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World War II

The tragic events of Dec. 7, 1941 brought to the Army Engineers their greatest challenge in history.  Three multipurpose projects authorized in the Upper Cumberland Basin - Wolf Creek, Dale Hollow, and Center Hill - were underway and there was hope when war began that the projects would be rushed to completion by 1944 because of the power they would produce, but when the full impact of the military effort was felt by the Engineers in 1942, these hopes were frustrated. Manpower, materials, and construction equipment became critical to the defense effort, and the Engineers suspended construction of civil works projects.  

During the waning days before that December Sunday in late 1941, the Nashville District mobilized for its military mission.  Besides airfield construction for the CAA and the AAF, the District received several confidential assignments, one being the choice of a location of a suitable site for a prisoner of war internment camp.  After examination of numerous locations, a site near Crossville, Tennessee, in Cumberland County was selected.  The District had it ready for occupation by March 1942.   

Smyrna/Rutherford County Airport

The War Department ordered the construction of a Bombardment Air Base near Nashville on Dec. 22, 1941, shortly after the attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor.  A tract of land consisting of 3,325.11 acres located off US Route 70 in Rutherford County near Smyrna, Tennessee, was selected and acquired by the Department of Defense for use as an Army-Air Force Training Command Base.  The Nashville District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, under the direction of Colonel O.E. Walsh, constructed the facility and had it ready for use by the Army Air Corps on July 1, 1942. 

Six thousand workers erected 200 buildings and air strips to accommodate 100 four-motor bombers to train crews for their tasks in the skies over Germany and Japan.  B-17 and B-24 bombers were soon operating from the base’s runways.  Following the war, the Air Base was deactivated but post-war complications reopened it under the new name of Sewart Air Force Base, in honor of Major Allen J. Sewart of Nashville who died in action in the Solomon Islands. 

Peak Effort

When the District's military construction effort peaked in 1942, the Engineers were directing the construction of airfields, army cantonments, ordnance works, prisoner of war impoundments, hospitals, and were inspecting much of the military equipment and supplies flowing through Nashville.  At Paducah, the District directed construction of the Kentucky Ordnance Works; at Muscle Shoals, it built a CAA airport, Courtland Basic Flying School, and a TNT plant; at Milan, Tennessee, it constructed Milan Ordnance Works; near Asheville, North Carolina, the Swannanoa General Hospital, later renamed Moore General Hospital in honor of Dr. Samuel P. Moore, Surgeon General of the Confederacy, was erected with 1520 beds and a hospital training unit for 661 officers, nurses, and enlisted men.  The District was also assigned the task of constructing the Maury Chemical Weapons Supply Plant at Columbia, Tennessee.  

Fort Campbell

The Camp Campbell  project (Fort Campbell), located on both sides of the Kentucky-Tennessee state line north of Clarksville, required the acquisition of more than 100,000 acres of property, the construction of 100 miles of roads, and the erection of housing for 35,000 men. 

Retiree Recalls District's WWII Mission
by Dave Treadway

Hobart ParishDistrict retiree Hobart Parish played a vital role in helping establish the facility at Oak Ridge.  He agreed to share some of his story.    

Historian Dr. Leland R. Johnson, in his book,

"Engineers on the Twin Rivers

", (1978) referred to "…certain highly classified activities within the District's boundaries for which two separate Engineer Districts were created -- the Kingsport and Manhattan Districts." 

Dr. Johnson provided other details.

"During the summer of 1942," wrote Dr. Johnson, "citizens of Anderson and Roane Counties, near Knoxville, Tenn., were mystified by the presence of strangers, some khaki-clad, who carried surveying instruments.  When asked what they were surveying for, the reply was quick: '75 cents an hour.'" 

Parish recently provided a first-hand account of the role some District employees played during that trying time.

Early in 1942, Parish, as the District dispatcher, was assigned to drive an appraiser in a 1940 ford sedan over mostly unpaved roads from Oliver Springs, to Lake City, up and down both sides of Clinch River and Emory River, and up to the plateau toward Oakdale and Crossville to "make a preliminary Survey and Appraisal of land in the area".  

"We were there probably less than a week," recalled Parish, "and using most of the daylight hours in our ramblings. We had no idea what was going to be built. The Orders and Regulations at that time had a short description of the Manhattan District that identified it as a District to be formed for Special Purposes and could be placed at any location.               

