennessee. He also participated in the California maneuvers, learning tactics in the Borrego Desert as well as other various deserts in Arizona. In his opinion, the desert maneuvers were much more difficult than those he experienced during his time in Tennessee. He recalled there were more complaints about the Tennessee maneuvers, but perhaps grumbles were due to the overall number of troops involved. It is estimated more than 850,000 participated in Tennessee maneuvers whereas 500,000 received desert training. Tennessee participants had the opportunity to interact with residents in towns and on farms, as well as wild and domestic animals. He noted with a chuckle, that many of the animals encountered in Tennessee had never been personally seen by soldiers who were not native southerners.
In the second phase of maneuvers, Cunningham was captured by the Blue army, but was unable to escape. The Blue army took the “prisoners” to an encampment about 50 miles from the front lines. The “POWs” were issued blankets and fed minimal rations. The next captees were not as “lucky” as they were not given a blanket or fed for two days. During the next two or three phases of the maneuvers, Cunningham was able to stay out of the enemies’ way but was eventually recaptured. Cunningham and his first sergeant were stationed on a hill overlooking the Cumberland River. The enemy was expected to attempt a crossing by ferry at this point.
According to Cunningham, the first night was not exactly peaceful partly because of the hogs that abounded thereabouts and partly because of the enemy. There was a small party of Blues that made a river crossing and cut the telephone wires. He remarked that as soon as they were repaired, one of the “damned hogs” chewed a piece out of it! After a few days it got so he was able to tell time by the hogs’ arrival. With exasperation he said, “At dusk, they marched east over our observation post, and at dawn, they marched back west. I certainly did tire of kicking hogs in the you-know-what.”
In October 1942, Cunningham wrote his mother about the maneuvers. We are still on maneuvers but have been given a rest period between phases. The phases last for three or four days and in this time, they give us certain missions to fulfill. In the first phase, the Red forces had to defend the Cumberland River against any Blue attempts to cross. As a forward observer for the Battery, I had the opportunity to see plenty of action. I was captured by the Blues the first day out but managed to escape by telling my guard I was going down to a farmhouse to get a drink of water.
The next morning a battalion of Blues came in behind us and captured all the infantry and our O.P. We had too much equipment, so they left us where we were. And the hogs marched east. We went to bed. By dawn the hogs marched west. We got out of our beds, and the old man who lived down the hill brought us coffee. He brought us coffee morning and night. Did I say coffee? It was more like lye. We sat around all day and told filthy jokes with the Blue infantry. The hogs marched east. We went to bed. The hogs marched west. We got up. By noon of this day, the phase was over. And that, my dear Mother, is how I spent my time during the last phase of maneuvers.
Before the maneuvers, Cunningham was assigned a mission to recon the back roads and bridges to determine if the infrastructure could accommodate the tanks and other heavy vehicles. It seemed the remote areas had a cemetery at every crossroad, and every family had at least six kids and ten dogs. He and the members of his unit were headed one afternoon to a small town, but the map indicated the road ended at a small river. They passed an elderly lady on the road and asked for directions and the size of the town. She explained there was a small ferry on the river, but she hadn’t been to town for twelve years, so she didn’t know its size. All the local people he met during his time in Tennessee were very hospitable.