Snapped in Birmingham

December 7, 1941 was a day that changed America.

After a surprise attack by Japanese forces on Pearl Harbor, the United States Congress quickly launched America into World War II. Few other events were burned into the collective psyche of the American people like that day. Nearly everyone who was alive then could vividly remember where they were when they heard about it, even decades later.

Thousands of young men turned out to enlist in the conflict. They could officially enlist at 17 with parental permission, but there were many younger teenagers that lied about their ages so they could do their part in the war effort.

One of these was James Carroll.

At only fifteen, he was denied enlistment by a Naval recruiter. Undaunted, Carroll eventually found a notary public who was willing to provide documentation stating that he was actually seventeen. With his mother’s reluctant support, he was finally able to join the Navy.

While underage boys were lying about their age to enlist, women were also struggling to make a more respected place for themselves in the military.

There had been those who championed legislation granting women official military status that would provide better benefits than they had in previous conflicts, namely the First World War. After Pearl Harbor, military higher-ups began to see more of an advantage to this. By the spring of 1942, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps had been formed.

In general, their purpose was to free up viable fighting men from what was then seen as traditional female roles, such as clerical work and communications. The argument was that they had been doing these things for years, and would always be more experienced doing them than any man would be.

While there was definite sexist ideology behind this, at the time many women were okay with this idea. On one hand, they got to contribute to the war effort, and on the other, freeing up more men to fight might win the war faster.

Naomi Kathleen Cheney, a college graduate and high school teacher, hurried to join the thousands of women who were enlisting in the WAAC. Her father, Frank Cheney Sr, had been a captain in World War I. Her brother, Frank Jr., had already enlisted. Like them, Naomi wanted to do her part.

By 1943, Naomi had earned an officer’s commission and became Lieutenant Naomi Cheney. In September of that year, she had been sent to the Technical School, AAF Training Command in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

On October 5, Naomi was seen walking home alone from the base. Her body, still wearing her uniform, was discovered in some local woods the next day. Cheney had been beaten to death. Despite an exhaustive investigation by the military and the Sioux Falls police department, her murder was never solved.

Want to learn more about the oldest unsolved murder in Sioux Falls, SD? Click here. 

Shortly after Naomi was buried in Jasper, Frank re-enlisted, an act that was extremely important to him. When asked, he said that he was doing it in honor of his daughter. She had joined the WAAC to help serve her country. He was adamant that it’s what Naomi would have wanted.

In 1943, Frank was in his late forties, past the general cutoff age of 45. Although he didn’t come right out and say it, he made a broad suggestion to some that he, like James Carroll, had lied about his age. When he was questioned about it by reporters, he simply asked them to say that he was on ‘the long side of 35.’

Luckily for Frank, the Navy knew exactly where to put him. In October 1943, Frank Cheney Sr. was formerly sworn into the Navy Seebees.

Frank Cheney Sr
Frank Cheney, Sr. Courtesy of the Birmingham News. 

After war had been declared on Imperial Japan in December 1941, American military forces knew that fighting on remote and largely undeveloped islands in the Pacific was going to be very difficult. Buildings, roads, and airstrips would all have to be constructed in these areas as a necessity to win the war.

What the Navy needed were men who were experienced tradesman from various disciplines. In addition, they still needed to be organized under a military command structure.

Between the end of 1941 and mid-March 1942, Rear Admiral Moreell, the father of the Seebees, had met these needs by spearheading the development of a brand-new organization in the Navy – the Naval Construction Battalion. Later, they would become much better known by the first two letters of their unit designation, the CB’s, or Seebees.

There was a war going on that the United States was determined to win, and they wanted to fill the ranks of their new unit with the most experienced people that they could find. In order to accomplish this, physical standards and age restrictions were relaxed for these initial recruits.

While the age of these new men averaged out to be around 37, the Navy allowed men as old as 50 to join. In spite of this, it was later found that several recruits 60 years of age and even older had managed to gain entry. By the end of 1942, however, changes had been made in the units recruitment process that saw many much younger, inexperienced men be placed into the Seebees.

During the war, the Seebees built a reputation for being amazingly resourceful, able to complete tasks through sometimes very unconventional means. They also saw their share of combat. In the Pacific, over 200 Seebees died in combat and 2000 more were awarded the Purple Heart for being wounded in combat.

After the end of World War II in 1945, Frank returned home to Alabama. He and his wife Johnnie lived in a nice home in Birmingham, across the street from the campus of Birmingham-Southern College. He worked as a postal clerk, but stayed on in the Naval Reserve. Frank was an avid reader, going through upwards of six books a week.

By 1949, the Chaney’s had begun renting rooms in their house. In October of that year, they had two families staying with them, including the Greers.

26-year-old Floyd E. Greer was studying to be an airplane mechanic at the Alabama Aero-Mechanics Institute. He had been living there with his wife, Hazel, and his nearly one-year-old son, Davis, for the past two months.

Frank wasn’t happy with them being there. He wanted them to leave, and had continually tried to get them to move out. For their own reasons, the Greers chose to keep staying there, in spite of their landlord’s best efforts.

On October 16, 1949, little Davis was sick. Floyd took him into the living room and turned on a gas heater in order to help warm up the baby. Johnnie Cheney was also in the room, and didn’t seem to object.