He recalled that 34 new Studebaker Champions were sent to Oak Ridge to facilitate the Real Estate acquisition process.  Managers reasoned that parts from one or more cars could be used to keep the majority in running order.

"A number of 20-ton dump trucks," said Parish, "(the largest I had ever seen) were transferred to the Manhattan District. Nashville District assisted in the transfer of Property and Real Estate, everything from light and telephone poles to buildings, equipment, etc., even people. We had to have a different badge for each area and we had to turn them in and if we needed to go back to an area we would go back to the Badge Control Office and pick up our Badge for that area.

"Most visitors to the area arrived by train," said Parish. "One who came a number of times was Colonel (later General) Leslie Groves.  We would always furnish him a car to make the trip to Oak Ridge. He found out early on that colonels carried less weight with scientists, physicists, and professors so, decked out the standard suit and tie allowed in civilian areas, he became 'General' Groves, the rank he was already selected to wear but would pin on later.         

"One time when Colonel/General Groves was waiting on his car and sitting in my very small office I suggested Oak Ridge Demolition Project as a description to use for the work we did there. 

He said, 'Okay,' without the slightest hesitation and that is what I used until we got everything transferred to the Manhattan District."             

"The complete answer to this question was not to be revealed for three years," continued Dr. Johnson in "Engineers on the Twin Rivers", "and in the meantime strangers thronged into the hills and a new town, Oak Ridge, mushroomed overnight.  By early 1943, the Engineers had completed acquisition of land for the Manhattan District and a gigantic complex of industrial might began to rise, built by 47,000 men under the lash of hard-nosed Engineers.  By 1945, 82,000 men were engaged in the construction, maintenance, and operation of the Oak Ridge project, very few with any idea what they were really doing."

Parish and the rest of the world found out what they were doing there on a very hot day in August 1945. 

"I never knew what Oak Ridge was all about," admitted Parish, "other than being very secret, until I was driving up Seventh Avenue one day about Union Street and I heard on the radio about the Atomic Bomb that was dropped on Japan and they gave some information about Oak Ridge playing a part in the making of the Bomb."                   

"A few tense days later," wrote Johnson, "on board the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay, General MacArthur accepted the surrender of the Empire of Japan, and witnessing the event was a representative of the Nashville District, Colonel Orville E. Walsh, who had initiated the District's military construction mission five years before."   

To ask a question of the Corps Historian in Washington, D.C.,
email:  Historysearch@ HQ02.usace.army.mil

The Civilian Conservation Corps: One Man’s Journey
Courtesy of Hobart D. Parish, former CCC     


By Ryan Forbess

The Great Depression began on Oct. 29, 1929, but in Tennessee most people said they could not tell any difference, times had always been difficult.

Tennessee has always been a leader in agriculture. Tobacco, soybeans and cotton have been our top crops but by the mid-1930s much of the land had been farmed too hard for too long, eroding and depleting the soil. Crop yields had fallen along with farmer’s incomes. The best timber had been cut off our landscapes. Morale was low, but Tennesseans had seen hard times before.

In response to the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created many programs designed to put America back to work. The Civilian Conservation Corps was established in early 1933. The CCC mission was two-fold: to reduce unemployment, especially among young men; and to preserve the nation’s precious natural resources.

Although the exact numbers vary, estimates of the young men who participated in the nine-year program reach 3 million. Enrollees performed a variety of conservation activities including reforestation, soil conservation, road construction, flood and fire control, and agricultural management. The CCC was instrumental in the development of a number of Tennessee State Parks and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Not only did the CCC provide food, clothing, and shelter for its enrollees, but it also offered them opportunities for education, vocational training, and health care.

Enrollment was offered to single men between the ages of 17 and 28. Enrollees signed up for a minimum of six months with the possibility of re-enlistment. Their motto was “We Can Take It!” because of the hard work they undertook and the tasks that lay before them. Initially, Tennessee’s CCC boys earned $30 per month, $25 of which went to their families.

In the beginning, CCC camps were small tent villages, but as winter approached, permanent barracks replaced the tents. The structures offered no frills. A regular army officer or reserve officer commanded each camp.

“Our program is two-fold,” President Roosevelt told the country. “Conservation of our natural resources and conservation of our human resources. Both are sound investments for the future…” President Roosevelt was right and what a legacy the CCC left in Tennessee. Today the numbers of surviving CCC members are dwindling, but most still try to meet in reunions throughout the state.  CCC “boys” have an intense pride for the job that they did.

