National Weather Service United States Department of Commerce


On a stormy April day in 1944,  an F2 tornado touched down in Wilson County. The storm struck near Lebanon, and the high winds picked up a fighter aircraft and dropped it on a military barracks, killing one soldier and injuring eleven others.

This report, at first glance, might seem a little confusing. A military barracks near Lebanon?  A fighter aircraft?  However, when the 1944 tornado touched down in Wilson County, folks living in the area were not at all surprised by these details. For nearly three years, Middle Tennessee had been the scene of an ongoing mock war zone. According to the publication, An Archaeological Survey of World War II Military Sites in Tennessee-- "[M]en and vehicles ranged over a 21-county area in Middle Tennessee fighting mock battles and bivouacking on seemingly every available parcel of land that provided shelter for a night or longer." 

The following story, including the quoted material, is from the above-referenced 2007 Archaeological Survey, composed by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, Division of Archaeology.

Even prior to U. S. involvement in World War II, Governor Cooper had "the foresight in preparing the state [of Tennessee] for the inevitable war" and was "instrumental in attracting military bases [to the state]."  Some civilians protested when they lost their lands to some of these facilities. However, the general practice was for Army officials to solicit permission from landowners "to cross, Maneuver on, or camp on private property throughout Middle Tennessee."

The Army chose Middle Tennessee for military maneuvers because "the terrain resembled Western Europe and the Cumberland River was similar to the Rhine River in Germany."  "General George Patton, responsible for finding a suitable location for the war games was familiar with Middle Tennessee because his grandmother lived in Watertown in Wilson County."

Some of the World War II military sites set up in Wilson County, included a short term encampment and airfield at Lebanon Municipal Airport and a military post and headquarters at Cumberland University. 

There was at least limited interaction between soldiers and civilians during these World War II military exercises.  "While the Army encouraged citizens to take soldiers into their homes on weekends when they were off duty, a soldier on duty was not to enter a civilian home or barn or accept food from civilians." 

"[M]any families fed soldiers while they were in the area."  "Farmers allowed soldiers to sleep in the barns. . .[and] [s]ome even allowed soldiers to sleep in the house."  "One Wilson County resident remembered that after a night of heavy rain, they found that a soldier had slept in the family car."

"Though families insisted that they didn't want payment, most found money under the dinner plate after the soldiers left."

"Some boys had shoe shine kits with which they polished soldiers' boots."

"A Watertown resident remembers that three soldiers whose vehicle had broken down near his family's farm were left behind by their unit until the vehicle could be recovered.  They stayed about two weeks in December, and on Christmas Day the family invited the soldiers into their home and shared Christmas dinner with them.  Such hospitality seems to be typical of what most soldiers experienced."

Sadly, "[t]he Tennessee Maneuvers resulted in the deaths of 268 soldiers and 10 civilians. Many of these deaths were the result of vehicular accidents while driving in blackout conditions at night.  However, the weather was also responsible for some soldier deaths.  Men occasionally died from lightning strikes, and one soldier, as mentioned at the beginning of this article, died as the result of an F2 tornado that struck near Lebanon. 

When we put this tornado death, as well as the other soldier deaths, in context with what was going on in Middle Tennessee at that particular time in history, in the early to mid 1940s--including the strong feelings of community and sense of mission that existed during those years--one certainly gets a sense of the solemn grief that extended not only across Middle Tennessee, or even across the nation for that matter, but all the way into foreign lands were the losses of World War II were multiplied many-, many-fold. 

[Information sources for this article included: 

An Archaeological Survey of World War II Military Sites in Tennessee,
Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, Division of Archaeology, Report of Investigation, No. 13 (2007) []

Significant Tornadoes, 1680-1991
By: Thomas P. Grazulis (1993)