PEELER: D-Day's Airborne Attack
Sept. 14, 2010
BY TIM PEELER
RALEIGH, N.C. - As the paratroopers of the 101st Airborne "Screaming Eagles" jumped out of their airplanes over the soon-to-be bloody French countryside early in the morning of June 6, 1944, they refused to fall into the early-morning mist with their traditional cry of "Geronimo!"
Instead, they bellowed the name of former NC State football and baseball player Bill Lee, the man who convinced President Franklin D. Roosevelt against stiff military opposition that airborne paratroopers could help the Allied Forces win World War II. As NC State football celebrates Military Appreciation Night at Thursday night's nationally televised football game against Cincinnati, it is appropriate to remember one of the school's greatest graduates, a military commander whose innovative tactics helped defeat Germany in the European theater.
On D-Day, U.S. Army paratroopers from the 101st and the 82nd Airborne were at the leading edge of the invasion of the European continent. They left from the northern coast of England at 12:15 a.m., in transport planes and gliders headed for the "rendezvous with destiny" Lee promised them when they signed up for paratrooper duty. Many of them knew they weren't likely to return, as they jumped behind enemy lines near the beaches of Normandy, France. But they had such great affection for the man who planned the paratrooper battle plan of Operation Overlord, they wanted to shout his name as they went into battle.
Maj. Gen. William Carey Lee, a swashbuckling commander Time magazine once called the "hard-bitten founding father of the U.S. Army's Airborne Command," would have jumped with them, had he not been laid up in his house in Dunn, N.C., recuperating from a heart attack he suffered while training with his men in England.
He was sidelined as Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower led forces from the United States, Great Britain, Canada and the Free French into battle early that morning, sitting in his home in Dunn with his wife Dava listening to reports on the radio.
Lee was one of World War II's most distinguished and successful commanders, even though he never attended the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. Instead, he received most of his education in North Carolina, attending Wake Forest College for two years.
He then enrolled at NC State's Reserve Officer Training Center in September 1916. He played both fullback on the football team and outfield on the baseball team during his brief time at NC State, earning varsity letters in both sports. But his time as a typical undergraduate was cut short because of the United States' entry into The Great War in Europe.
There aren't a lot of statistics from that era, but Lee was the starting fullback on the 1916 football team that scored just 24 points on the year and finished with a 2-6 record. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army on Aug. 17, 1917, just as his classmates and football teammates were preparing to return to campus.
Lee served as a platoon and company commander on the battlefields of France, one of more than 2,500 NC State College students and alumni to serve overseas. He returned from Germany after serving more than a year with the American Army of Occupation.
After nearly two years of infantry training at Fort Benning in Georgia, Lee returned to NC State, spending four years as a member of the military faculty. He went to Panama for three years, returning in 1930 to go to Army tank school.
He was a military observer in France and England when the Great Depression hit the U.S., closely observing Adolph Hitler's rise to power in Germany. He was graduated from the French Tank School in 1935. While still in Europe, he saw a demonstration of German glider and paratrooper training that stuck with him as he continued to rise through the military ranks.
Throughout his travels, he worked on his undergraduate degree from NC State through correspondence courses. He returned to campus in 1936 to take his final classes for his bachelor of science degree, but always considered himself to be part of the class of 1920.
While assigned to the Chief of Infantry in Washington, Lee took a more keen interest in developing invasions with airborne troops. While other military leaders opposed it, Lee found a sympathetic ear in Roosevelt and convinced the President to let him train a division of paratroopers that might one day be important in military engagements.
In July 1940, Lee handpicked a test platoon of men at Fort Benning to form the country's first airborne battalion. He previewed his paratroopers' effectiveness for British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who also took a keen interest in Lee's newly developed tactics, just after the United States entered the Second World War at Fort Benning.
When the 101st Airborne was later activated, on Aug. 15, 1942, Lee told his men:
"The 101st Airborne Division has no history, but we have a rendezvous with destiny!
"Due to the nature of our armament, and the tactics in which we shall perfect ourselves, we shall be called upon to carry out operations of far-reaching military importance and we shall habitually go into action when the need is immediate and extreme.
"Let me call your attention to the fact that our badge is the great American eagle. This is a fitting emblem for a division that will crush its enemies by falling upon them like a thunderbolt from the skies."
Through the end of World War II, both the 101st and the 82nd Airborne proved Lee's once-controversial tactics to be brilliant innovations in modern warfare, and he became one of North Carolina's most important military figures. In 1945, he received the Distinguished Service Medal for creating the Army's airborne division.
On May 18, 1945, during NC State's spring commencement exercises Lee was awarded an honorary doctorate in military science.
While he was honored by world leaders and lauded across the country as a hero, back in Dunn, he was known as "plain ol' Bill Lee," a baseball player of some renown in his youth and the owner of several farms. He always deflected personal glory to the soldiers he commanded.
"Write about the men," he once told a reporter, "and, for goodness sake, keep Bill Lee's name out of it."
He lived his final years peacefully around his home, attending Rotary and American Legion meetings and tending to his fields. He frequently was visited by the world's foremost military leaders at the conclusion of World War II, including a reunion of airborne commanders shortly before his death of a massive heart attack on June 25, 1948.
"His men in the Army swore by him," wrote the Raleigh News & Observer in the news story about his death. "The folks here in Harnett County liked to say that Bill Lee could pick up a map and select a site to land his troop [anywhere] in Europe, but that he could just as precisely pick out a field that's better for cotton than corn or soybeans."
His funeral, held at his home in Dunn, attracted dignitaries from around the world, including his successor as the head of the 101st Airborne, Maj. Gen. Max Taylor, who by then had become the superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy. A company of 600 soldiers were among the thousands of people who attended his burial at Greenwood Cemetery. The 82nd Airborne from nearby Fort Bragg sent a floral arrangement of its famous insignia, made of more than 1,000 roses and carnations.
It is still remembered as one of the biggest events in Harnett County's history.
In 1964, following a great building phase, NC State dedicated one of the new high-rise dormitories on West campus in the general's honor. His widow, Dava, was on hand to christen Lee Dorm.
His former residence in Dunn was turned into the General William C. Lee Airborne Museum shortly after his wife. It was dedicated on June 6, 1986, which was declared William C. Lee Day by the United States Congress. It is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays. For more information, including photo galleries of Lee, visit the museum's website.
On Oct. 11, 2004, the United States Senate passed a bill to rename the Dunn Post Office the "General William Carey Lee Post Office."
Like former North Carolina Governor O. Max Gardner, who also played football at NC State, Lee is generally regarded as one of the school's most prominent graduates.
And, no doubt, the paratroopers he trained scored the most successful touchdown in world history, when they landed in the hedgerows of France shortly after calling out his name.
You may contact Tim Peeler at email@example.com.