Night of the Twisters: 60 Years Ago this Month was Tennessee’s Deadliest Tornado Day 

Skies were threatening, the factors were there, but no tornadoes hit in this system  May, 2011 in Memphis.. 

March, 21-22, 1952 the story ended differently


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. The scale has since been replaced by the Enhanced Fujita or EF scale. 


Larkin's Grocery. Bruceton, Tennessee. Photo by Vernon Smothers

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. Get updates to Across Tennessee via Facebook andTwitter 

“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.”


Maple Street in Bruceton, looking Northeast. Photo by Vernon Smothers, Courtesy Ronnie Smothers


Maple Street, Bruceton. 2012 near the same spot. Photo by Devin Greaney

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.”


National Guard at the Bruceton City Hall. Photo by Vernon Smothers. Courtesy Ronnie Smothers

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.

Morning of the Twisters: A New Day and More Deaths. 


Jackson is in the middle of the towns hit by tornados, but Jackson and Madison County were spared.

Part 2 of a 2 part series remembering the 60th anniversary of  Tennessee’s Deadliest Tornado Outbreak. Part 1 can be read here.


As midnight hit, residents of  Tennessee towns, including Bolivar, Dyersberg and Moscow were searching for people, treating injured and trying to come to understand how their world of six hours earlier was so different from that moment. But the heavy weather had no signs of getting any lighter.

MARCH 22, 1952

Midnight – Chester County. F 4. Twenty three dead, one hundred injured. Henderson was the worst hit of the towns when this one struck around midnight. The late hour meant most people were in beds with families. Evie, John and Donald Smith died together as did Weymore, Mary and one-year Danny Hinson.

James Patterson lived at 134 East 6th Street in Henderson – “I was four years old.  I do not remember a great deal. I vaguely remember the windows blowing out of the house. I remember my dad grabbing me out of the bed. He heard it coming. The next thing I know I was in his arms underneath the house. The house was literally upside down. Leonard Carroll lived right across the street from us. He told my daddy he was standing at the window and our house was picked up, set over in the next lot, picked back up, set across the street, and picked back up to the same place where it started, flipped upside down and exploded. My daddy was holding me. It crushed my daddy’s left shoulder. It broke my mom’s big toe and a nail punctured my nose. We lost everything and had to start over. “

12:20 AM – Hickman County. F 2. Three dead, ten injured. The storms entered Middle Tennessee, striking west of Dodd Hollow Rd, South of County Road 339. Storms, minus the tornadoes, would cause problems later in the day for this portion of the state through flash flooding.

1:00 AM – Henderson County.  F 4. Eleven dead, forty three Injured. This was along the same path of the Chester County tornado. It hit Chesterfield, which is between Lexington and Parsons, and then it went to Humphrey's County damaging homes in the Squeeze Bottom community. 

Gordon Simmons, radio engineer for WMPS, told the Memphis Press-Scimitar the path was obvious. “We could follow the path of it from Byhalia up into West Tennessee. It would go along for ten miles and maybe drop and run along the ground for two or three miles then it might go up I the air and travel only 500 yards and come down again,” he said after seeing the tree damage. “It looked like it was just dancing and skipping back and forth.”

11:15 am – Smith County. F1. 1 injured.  Far removed in time and distance from the action in West Tennessee, the Middle Tennessee city of Carthage was hit. Fatalities occurred in Middle Tennessee east and northeast of Nashville when flash flooding hit from the system that caused the tornadoes. Two were killed in Bethpage when their home was washed away. Sixteen-year-old Wilma Enoch lost her life in Celina, Clay County, trying to cross a swollen stream and Marble Plains in Franklin County was the sight of still another flash flooding death.

Legendary Memphis Commercial Appeal cartoonist Cal Alley illustrated people 

pulling together after the March 21-22 1952 storms

Around the damage path of the twisters, ambulances, which at the time were hearses from funeral homes, arrived from all over to run patients to hospitals. Private vehicles also took patients to hospitals or to temporary Red Cross shelters

such as Henderson High School or First United Methodist Church of Dyersburg. A Memphis Press- Scimitar photo shows Nurse Betty Stephens Dyersburg who after her shift at Baird Brewer Hospital (now Dyersburg Regional Medical Center) in Dyersburg went across the street  to First Methodist Church to help out. Another showed nine-year-old Billy Lay watched over by his aunt. He had minor injuries but lost both his mother and father, Bill and Eloise.

