Tom Lee: A Hero’s Tale

Tom Lee’s exploits are the stuff of local legend. Here’s the story of the man behind the myth.



Tom Lee

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In less than a minute the boat rolled over, pitching the young woman and her fellow passengers into the river. The current was swift, the water surprisingly cold. The riverbank seemed impossibly far away, and there was nothing in the water to grab hold of. Frantically, she kicked and splashed in a desperate effort to stay afloat.

It was no use. She had no life preserver, and her heavy, waterlogged dress twisted around her legs. When she tried to scream out, the muddy water gushed into her throat, choking her. Struggling feebly, she slowly sank, until only her long blonde hair trailed on the surface of the brown stream …

In a flash, a muscled arm thrust into the water, gripped the woman by her hair, and awkwardly yanked her into a tiny boat. Spitting and gasping, she looked up into the face of her savior, a black river worker named Tom Lee.

Lee became a national celebrity in 1925, when he pulled more than 30 people from the swirling waters of the Mississippi River after the steamer M.E. Norman overturned near Memphis. Today, his brave deeds are largely forgotten, brought to mind only when visitors pause to admire the two monuments — one old, one new — erected in the riverfront park named after him. This is the story of Tom Lee, a true Memphis hero.

 

On the sunny spring morning of May 8, 1925, Tom Lee cranked up the outboard motor on the battered wooden boat he called the Zev and headed downstream. The 39-year-old roustabout was employed by C.W. Hunter, a Memphis company doing levee repair work along the river. Lee served as a jack-of-all-trades for the firm, and his job today was to ferry his boss downriver to Helena, Arkansas, and then return to Memphis. It would be an easy task, though any work on the water had a special danger for Lee — he had never learned to swim.

Two other boats, both much larger and grander than Lee’s craft, also pulled out of Memphis that morning. They were the Choctaw and the M.E. Norman, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers vessels converted to a special use that day. The Mid-South Chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers was holding its first annual meeting in Memphis, and the Engineers Club of Memphis had arranged a special outing for the convention delegates. The two boats would be used to carry more than 150 engineers and their families to view the big revetment project under way at Pinckney Landing, some 20 miles south of the city.

A little before noon, both vessels pulled into the channel and slowly chugged downstream. Only one would return.

The Norman was a sternwheeler, 114 feet long, with twin smokestacks and two decks. Less than a year old, the ship was modern in every way, and the inefficient coal-burning system originally installed on her had been converted to oil just a few weeks before. In fact, this would be the Norman’s first voyage using the new system, which replaced the coal bunkers in the hold with huge tanks carrying tons of fuel.

It was also the first time the Norman had ever carried passengers. The ship was designed as a towboat, with accommodations for a small crew. But on the morning of May 8th, with her new oil tanks filled to capacity, the Norman took on the additional weight of 72 passengers.

Captain Howard Fenton was a capable riverman who had worked on dozens of ships up and down the Mississippi for 39 years. If he thought the Norman was overloaded as the men, women, and children clambered aboard, he never said so. He might not have known better, for today was a special day for him. Fenton had just been transferred to this boat. He had never piloted the Norman before.

Leroy Hidinger Jr. was a young passenger on the Norman that day. In an interview years later as part of the University of Memphis’ Oral History Project, he recalled an ominous vision the morning of the voyage:

“My father, grandfather, and I went down to get in the car. And before Daddy could start the automobile, I jumped out of it, and cried, ‘Daddy, I don’t want to go. The boat’s going to sink!’ But my father and grandfather said, ‘Son, the boat’s not going to sink. You’re just needlessly scared, and it’s all in your head.’ So he took my hand and we went down to the river.”

Some of the other passengers weren’t quite so confident. As the Norman headed downstream, small waves kicked up by the Choctaw steaming ahead steadily washed over her lower deck. One passenger, alarmed by the way the ship wallowed in the river, found little reassurance from a crewman when she showed him the water spilling over her feet. “Yes, ma’am, I know,” the crewman responded, “and we’re mighty concerned about it.”

