Thousands of drivers use the "Buck" Karnes Bridge every day to cross the Tennessee River in Knoxville. You hear Ed Rupp mention it almost every morning on 10News Today traffic reports. But why do they call that small chunk of the Alcoa Highway the "Buck" Karnes Bridge?
The bridge has been rebuilt several times as Route 129 has grown through the years. The bridge was once known as the UT Farm Bridge. For more than half a century, the bridge has officially carried the name of J.E. "Buck" Karnes.
Who is Buck Karnes? Exactly what do you have to do to have a large bridge named in your honor?
For James Ernest "Buck" Karnes of Knoxville, the recognition was largely the result of being awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor during World War I.
In 1918, German machine guns had pinned down the 117th infantry on a battlefield in France. That is when Buck Karnes and another East Tennessean named Calvin John Ward decided they "had all they could take."
The official Medal of Honor citation states that the two men charged the machine gun nests, "killing 3 and capturing 7 of the enemy and their guns."
Both Karnes and Ward received the Congressional Medal of Honor for their heroism. Documents from the East Tennessee Historical Society indicate Karnes remains the only person originally from Knox County to be awarded the Medal of Honor.
Karnes returned to Knoxville a hero with even more medals than Tennessee's most famous soldier, Alvin York. Karnes served 13 years with the Knoxville Police Department and lived in the Fountain City area. Later in life, he moved to Sacramento, California, to allow his daughters to tend to his failing health.
Karnes died in 1966 in Sacramento at the age of 78, but was returned to East Tennessee for his final resting place. You can find his grave in the Greenwood Cemetery on Tazewell Pike. His relatively small and flat tombstone features the insignia of the Medal of Honor carved in stone. The same award that helped carve his place in Knoxville history.
The next time you cross the massive structure of concrete and steel that spans the Tennessee River on the Alcoa Highway, give a nod to the man it is named for. And when someone ponders the name of the "Buck Karnes Bridge," you will know exactly why they call it that.
Reporter's addendum, edited June 11, 2010, at 8:45 a.m.:
Articles from 1966 indicated Buck Karnes was the sole Medal of Honor recipient from Knox County. A viewer correctly noted that another Knoxville resident was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Alexander 'Sandy' Bonnyman Jr., a 1st Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corp, was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Bonnyman died in an assault against Japanese-held Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands during World War II. Neither Karnes nor Bonnyman were born in Knox County, but both moved to Knoxville during early-childhood.
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Note: Namesake is the renamed title of the series formerly known as 'Why do they call it that?'
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