One such man is Hobart D. Parish, who was born in Carroll County in the community of Buena Vista. Like most people in rural West Tennessee, his family operated a small farm. Parish heard about the CCC, and like most young men wanted to join. At that time in West Tennessee most people made around 50 cents a week. The CCC was paying $1 a day plus your food, and a decent place to sleep. This was motivation enough, and young men from every community hoped to enlist. In Carroll County the local magistrate or squire was the person tasked with selecting quality young men to join. The quota was nine at the time.

Parish and the magistrate’s granddaughter had been playmates as children, so he knew the magistrate and was able to get a job riding with him to drop the CCC recruits off at Bethel College in McKenzie.

When they arrived at Bethel College that day the nine recruits were given a physical exam. One of the young men didn’t pass his, and the magistrate wanted to make sure he filled the quota so he asked Parish if he still wanted to join the CCC. This is an opportunity that you didn’t pass up, and Parish found himself at the day’s end a CCC boy. His career in the CCC began on July 5, 1934, with a bit of luck and surprise.

After the exam they were loaded onto a train at the McKenzie Depot bound for Clarksville’s CCC Camp Montgomery #1474. Many of the young men at that time had rarely ever left the county they lived in, so to them this journey was an eye-opening experience.

The next morning Parish awoke to the sound of a bugle and his work in the CCC began. He was selected to serve on the survey crew. He didn’t have any previous surveying skills, and wasn’t required to take any tests to be on the crew. All the training was on the job, and taught by an engineer.

The surveying crew was typically the first crew to arrive at a job site. The crew consisted most commonly of two to five CCC boys. They would map the farm or area that the other CCC crews would be working on in the future.

The crew engineer taught the survey crew the various methods of surveying. They were shown how to use a plane table; measure the land with chains; the use of triangulation methods to determine distance; and the use of a transit. They used an alidade, a device to determine bearings, and a hand level in staking out small dams used to prevent and stop erosion. The survey crew staked these out and the work crews came in later to build them. They also surveyed areas where fire towers would be constructed. The survey crew worked on roads, telephone lines, terraces, and contour plots for farming.

Most CCC camps stopped work during the floods of 1937 to help with flood control and disaster relief. When the rains began in January the ground was already frozen so runoff into the rivers contributed greatly. Rain was reported 27 out of 31 days during January.

In Clarksville, the CCC camp assisted people in moving to higher ground if their home was expected to flood. The Clarksville CCC camp was sent to Hickman, Ky., along with another CCC camp from Pikeville. The two CCC camps worked together sandbagging along the riverbank. They slept on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers quarter boats in shifts. The area was under so much water many thought this must be what the ocean looks like. The flooding was so intense that large holes would open in the earth and water would begin flowing out. CCC crews would be forced to sandbag around these areas also to prevent them from flooding behind the levee.

“One of the saddest times during my CCC career is when we lost a boy to drowning in the Mississippi River,” says Parish. “He was walking across a plank between quarter boats and fell into the water and went underneath the boat.” The Coast Guard was able to retrieve his body from the water.

Parish remained in the CCC until he was discharged on June 5, l939. He was quickly hired by the Nashville District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a rodman on a survey crew making $1,260 a year. The skills he learned in the CCC as a surveyor served him well in the Corps of Engineers. His time in the Corps was spent working on surveys and placing navigational aids, buoys, and lights on the river channels of Tennessee. When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began constructing dams in the Tennessee Valley, Parish surveyed those as well.

He worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers until he retired after 44 years of service. He held several positions with the Corps in the field, in the District Office, in the South Atlantic Division Office, and in the Office of the Chief of Engineers in Washington, D.C.

No one felt more strongly about the work of the CCC than President Roosevelt. “This is going to be a busy and useful place in the years to come,” Roosevelt told the country as he visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “Just as the work of these young men, will, I am very confident, lead them to busy and useful lives in the years to come.” These young men gained the skills and determination that aided them through their working lives from their days with the CCC. To many, their days in the CCC were the best part of their life. They gained a foundation on which to build a lifetime and in return we were given access to the wonderful places and things they created.

Read more about the history of the Civilian Conservation Corps on the Web site