By Dorothy Copus Brush
So often history is forgotten or lost. When we retired here over 25 years ago I wanted to learn all I could about Crossville’s past and where better than reading old Chronicle newspapers.
In February 1943, there was a simple entry. It said, “Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia stopped here for a short call on Mayor C.M. Smith. ‘I like it here. You have a beautiful little city,’ he told the mayor.” The article said only that LaGuardia had arrived unannounced because he was anxious to meet a colleague and pay his respects to Crossville’s mayor.
This story nagged at me. What was the mayor of New York City doing in Tennessee? How did he get here since roads were restricted in war time and I-40 was not even a dream at that time. I found the answers when I interviewed Mayor Smith’s widow Angela.
She learned the story behind the visit many years later because Mayor C.M. Smith had been sworn to secrecy. Crossville had a prisoner of war camp which held Italian and German high ranking officers although to the local population it was mistakenly known as the Jap Camp.
Mrs. Smith showed me a slim volume written by Herston Cooper, one of the camp commanders and a good friend of the Smiths. He told the story of the visit in this book titled Crossville.
Commander Cooper wrote, “A visitor comes on a business trip! The craft had settled upon the crude runway carved from the mountain. The visitor stepped down, flashing his famous smile. It was Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, New York’s beloved Little Flower. The camp officers persuaded him to complete his mission the next day and we went to a roadside spot near Crossville and had char-broiled steaks.”
It was after that meal that LaGuardia met with Mayor Smith in the automobile parked outside Smith’s pharmacy. The mayor had been told secretly by camp officials that LaGuardia was coming and would visit him.
What was the mission for the visit? There was an Italian officer incarcerated at the camp who had great political connections in Italy. His real name is a question mark but he was always called Electric Whiskers by those at the camp. LaGuardia came to try to persuade him to use his influence with Mussolini to withdraw from the war.
After more research I can only speculate on why LaGuardia was chosen for this unsuccessful mission. During WWI he was a lieutenant in the United States Air Service and commanded a bombing squad in Italy. He proved his skill as an effective propagandist among the Italian population during that time.
This colorful man served three terms as mayor of New York City from 1934 to 1945. He was called Little Flower because that is the meaning of Fiorello in Italian. This small but roly-poly mayor changed New York’s corrupt ways under the Tammany machine as he promised.
In 1941 President Roosevelt created the Office of Civil Defense and named LaGuardia as its first director. This established a link with the White House.
Had the mission been successful, Crossville would have been an important footnote is world history.
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Dorothy Copus Brush is a Fairfield Glade resident and Crossville Chronicle staffwriter whose column is published each Wednesday. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.