Valor Friday

| February 12, 2021

In the world of US Marine Corps lore there are a handful of legendary figures. The Marines revere few men and those they do have a record of battlefield accomplishment that it’s hard to imagine that they would succeed at anything except war. Names like Lewis “Chesty” Puller, Dan Daly, Smedley Butler, and John Basilone top lists of most decorated Marines of all time and are also among the most decorated Americans. A contemporary of all four men is my subject today.

William A Lee

William Lee from Ward Hill, Massachusetts, would earn the nickname “Iron Man” during his decades of service in the Marine Corps. Born in 1900, he would first attempt to enlist in the US Army at age 17 looking to see service in World War I.

Rejected by the Army as too young, Mr. Lee instead tried the Marine recruiter. They advised he could join, but with permission of his father. Lee walked out of the office and found the first man he could and asked the man to post as his father. With that impediment out of the way, he was off to Parris Island for recruit training.

After boot camp, Lee was sent to machine gunner’s school in Utica, NY. He then deployed to France in September 1918 with Company K, 13th Regiment, 5th Marine Brigade. While in France he rose to the rank of corporal.

Lee’s 18th birthday was 12 November, 1918, the day after the Armistice went into effect, ending the war. A few months after his return to the states, Lee would be mustered out of the Marine Corps.

Lee must have missed the life of a Devil Dog, because he reenlisted in 1921. Serving with his brother, the men were posted to USS Arkansas, a Wyoming-class dreadnought battleship that saw service in the Great War and would continue serving through World War II, shelling the Germans at Omaha Beach on D-Day.

While aboard Arkansas, Lee earned a reputation as an excellent marksman with whatever weapon he was given. As he told the tale(s), he shot well enough with both the M1903 Springfield Rifle (chambered in 30.06) AND the M1911 .45 pistol to have earned distinguished marksmanship qualifications. That in itself is impressive, but not particularly noteworthy. What is, is that Lee claimed to have done it both left and right handed.

Lee also had a knack for fighting (what good Marine doesn’t?) and was the fleet’s heavyweight boxing champ in 1925. In this time, he’d steadily risen the ranks and was a gunnery sergeant. He even found time to start a Marine rowing team, winning a championship cup of course.

Lee developed an acquaintanceship with noted Chief Marine Gunner Calvin Lloyd, who designed the rifle ranges at Quantico (those ranges now named for him). Lloyd, though he retired a major, would always answer the phone “Gunner Lloyd.” Lee was a shooting companion of Lloyd and soon enough married Lloyd’s daughter, having three daughters by the union.

In 1927 Lee was sent to Nicaragua, still nominally under US occupation but in a state of civil war. Here Lee would, like many senior Marines of his generation, lead Nicaraguan National Guard forces into combat against the Sandinista rebels.

In 1930, Gunny Lee would, on six separate occasions, over the summer of 1930 lead his men on successful operations against the enemy. Summer is the height of the Nicaraguan rainy season, seeing on average 2/3rd of days raining with average temperatures over 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

The battles were at Monte Cristo on 20 March 1930, at Buena Vista on 27 March 1930, at Los Cedros on 6 June 1930, at Moncotal on 22 July 1930, at Guapinol on 25 July 1930, and at Malacate on 19 August 1930. In each of these engagements, Lee’s forces would completely rout the enemy. This in spite of the trying conditions caused by the hot, humid locale.

Lee would be awarded the Navy Cross, the country’s second highest award for combat valor, for his performances in Nicaragua.

Later that same year, he’d continue cutting through the rebel forces. Leading his troops at San Juan, 12 December 1930, Sierra Moreno, 15 December 1930, and Embocaderos, 20 December 1930. Two of those engagements were against numerically superior forces. Again, Lee would crush the enemy and send them fleeing. This prevented the rebels from targeting the coffee fields in the Tuma River area.

Lee would earn a second Navy Cross for these battles.

Chesty Puller (center left) and Iron Man Lee (center right) in Nicaragua

Remaining in Nicaragua, the accomplished Marine would be paired with another Marine who first earned a Navy Cross during the spring and summer of 1930 in Nicaragua, First Lieutenant Chesty Puller. Somewhere in all of this Nicaraguan service, Lee earned the nickname “Iron Man”, allegedly from Puller himself.

As the US was drawing down American forces in Nicaragua in 1932, Puller and Gunnery Sergeant Lee would lead 40 men of the Guardia Nacional on a raid-style combat patrol in September 1932 against the rebels.

