Night of the Twisters: 60 Years Ago this Month was Tennessee’s Deadliest Tornado Day
Part one of a two part series remembering the 60th anniversary of Tennessee’s deadliest tornado outbreak.
As spring began in 1952, Harry Truman was President and Gordon Browning was governor. US troops were involved in the Korean War. “Dragnet” and “I Love Lucy” had just been introduced that TV season. “The Greatest Show on Earth” was in the theaters and Elvis Presley was still a high school student. In West Tennessee weather felt more like an early May. Temperatures on March 21 hit 79 at Bolivar and Union City, 77 in Jackson and Brownsville and 75 in Moscow. But a cold front was poised to bring winter back for a while and drop the temperatures another 25 to 30 degrees. The official forecast in the afternoon paper was “Mostly cloudy this afternoon, tonight. Saturday; scattered thundershowers, windy and warm this afternoon and early tonight. Afternoon temperatures near 80. Cooler late tonight, low near 45.”
In eighteen hours sixty seven Tennesseans would die and another two hundred eighty three injured by tornados. Three hundred homes would be destroyed and more than six hundred others were damaged. Five more were killed in Middle Tennessee flash floods. Six million in property damage was the estimated loss- that is about $51.3 million in today’s dollars. It became – and still is- Tennessee’s deadliest tornado day. Sixty years later memories remain.
To clear up confusion of names, Henderson is in Chester County. Chesterfield is one county over in Henderson County. Dyersburg is in Dyer County but Dyer is in Gibson County. All the tornados traveled from southwest to northeast. Also the Fujita or “F” scale is used and was determined by looking at the damage to estimate wind speed. Without going into too much detail the scale goes from F0 to F 5, the higher the F scale the more powerful the tornado. F4 and F5 tornados represent less than one percent of all twisters.
MARCH 21, 1952
2:40 PM – The tornado outbreak begins in Western Arkansas and killed more than one hundred people in that state. Judsona was hardest hit with fifty dead.
6:00 PM – Lauderdale County. F3- two dead, ten injured. The first tornado in Tennessee touched down North of Halls, and just into Dyer where Unionville was the first community hit. Then it hit Gibson County, killing two and injuring two, and dissipating north of Yorkville. The sun set at 6:10 pm that evening so later tornados hit under cover of darkness, making a dangerous situation worse. In 2012 Dr. Walker Ashley of Northern Illinois University completed a study on nighttime tornados, concluding the numbers show those tornados were 2.5 times more likely to kill. Almost forty six percent of Tennessee’s tornados hit after sunset which is the highest proportion of any state.
“I was four years old and my brother Steve was two. Mother put us under an iron bed as the tornado passed over our farm. It severely damaged one of our tenant houses. My dad, Wat McLean, and Sonny Hilliard were doing the afternoon milking and they watched the tornado pass over. Afterward, they went to check on everyone. Mrs. Barrow in the damaged house was thrown some distance. When Daddy found her, she cried, “Don’t look, Mr. Wat! I don’t have on any drawers!” Remembers Carol Mclean-Stark.
Bonnie Daws-Kourvelas spoke with her mother, father and aunt. Her father, Jerry Daws, was a 17-year-old high school senior; rehearsing the senior class play inside Halls High. “We came out after rehearsal and piled into a pickup truck to go get something to eat. We went to the Southland Steak House in Four Points, and although we saw a storm was on the way, we didn’t realize how bad it was or that it was so close. We found out later that only a mile away, the tornado demolished an old wooden clapboard motel that stood near the Halls airport. We went to look the next day and I remember seeing furniture, sheets, curtains, chairs— everything from the old motel just scattered everywhere.”
8:30 PM – Dyer County was again hit this time by two tornados at about the same time The F 4 touched down in the Newbern area and left four dead, five injured. And another twister was an F 3 that killed ten and injured thirty. This one touched down southwest of the Dyer County airport, destroying airplanes, a hanger and the new administration building ( including the weather observation site). It entered Gibson County and then dissipated in Obion County, North of Kenton. Tennessee State Trooper Oliver Devard Williamson was en route to Dyersburg to help and was killed at RoEllen when his car was blown off State Highway 104.