Despite the apparent danger, the leisurely voyage south was uneventful, and both boats tied up at Pinckney Landing on the Arkansas side by noon. Most of the men left the boats to scamper over the revetment work — huge mats woven from willow branches that kept the river from chewing away the mud banks — while their families lingered on board and snacked out of box lunches.

Meanwhile, just a few miles away, Tom Lee’s day had turned sour. Moments after he dropped off his passenger and turned the Zev back to Memphis, the little engine coughed and began to misfire. Muttering to himself, Lee let the boat drift back to the dock, where he tied it off and pulled the cover off the motor. He knew he had better tinker with it now, before he hit the treacherous current upstream from Helena.

At the landing, the brief inspection tour was over, and the engineers boarded the Choctaw and Norman for the two-hour return trip home. Henry Wilkinson, a convention delegate from Washington, had ridden the Norman downstream, but he felt a strange urge to change boats. He stepped aboard the Choctaw just as it moved away from the banks and pointed its bow upstream.

Back at Helena, Lee yanked the starter rope of the Zev and whistled as the motor fired up and hummed smoothly. He had worked on the engine for an hour, but he would be home soon now, he thought, as the Zev puttered north. Far ahead of him upstream, he could barely make out the smoke of two steamers.

The Choctaw, lighter and faster than the Norman, soon left the other ship behind. Two passengers on the Choctaw’s upper deck looked back at the slower ship until they lost sight of it around a bend in the river. As the Choctaw steamed for home, no one aboard her ever suspected the Norman was in trouble.

 

But Tom Lee certainly did. He had zipped past the big steamer a few miles above Pinckney Landing, and saw that something was wrong. The Norman seemed to be wrestling with the current, listing to starboard with her lower deck awash. Lee cut the motor on the Zev and watched the boat over his shoulder, thinking he had better keep her in sight. As he later put it, “She was riding serious.”

Aboard the Norman, Captain Fenton fought to maintain control of his boat. After leaving the landing, the boat had developed a slight list to starboard. The captain knew that on occasion the current would cause that, but he was worried. Other boats he had piloted always righted themselves after a while. To his consternation, this boat heeled over and stayed there.

Fenton calmly instructed the passengers to move to the high side of the vessel in an attempt to balance her. This strategy slowly leveled the boat, and he breathed a sigh of relief. Then, the ship began to tilt again, and the list gradually grew steeper until passengers could no longer keep their footing on the slanted decks.

Fenton now knew the ship was doomed. The crew rushed to toss out life preservers and anything else that would float, as the captain heaved the wheel over — perhaps there was time to reach the Mississippi shore before capsizing.

He was too late. Under the strain, the rudder failed and the boat was caught crossways in the current. The powerful current swelled against the hull, already heeled over at a dangerous angle, and lifted the port side of the vessel clear out of the water. In seconds, the Norman rolled over in midstream, trapping dozens of passengers in the screened-in main cabin, and hurling the others into the murky water.

Some of the luckier passengers had donned life jackets. Others struggled in the cold water to reach pieces of lumber, chairs, driftwood — anything that would hold them up. A few managed to splash back to the upturned hull of the Norman, but this provided only a brief refuge. The ship floated upside down for only five minutes before plunging to the bottom.

Seventy-two men, women, and children were at the mercy of the river. The chilly water was numbing. Heavy suits and dresses made swimming almost impossible, and the terrible current rapidly swept them downstream. Several of the passengers, injured when the ship overturned or unable to swim, drowned almost immediately. Others splashed about frantically in the water until they were exhausted by their struggles. Some tried to make it to shore; one man was seen to swim within 20 feet of the bank, when he suddenly threw his arms over his head and silently sank beneath the surface. Most of the passengers could do nothing against the swift current but bob helplessly in the water.

 

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