More than 55,000 vehicles cross the Buck Karnes Bridge in Knoxville on a daily basis. For most of his working career, now retired Staff Sergeant Carl Cook was one of those drivers.
"I drove this bridge every day and I remember the old sign that said James Buck Karnes Medal of Honor Bridge," said Cook. "I think sometime in the 1980s the bridge was remodeled and the signs came back as just 'JE Buck Karnes Bridge.' As a veteran, I think Medal of Honor is the greatest honor any American can receive."
James "Buck" Karnes received the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery on a battlefield in France during World War I. Karnes and a fellow soldier from Morristown named John Ward charged and captured a German machine gun nest that had pinned down their entire unit's advance.
Karnes returned from war as the first person from Knoxville to receive the Medal of Honor. In 1933 the state passed a resolution to rename what was then known as the UT Farm Bridge in honor of Karnes.
When Cook found out the annual Congressional Medal of Honor Convention would be hosted Knoxville in 2014, he saw a chance to lead the charge to restore full honor to the bridge signage.
"I called Joe Thompson with the convention and told him about Karnes and how the bridge does not mention he was awarded the Medal of Honor. That was something we definitely needed to correct with all of these other Medal of Honor recipients coming to our city. Joe told me they would get it done and they did.
"It was really important to us to make sure all of our veterans, especially our Medal of Honor Recipients, receive proper recognition," said Thompson, co-chair of the 2014 Congressional Medal of Honor Convention. "We were able to get legislators like Becky Duncan Massey to help get a resolution passed by the state to approve restoring the words 'Medal of Honor Recipient' to the signs on the bridge."
Monday morning a crowd of dignitaries gathered at the north side of the Buck Karnes Bridge for a re-dedication ceremony. A 21 gun salute by the Knoxville Police Department was especially fitting because Karnes served as a KPD officer after returning from war.
"We've had a history of veterans because it is a natural progression from military service to serving the community in law enforcement," said David Rausch, Knoxville Police Chief. "But I can tell you, Buck was the only officer ever for us who was a Medal of Honor recipient. It's a huge honor for us to have someone like that as a part of our police department's history."
When it was finally time to unveil the new signs, it was Becky Duncan Massey and Carl Cook who did the honors.
"I'm thrilled to have been a part of this. There is a personal sense of pride in that, yes there is," said Cook. "But like I said, the focus is on Buck Karnes our Medal of Honor recipient."
The 2014 Medal of Honor Convention spent around $300 to purchase the new signs. The convention will be held in Knoxville in September 2014.
Reporter's Note: You can read more in-depth information about the life of Buck Karnes (as well as other East Tennessee Medal of Honor recipients) at this link to the WBIR article "Veterans bothered by Buck Karnes Bridge signage" published May 28, 2013.