No one knows better the danger that a tense circumstance can present than police in the United States. Constantly under pressure to control people who are guaranteed rights that provide them a wide latitude of no control, the scenarios that citizens can present range from the mundane to sheer terror, even for a trained professional. With that thought, we continue to reflect on moments in the history of law enforcement we wish we could get back, the sacrifices of those that have paid the ultimate price on our behalf.
1952 Tornado Outbreak
On March 21st and 22nd of 1952, a deadly tornado outbreak started in Oklahoma and Arkansas, eventually leading to tornado strikes in Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi, Kentucky and Tennessee. More than 200 people died over the course of that 48-hour period, and nearly 20 million dollars in damage, which would translate to around 180 million dollars by present standards. The loss was nothing short of catastrophic. Arkansas accounted for 112 of the death toll, Tennessee accounted for 67. Over 1,100 people were injured. At one point, a tornado that hit ground ran for 52 straight miles before lifting back up. The devastation of was so spectacular, whole books have been written, describing the accounts of damage, injury, and death. One death experienced that day was of Sergeant Oliver Williamson. Sergeant Oliver Devard Williamson Sergeant Oliver Williamson of the Tennessee Highway Patrol responded to the small community of RoEllen, approximately 80 miles northeast of Memphis. RoEllen had just been struck at 6:00 PM on March 21st by a F4 tornado, killing two, and injury 10. With emergency services thin in both personnel, and geography, the massive tornado event created an “all hands-on deck” scenario for all uniformed personnel. Sergeant Williamson had spent around three hours in RoEllen, trying to help as many people as he could, but sometime after 8:00 PM, an alert was broadcast, that another tornado would be hitting Dyersburg shortly, a larger town, three miles west of RoEllen. While it’s not certain what prompted Sergeant Williamson, it’s likely that he by this time, he felt he had done everything he could in RoEllen, and that a greater need was anticipated in Dyersburg. He got into his patrol vehicle, and started town State Route 104, a nearly straight west route into the southeast portion of Dyersburg. Sergeant Williamson approached Dyersburg with the tornado, later categorized as an F3, approaching from the south. But, from his vantage point, what may not have been clear was that the path of the tornado would direct it northeast, effectively setting himself for a course into the eye of the tornado, as he approached Dyersburg. Keep in mind, that while the worst portion of this tornado didn’t strike the city of Dyersburg, the wind and energy it brought along with it did, damaging the airport, and numerous other buildings. As Sergeant Williamson drove past Viar Road along Route 104, approaching Lewis Creek, he must have known the worst was coming. As he drove over Lewis Creek, less than a half mile from Dyersburg city limits, the tornado tore through Route 104, precisely at the spot where Sergeant Williamson was driving. It blew his patrol vehicle off the road, and then launched his vehicle high into the air, before slamming it back down to earth. Sergeant Williamson died on March 21st, 1952.
We were unable to acquire much source information about Sergeant Williamson’s family. We know that he had a wife, but no children at the time of his loss. We know that this loss, like every other loss we’ve discussed is tragic. Sergeant Williamson was clearly a brave man, based on his actions. While no one could beat a tornado in a car, he certainly tried his best to pass through it, in hopes of making it the other side, all to help others. His commitment to service can never be questioned, and it’s for this reason that we can never forget him and the character he displayed.
In memory of Sergeant Trooper Oliver Devard Williamson.