Navy Seabee KIA in Athens, TN, 1944

From The Fighting Bunch, by Chris DeRose (St. Martin’s, 2020), Kindle pp. 140-142:

Earl Ford, a navy Seabee, was happy to be home after sixteen months. It was his first night of leave and he wanted a drink and to hear some music. He and Luke Miller, another sailor, went to the Halfway Court, two miles out of Athens on the Sweetwater Road. Ford asked to use the telephone, which was in plain view. They told him they didn’t have one. Ford got up to leave. His friend went with him.

Deputy Minus Wilburn thought they looked like easy marks. Servicemen always had money. He’d arrest them and pocket a nice fee. He deputized George Spurling and Clyde Davis, notorious criminals both, as officers of the law in order to assist him in making an arrest. They caught up with the sailors in the parking lot.

Spurling clubbed Ford repeatedly over the head. Ford, stumbling, backed up, his hands raised in surrender. “Don’t move or I’ll blow you in two,” said Spurling. Ford didn’t move. Spurling shot him in the chest from ten feet away. Ford staggered, struggling to stand, trying to comprehend what was happening to him. Earl Ford fell to the ground, where he was left for twenty minutes. Ford was pronounced dead at Foree Hospital.

Sheriff Mansfield defended the shooting to the newspaper: Wilburn “undertook to subdue a bunch of disorderly sailors and others, and deputized Spurling and others on the scene to help him.” Mansfield claimed that they had pulled Ford off Spurling’s back and that Ford had charged Spurling with a knife. Why hadn’t anyone else seen the knife?

Wilburn claimed the knife was found under Ford’s body. He did not explain how a knife, held out in front of a man, could wind up behind and under him when he was shot. W. O. Swindler, a cattleman from South Carolina, was traveling through town with his son and didn’t know anyone involved. They were the first to come to Ford’s aid. Neither saw any weapons anywhere near the body. A doctor who came outside the Halfway Court and attempted to save Ford’s life saw no weapon. In fact, Ford was wearing a sailor’s uniform with no pockets, and had nowhere to conceal a knife. Two witnesses told a reporter that Ford “never did offer threat or resistance to Spurling.”

Ford’s funeral attracted “one of the largest crowds ever to assemble in Decatur.” His epitaph reads: “Killed in the service of his country in Athens, Tennessee.” Ford’s family pushed for Spurling’s prosecution. Trial was scheduled for October. Luke Miller, who had been blackjacked by Wilburn, was still in the hospital and couldn’t testify. The sheriff’s office told the newspaper that he’d be arrested for resisting arrest upon his release—an unsubtle threat to keep him off the witness stand.

The machine controlled law enforcement. They controlled the courts. They controlled elections. If they could murder an active-duty sailor in the middle of World War II and get away with it, then they could kill anyone. And who was going to stop them?

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Filed under democracy, economics, military, U.S., war

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