Final total from across the country was 202 dead, 1,133 injured and $25 million in damage – about $213, 835,000 in today’s dollars.

Pledge drives were set up and many helped the victims of Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Missouri. Country singer Eddy Arnold played a benefit for his hometown at Henderson High School less than a month after it was a temporary shelter. Things were returning as time was moving on.

As time passed homes and buildings were rebuilt.  Trees grew back. Some injuries healed and some never did. The people who were affected had a new sense of vulnerability. “Everyone for years was building storm shelters. We called them storm houses. People that remember it go to storm shelters. People who don’t have that fear don’t, but I remember most of my childhood going to storm shelters when the weather got bad,” Remembers James Patterson of Henderson.

Battle scars of 1952 are still visible in 2012.

The tornado of 1952 became a story those who were there passed on to their children and then to their grandchildren. A look at aerial photos today shows no obvious damage path, but one guesses buried in West Tennessee forests debris from sixty years ago remain.

Bruceton Clinic was the site of a business destroyed in the 1952 tornadoes. The original outline is till visible in 2012.

The next year in Flint, Michigan, 115 were killed by a single tornado. In June of that year, in response to the March, 1952 tornadoes, the Severe Local Storms Center was established creating a checklist for forecasting tornadoes. And in a possibly related matter, Flint was the last single tornado in the US to kill more than 100 people. That record stayed until an F5 tornado hit Joplin, Missouri last May and killed 163.

James Patterson’s father, Buford, became a barber in Henderson in 1956. Due to his injuries he was never able to lift his arm above his shoulder, though his doctor was surprised he was able to use the arm at all. He retired in 1994 and died in 2005. His son, James, worked more than thirty years for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis.

Vernon Smothers, the photographer whose work is in this article, passed away in 1966. His son, Ronnie, lives in Waverly.

A plaque at the Dyersburg Highway Patrol station honors Sergeant Oliver Devard Williamson, the state trooper responding to help and blindsided in the night by the twister.

In 1961 Neil Ward used an Oklahoma State Highway Patrol car to chase tornadoes and their radio to call back to the Weather Bureau office in the first scientific tornado chase. The team identified the “hook” echo on the radar where Ward spotted indicating a funnel cloud. A half century of storm chasing, advances in radar and work in the laboratory have increased our understanding of tornadoes and saved lives.

The National Academy of Sciences in 1966 published what is now called the “white paper” titled “Accidental Disease and Disability: The Neglected Disease of Modern Society” which changed the way emergency injuries and illnesses are handled. It called for the advanced training of ambulance personnel. In 1972 Tennessee began training, then licensing, Emergency Medical Technicians and Paramedics so people injured are able to get advanced care before arriving at the hospital. It is impossible to know if any of those dead would have been saved through modern medicine and meteorology.

In 1971, the US Weather Bureau became the National Weather Service, the name it still carries today.

The state’s population has doubled since the 1950 census. Thanks to President Eisenhower’s 1956 transportation bill, Interstate 40 now crosses through the state in a tornado-like path from southwest to northeast changing the geography of the

state. Another change was taking place on night of the tornadoes in Cleveland, Ohio where deejay Alan Freed was hosting the Moondog Coronation Ball. It is now considered the first concert of the new music called “rock n’ roll.” Rock would change West Tennessee making stars of Tina Turner, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley – and many others from the region. But more than an event, the progression of time, technology and culture has caused  Tennessee and the rest of the world to become busier and faster than the people of 1952 could have imagined. But a road in Hardeman County is an exception. In the late 1990’s construction began on a four lane bypass near Bolivar changing part of US Highway 64 from a major thoroughfare into Old Highway 64, a quiet country road with homes, farms and Parran’s Chapel Baptist Church and cemetery. On a quiet February morning I turn into the church parking lot. A crow is calling and a friendly dog is checking out the area as I walk through the gate of the cemetery. Almost immediately I find the graves of  the Waltons – the family that suffered numerous casualties. There is Monnie, Frank and finally the little twins, Sandra Kaye and Donna Faye, who were born together, lived together and separated briefly at their deaths. But now and always they rest together, side by side.


E. M. Barto, section director US Weather Bureau, Nashville. 


NOAA History of Tornado Forecasting

Archives of

The Jackson Sun

Memphis Press- Scimitar

Bolivar Bulletin

The Commercial Appeal

And Special thanks to Ronnie Smothers of Waverly and Gaylon Reasons of Hickory Withe