Historically Speaking: Godwinks and the Unsung Howard's Waterfall Hero

May 6, 2018

Georgia awarded LeRoy Coxwell a medal for his valor in the Howard's Waterfall Cave tragedy of 1966.


Howard's Waterfall Cave Tragedy, Part II

Do you know what a Godwink is? It’s a bet that you have experienced one even if you can’t call it by name. It is defined on the internet as: “An event or personal experience often identified as coincidence, so astonishing that it is seen as a sign of divine intervention, especially when perceived as the answer to a prayer.” 


The story of the Howard's Waterfall caving accident in 1966, the subject of this series, has led me to several Godwinks, and before reading the rest of the events of that day in April, you need to know the backstory of what started me on this journey to remember the events and people, not only the ones who were killed but the ones who were heroic on that fateful day. 


This piece of the story is about an Air National Guardsman. He was unknown to me or anyone else in Dade County until 2013, when County Clerk Don Townsend forwarded an email to me from another Guardsman. The other Guardsman’s name was Robert (Larry) Owens. He is from South Georgia and his request was for a friend who was dying with cancer. On more than one occasion Larry was asked by his friend to find some information on the internet about the caving accident. Don’s email put us in touch and I felt compelled to do some research for the gentleman.


I did the basic library search in Trenton. After digitally copying the front page of the April 21, 1966 paper, I sent it to Larry. I offered to pray for the man if he would send me some specifics of his disease. I shared that my preacher was teaching us to pray for specific needs. 


Larry was thrilled with the information that I found. He told me some specifics of the gentleman’s disease. He also shared that his own mother and wife were going through cancer treatment at the time. I knew exactly how he was feeling as my own dad was having cancer treatments and a 35-year-old cousin had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. We agreed to pray for each other’s family.


The man for whom he wrote the request for was named LeRoy Coxwell. Coxwell was in the Air National Guard and stationed in Marietta at Dobbins Air Force Base on that day in April 1966. By midafternoon, it became clear that none of the oxygen tanks or breathing equipment were good enough for any potential rescuer to get in and back out with any surviving scouts. Sheriff Allison Blevins decided to call Dobbins and request some assistance from personnel with scuba training. 


Coxwell and possibly other military personnel were dispatched to Trenton. They may have flown to Chattanooga, which cannot be verified. There were hundreds upon hundreds of volunteers on Back Valley Road that day, but only one of them was awarded a Medal of Valor by the State of Georgia. The Georgia Air National Guard Magazine stated:


“The State of Georgia has awarded its first Medal of Valor to a member of the Georgia Air National Guard for exceptional service in rescuing three Explorer Scouts trapped in a cave in Trenton, Georgia last April. SSgt LeRoy Coxwell, a member of the fire protection/crash rescue section of the 116th Support Squadron of the Georgia Air National Guard, Dobbins Air Force Base, Marietta, volunteered to help rescue the trapped Scouts at Howard’s Waterfall Cave and entered the cave, which was filled with the poisonous gas, several times at night to bring the three boys out safely.  Coxwell also recovered the body of Scoutmaster who had died from the gas fumes. The Medal of Valor, authorized by the Georgia General Assembly, has never before been presented to a Guardsman.”


I was privileged to speak to Roy (as his friends called LeRoy) on the telephone in early 2014. He was 77. He had undergone treatments for lung cancer and the removal of a lobe. This required recuperation in a nursing home. Later the doctor found a cancer on his arm and later it was found to have moved to his bloodstream.  His prognosis was three-six months, but chemo could extend his life.


In our conversation he revealed that the medal which he had been given and all of his documents to prove his act of bravery were lost in a house flood some years ago. From what Larry had said, he was a quiet, serious and private man and he did not share his bravery until many years after they became friends. Speaking to LeRoy and learning of health problems, I put on the speed in finding “a few articles” to send him. 


Well, research is one of my favorite parts of history. I would rather continue to find just one more fact than commit anything to paper. But I knew that I couldn’t dilly-dally in collecting the research. 


By the time I had finished at the library in Chattanooga, I had compiled quite a stack of articles. It seems that almost every paper in the country carried an article about the cave incident within the following week. The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the Kingsport (Tenn.) paper and on and on covered the story. In the end, I was able to send LeRoy Coxwell a notebook of about 25 articles about the cave accident.  He was never mentioned in any of the ones that I read.


Sadly, LeRoy Coxwell died on April 9, 2015. One Godwink is that LeRoy died only a month after my own dad died. 


Others: Larry Moore had a photo that Rudolf Thompson, one of the Howard's Waterfall Cave rescuers, had given him. Betty Thompson gave me a copy of that April Dade paper. Richard Doyle called and asked if I (or the Historical Society) would like copies of Phil Schmidt’s photos of the caving accident. He had no idea that I was planning to write about the incident. I was looking at the pictures last week and wondering how I would ever find out who was in the photos. I found that I had already saved an article with one of Phil’s pictures and the caption which had been sent across the country via United Press International. I will print it with another part of this series. Benny Gilley, one of the tragedy's fatalities, must have talked to everyone in Trenton that morning, because at least a half dozen people have told me that they saw and talked him that morning. On and on the connections continue.


I know for certain that God has been sending me messages since 2013 to write about the people who died and those who survived, and to tell the story of this unsung hero. I couldn’t write this story until now for some reason. I tried to write it in 2016 on the 50th anniversary of the explosion and I just couldn’t do it. I don’t always listen to God, but this is one time that I know I have been prodded. Maybe God thinks this is just the right time to retell this story.


LeRoy and Helen, his wife who died in 1997, are buried in a cemetery in Maryville, ​​Tenn. Maybe I’m getting another message to go to Maryville and visit my oldest childhood friend, Kathy Franklin, who teaches at Hiwassee College. Maybe God is using LeRoy to hurry me along. 


NOTE: Please put the Historical Society Cemetery Walk on Saturday, May 19, from 4-6 p.m. on your calendar. Our actors are preparing to portray the people who will ​​be featured at Payne and Baptist Cemeteries. There is no charge, but donations are appreciated and proceeds will go to the renovation of the old Dade County Courthouse.


--Donna M. Street, donnam.street@gmail.com

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