As Floyd sat with the baby, Frank walked in to the room wearing only his underwear. The two men began talking, and Frank ended the conversation by saying that he had had enough. He told Johnnie to call his doctor and walked into the room that he commonly used as his bedroom.

A few moments later, he returned with a revolver. Without a word, he raised the pistol and fired at Floyd.

Greer saw the muzzle flash as he instinctively hunched protectively over his son. He felt a hot, searing pain as the bullet tore its way through his neck and shoulder. Davis began to scream as the same round passed through his father’s body and struck home in his tiny arm.

Almost before he knew what he was doing, Floyd was running across the room and out the door. In those few crucial moments and so close to the promise of death, all he could think about was to get his wounded son out of harm’s way. Soon, he was running across the lawn and into the street, shouting for help as he went.

When she heard the shot, Hazel stepped out of her bedroom to see what had happened. Frank, who was standing nearby, immediately turned and shot her. Hazel fell back, screaming and bleeding.

Frank then ran after Floyd. Standing on the front porch, he looked intently for his tenant, pistol at the ready. After a few moments, he realized Floyd was gone. Giving up the chase, he walked back inside.

Stopping to reload his handgun, he went into the Greer’s bedroom. He found Hazel hiding in the closet. Grabbing her roughly, he pulled her from her hiding spot and began to drag her across the floor. Although she struggled as best as she could, Hazel couldn’t break free.

Without mercy, he raised his gun and fired several more shots into Hazel Greer at near point-blank range, ending her life.

A short distance away, Floyd had gotten Davis to safety. Going into a local drugstore, he immediately called the police. Unbeknownst to him, several other calls had also been made in regards to the gunfire coming from the Cheney residence.

Police lost no time in responding, and two ambulances were also sent.

The two attendants with the first ambulance, Bill Waterhouse and Miles Doss, thought that it was just another routine call. They stopped the vehicle outside the Cheney house, took out a cot from the back, and started to walk up the steps to the front porch.

Without warning, Frank Cheney appeared, shooting at them.

The attendants dropped their cot and ran back to the ambulance, taking cover behind it. They stayed there until two officers, E.L. McRoe and C.J. Walters, pulled up.

Drawing their own guns, the police cautiously began to make their way toward the house. As they approached the front door, they heard a quiet gunshot, then all was silent again. The men proceeded to move from room to room, looking for Cheney.

They found him inside the Greer bedroom, next to the body of Hazel Greer. He lay on the floor, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his head.

Johnnie Cheney, who had managed to escape her husband’s sudden onslaught by climbing out of a window in the back of the house, later said that she was afraid that something like this might happen one day. She told investigators that he kept two guns in the house, along with some dynamite.

Investigators ruled the shooting a murder-suicide, and closed the case. Closure for everyone left alive in the aftermath probably took a lot longer. Although they were all able to move on with their lives, they still had to live with that one, resounding question about that day – Why?

Had Frank been suffering from PTSD, stemming from his service in the war?

While several WWII veterans suffered from it, they were often discharged from their service and left to deal with their issues on their own. After having seen so many horrible things, some of them had deep emotional scars and had no effective methods of handling it.

Frank was the veteran of two world wars, and also had to deal with the unsolved murder of his daughter Naomi. Had the mental and emotional trauma of a lifetime built up and finally caused his sanity to snap?

Or had Frank simply gone insane one day for no reason?

In the late 1800’s, an Iowa man named George Scott began to lose touch with reality. He gradually became more and more paranoid, eventually convincing himself that his wife, Jean, was poisoning his food. One day, he completely snapped, shooting Jean four times before committing suicide.

Had this happened to Frank? Had he simply begun suffering from a late-onset mental illness that caused him to have paranoid delusions and, eventually, a psychotic break?

Frank Cheney had been a good husband and father. He loved his children, and were proud of their decisions and their service to the United States. Frank had honorably served his nation himself in two wars, and had continued to serve with distinction in the Naval Reserve.

But in 1949, something happened to him. Whatever it was, we’ll never know. All that we’re left with are questions that we don’t really have an answer for.

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Suspect Held in Sioux Falls WAC Murder. Rapid City Journal, 10/8/1943

WAC’s Slaying Still Mystery. Alabama Journal, 10/8/1943

Lake, Clancy. College Hills Landlord Kills Tenant, Then Self. The Birmingham News, 10.17.19

Woman Slain, Two Shot By Magic City War Vet. The Huntsville Times, 10/17/1949

Three Dead in Murder Spree. The Selma Times-Journal, 10/17/1949

Announcements. The Birmingham News, 10/18/1949

Wright Jr., Fred W. Lying to enlist in World War II began 15-year-old’s long journey. Tampa Bay Times, 4/22/2014 Alabama, Death Index, 1908-1959 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2000.

Year: 1930; Census Place: Pensacola, Escombia, Florida; Enumeration District: 0025; FHL microfilm: 2340050 Alabama, County Marriage Records, 1805-1967 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2016. 1920 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2010. Images reproduced by FamilySearch. U.S., Select Military Registers, 1862-1985 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2013. This collection was indexed by Ancestry World Archives Project contributors.




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