Wednesday, April 6, 2022

1936: The Georgia Guard Response to Historic Gainesville Tornado

 By Maj. William Carraway

Historian, Georgia Army National Guard

 

The operations center of the 122nd Infantry Regiment in the town square of Gainesville, Ga. April 7, 1936. Photo by Kenneth Rogers. Atlanta Constitution.

On April 6, 1936, residents of Gainesville, Ga. were just arriving to work on the Monday morning before Easter Sunday when two tornadoes shattered the downtown area killing more than 200 and injuring 1,600. Eighty-six years later The Gainesville Tornado remains the fifth deadliest in United States history.[1]

In Atlanta, the 122nd Infantry Regiment were ordered to report to their home armories within 90 minutes of the storm impact. Companies A, B, C, E and F were dispatched north to Gainesville to assist civil authorities. Upon their arrival the Soldiers beheld a scene of complete destruction. Entire blocks of brick buildings had been torn to pieces by the wind splintering telephone poles and hurling vehicles. With the streets clogged with debris, the Soldiers had to clear their way to the town square where they set up a base of operations.[2] The headquarters tents of the 122nd Infantry Regiment stood in sharp contrast to the wrecked surroundings which included the Gainesville City Hall and the Hall County Courthouse, both destroyed by the tornado.[3]

Colonel T. L. Alexander, commander of the Georgia National Guard’s 122nd Infantry Regiment discusses response operations with Lt. Carleton Redfearn
and Capt. Sterling Howard. Georgia National Guard Archives.

The Georgia National Guard joined a response effort comprised of local, state and federal agencies. In addition to the Red Cross, representatives from the Works Progress Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps and Salvation Army swelled the ranks of responders who rushed to aid the people of Gainesville. President Roosevelt visited Gainesville April 9, met with responders and addressed a crowd of 2,000 citizens expressing condolences and promising federal aid.

With the town’s water supply contaminated by debris, the Soldiers were pressed into service distributing food and water. Additional Guardsmen, trucked water into the city in converted oil tanks.  

By April 7, more than 200 residents remained missing. The Red Cross opened a missing person’s bureau to assist families. Two local churches were pressed into service as make-shift morgues housing nearly 50 dead while rescuers desperately searched debris for survivors.

Georgia National Guard Soldiers of the 122nd Infantry Regiment patrol the streets of Gainesville, Ga. just days after the city was struck by a tornado
April 6, 1936. Georgia National Guard Archives.
Throughout the response, the Guardsmen performed a myriad of duties including guard duty, traffic control and debris clearance. While most of the Guardsmen were relieved from response duties one week after the tornado impact the last of the Soldiers remained on duty until April 20.[4]

 


[1] “The 25 Deadliest U.S. Tornadoes.” National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. https://www.spc.noaa.gov/faq/tornado/killers.html

[2] “Gainesville Tornado of 1936 killed 165; Former Guardsmen of 122nd Infantry Recall the Disaster.” The Georgia Guardsman. March-June 1961, 6.

[3] Austin Eller. “Remembering the Gainesville tornadoes of 1936.” Access WDUN. https://accesswdun.com/article/2021/4/994788/remembering-the-gainesville-tornadoes-of-1936

[4] “Gainesville Tornado of 1936 killed 165; Former Guardsmen of 122nd Infantry Recall the Disaster.” The Georgia Guardsman. March-June 1961, 7.

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