Daws-Kourvelas spoke with her mother, Edna, and her aunt, Martha Stephens, who were teenage sisters living in Dyersburg. They both remember their alarmed father sensing a major storm coming. He hurried them to their grandmother’s root cellar next door, where they spent most of the night. “I was scared to death,” recalls Martha, who was thirteen years old at the time. “We were down there so long. My feet were wet. The next day I remember driving around looking at the terrible damage.”
Barbara Hipp Scott was also there. “Our parents took us to the Kist Avenue “tunnel” and we stayed there till it was over. I still recall how scary it was.”
Carol Hatch-Beavers and her family were there for their neighbors. “There was standing room only in our storm shelter that night. My Dad stood outside and watched until it turned just before it got to the railroad tracks and went toward Jones Rd.”
10 PM- Fayette County hit. F4. Nine dead, twenty four injured. At 9:45 pm, a tornado touched down in Marshall County, Mississippi and headed northwest. Red Oliver, who later became Mayor of Moscow, was there and two years ago told the story to this writer in an article on Tennessee weather.
“We were at my father in law’s house watching the Friday Night Fights on TV. Then all of a sudden the television started acting up in every kind of way. Then I heard this roar. My daddy in law said ‘that’s a train.’ I said ‘that ain’t no train!’ so I ran out into the yard and when I did the whole ground was shaking. And I saw a cloud coming through with a ball of fire. It set one house on fire. Everything it passed it wiped clean. It wiped everything except this one house with a chimney and by the chimney there was a dog laying there with some puppies. It was not touched but the whole house and everything was gone. There were some monster pine trees and they were just cut off about four feet high. When it got on past you could hear people screaming. Bloody murder type of screaming. Those really hurt were kind of groaning. We had a truck with hay and put the people in the truck to get them to the hospital. ”
On Old Stateline Road west of the Wolf River “there was a house sitting on the hill. When we got out there the house was separated lying in the road. There was an old lady sitting on top of the house without a scratch. Her husband and grandson were underneath. The couch protected the grandson, but the old man died later. There was a man on Highway 76 looking for his wife that had died. His eyeball was at his cheek. ”
“In the Wolf River bottoms you would see washing machines and dryers hanging in the trees. Those pine trees were monster things it took a powerful wind. You still have some of those stumps there but they have sprouted out now. Usually you see tornados knock the trees down but these were just gone. If it had come through the main drag it would have wiped the town out.”
10:45 PM – 11:17 PM Gibson and Carroll Counties. F 2 and F3 – Five dead, thirty two injured. This twister struck the Milan Arsenal then headed northeast towards Carroll County, killing a person in Leach, just southwest of the current site of the new lake. It then hit the central business district of Bruceton, hometown of Ronnie Smothers. “I was 9 years old and slept through this storm. The next morning I remember a house top being in one of our trees. The National Guard barricaded the business district which was demolished.” Smith Drug store was destroyed. His father, Vernon, was an amateur photographer with the eye of a photojournalist. Some of his images are reproduced in this article.
11:30 PM- Hardeman County hit F 4 – Four dead, fourteen injured. The tornado touched down first in Byhallia, Mississippi then came down around the old Tate School Community, then across Highway 64 at Pleasant Run, through the Hatchie River bottoms and across Highway 18 about a mile north of Bolivar. All of the Walton Family, who lived four miles west of town on Bolivar-Somerville Road, became casualties. Fourteen of the Walton Family, ranging in age from eight-month-old James to seventy one-year-old Lillian, was injured. Friday night three were found dead -Monnie, age 47, her nephew Frank, age 15 and one of her twin nieces, Sandra Kaye and Donna Faye, thirteen month-old twins. According to Forrest P Shearon, a local teenager whose journal was reprinted in the book Hardeman County Tennessee, A Family History, one twin was found dead that night, another twin’s body was found the next morning. The worst of the storm, however, was yet to come.
11:55 PM – Humphreys County hit F 2. The last tornado of the night had no casualties. But just because March 21 ended, that did not end the death and devastation. The morning would bring more tornados and more death.
E. M. Barto, section director US Weather Bureau, Nashville.
NOAA History of Tornado Forecasting
Memphis Press- Scimitar
The Commercial Appeal
And Special thanks to Ronnie Smothers of Waverly and Gaylon Reasons of Hickory Withe