The first time Bernard Edwards visited Townsend was on his honeymoon in 1956.
More than 60 years later, he still visits every single year.
Edwards is from Franklin. He has two sons and three grandchildren. His wife, Eunice, passed away 12 years ago, but that doesn’t stop him from paying an annual visit to the “Peaceful Side of the Smokies” on the way back from a journey to pick up apples from Baxter’s Orchard in Cosby.
Tuesday morning at 8 a.m., Townsend residents gathered around Edwards, shaking his hand and saying “Thank you for your service.” Edwards is one of America’s “Greatest Generation” — a veteran of World War II.
He turns 97 next month.
He loves his time in Townsend and everything that comes with it: seeing the mountains, driving around Cades Cove, checking in at the Tally Ho Inn and spending time with his sons.
One of those sons was present Tuesday, standing over his father at the Townsend IGA where the store owner had provided a biscuits-and-gravy breakfast. Dr. Doran Edwards is a retired surgeon. He said that soon after the first time his father visited Townsend, he also took his sons.
The tradition never stopped.
Now it’s a time for the two to spend in each other’s company.
“Eunice died in 2007 of recurring breast cancer, and my wife died in 2009 of pancreatic cancer,” Dr. Edwards said. “So we’re two old bachelors who come, and we spend some time up here every year.”
Bernard Edwards remembered all his past trips with his late wife fondly. “We just enjoyed the scenery, you know, roaming around in the boondocks.”
But Edwards’ life was not always so peaceful. His memory is sharp and his days of service in Hawaii are still vivid in his mind.
‘I wouldn’t be talking to you today’
His basic training was in Alabama and Texas, Edwards said.
But after that he was shipped to chemical warfare training in Hawaii at Schofield Barracks, where he served in a maintenance company.
“We operated ... high explosives, mortars shells ... and also, mustard gas,” he said. “Now, the gas was never used, but we didn’t know it. We had plenty, just in case, and every time we invaded an island, we would ship out a number of mortar shells filled with that.”
After the invasions, he explained, all the munitions that were not used were shipped back to his company, where they were sorted out and sent to the next campaign.
This company specifically was in charge of high-explosive material that included 4.2 mortars.
One day, Edwards’ company picked up a load of munitions at Pearl Harbor and brought it to prepare for shipment. Another company that was there for extra help came behind them and picked up a load as well, but it never returned to base.
“We sent this company to Pearl Harbor to pick up some supplies that were coming back,” Edwards remembered. Meanwhile, “we had this truck full of mortar shells. We found this one box that had been opened. This safety pin had been pulled, the detonator was standing up like that.” He gestured with his hand as though pointing at the box.
“Bang! I wouldn’t be talking to you today.”
Sadly, Edwards said he and others surmised that was exactly what happened to the men who had gone to receive the other munitions.
“That didn’t much get in the paper, you know. You didn’t tell anybody anything back then.”
The disaster is known as the West Loch Disaster and it took place Sunday, May 21 of 1944, just a few years after the day that lived in infamy.
A total of 163 men died including the entire company that was helping Edwards that day. Nearly 400 were wounded. The hull of the ship where the tragedy happened, LST-480, can still be seen today.
But at base, when Edwards opened that box, the men’s lives were spared.
“He was the one who took care of it,” Dr. Edwards said. “He was the one who found it.”
‘Proud of the men who fought’
Edwards said his company has had numerous reunions, but its members have dwindled in numbers over the years.
“The last two years that we met, there was just two of us,” he remembered.
Just a few years ago, he went to his fellow serviceman’s funeral.
So as far as he knows, Edwards is the last living member of his company, which included around 120 men. “And I was one of the young ones.”
But he is still young at heart and younger in body than many would guess. He walks five days a week and is involved with his community and local church.
“You got to keep moving,” he said.
But he has always been moving, according to his son. “This man grew up in a very rural area of southern Tennessee,” Dr. Edwards said. “He says he walked thousands of miles behind a mule plowing.”
He added coming to Townsend is for his father like going back to times where there were fewer roads and less modern technology.
“In his world ... the sameness of it, the fact that those parts don’t change. Maybe the roads get paved, but nothing else much changes. There’s something about that sameness that is anchoring. Secure,” Dr. Edwards said.
Townsend may simply be a visit to the past for Edwards, but for residents, he’s a local icon.
Gregory Dean, Townsend IGA director, said a customer sat down that morning and told Edwards thank you because he was able to order his breakfast in English.
“What I want everybody to know is that Townsend is the friendliest community around,” Dean said. “But the biggest thing is we hold firm to our friendliness (and) our veterans.”
Dean said the first thing he did when he got to the store was put an American flag up.
“We’re proud of our country,” he said. “We’re proud of the men who fought to provide our freedom.”