As both men were technically seconded to the National Guard, Puller held the rank of captain and Lee first lieutenant. They hand selected the men that they would take with them. Moving over the rough terrain and thick jungle, they set out on the 20th. On the 26th they were ambushed by enemy forces as they attempted to cross a river after bushwhacking 100 miles.

River crossing ambushes were common, so the men were prepared. Attacked by a force of 150 men, well supplied with abundant ammunition, automatic weapons, grenades, and various classes of small arms, Lee was wounded twice early in the engagement, even so far as being rendered unconscious.

After some 15 or 20 minutes Lee awoke in the midst of the battle. Despite his weakened condition, he grabbed the Lewis Machine Gun, and with complete disregard for his own safety, moved through enemy fire to a position where he could lay effective fire. Lee held the enemy down by laying withering covering fire from the machine gun while the rest of the men moved into position to return effective fire.

The rebels soon retreated. Having found the enemy, they pursued them into their encampment. Lee resumed his role as second-in-command as they attacked the camp. Puller and Lee’s men killed ten and sent another ten wounded in retreat with the remaining insurgents scattering into the jungle. Of their men, Puller and Lee found that two were dead and four wounded (including Lee). Puller made the decision to get the injured to medical help, so they began the days-long arduous march back to camp.

On the four-day march back, they were ambushed twice more. Suffering no casualties, the Marines and National Guardsmen sent the enemy running each time.

Puller would receive his second Navy Cross (of an eventual five) and Lee would receive his third Navy Cross for the action. Lee was the first Marine to have received the honor three times. He was also honored by the Nicaraguan government with two awards of their Cross of Valor.

Seriously wounded in this final action, Lee was returned to the states. His injuries were severe enough that he spent six months in hospital in Washington, D.C. before being assigned to the 5th Marines at Quantico.

In light of his years of service and his wartime record, Lee was made a warrant officer when he was appointed a Chief Marine Gunner. This increase in rank and status is more than just an honorary rank (though it did serve that role as well). Marine gunners are the infantry tactics and small arms experts of the Corps. With Lee’s record of leading small formations of men into combat, far detached from reinforcement, and his skill with a variety of man-portable weapons, you can see why this was an easy choice for the Corps. Marine Gunners are highly thought of within the Corps, both by subordinates and superiors. They are considered something of the pinnacle of the grunt rifleman.

In August 1939, with the Second World War mere days away from starting, Chief Gunner Lee reported to Peiping (now Beijing), China to the American embassy. As tensions between the Japanese and Chinese increased into what would become the Second Sino-Japanse War (and part of the larger Far East theater of World War II), the Corps had pulled most of the China Marines. Lee would remain behind in Peiping however with about 200 Marines as the rest were evacuated to Corregidor in the Philippines.

It is said that when Lee reported in to his new commanding officer at Peiping, the officer asked him if he was the Bill Lee with the Navy Cross. “No, sir! I’m the Bill Lee with THREE of ‘em!”

On the morning of 7 December 1941, the Japanese surprise attack at Pearl Harbor caused the US to declare war on the Empire of Japan the next day. The chief gunner had his men immediately stockpiling supplies. Lee and his men were at the docks in Chingwangtao on the 8th, with their provisions, preparing to be evacuated by boat on the 10th.

Before the boat could arrive, the 20 or so Marines were surrounded by thousands of Japanese troops. Lee and his men prepared to make their last stand and fight to the end, but they received orders (as did all Marines still in China) to surrender. Reluctantly, the good Marine followed his orders and became a prisoner of the Japanese.

By February 1942 the China Marines, including Lee, had been taken to a POW camp near Shanghai. The Woosung POW camp was horrendous. The barracks were falling apart and did little to shield the Marines from the elements. They were given minimal food and subject to repeated beatings from their captors. It wasn’t until December 1942 that they would be moved several miles away to another POW camp that had slightly better conditions.

The Japanese camps were notoriously bad. The Japanese saw surrender as dishonorable, so treated their prisoners as human garbage. Though they had signed the 1929 Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war, the Japanese never ratified it and didn’t follow it.

Life in the prison camps for Allied prisoners (from China, United States, Australia, Britain, Canada, India, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the Philippines) was brutal. Prisoners were subject to summary execution, forced labor, and beatings. The Chinese prisoners in particular, who the Japanese especially disliked, were subjected to medical experimentation of the cruelest sort. All the Allied prisoners were given starvation rations, denied medical care, and some even resorted to cannibalism.

Lee and the other China Marines spent the duration of the war enduring these hardships. As the war progressed far from them, they were eventually moved in May 1945 as the Japanese were losing ground fast in the Pacific War. First moved to Nanking, a worse prison camp than the one outside Kiangwang they’d been at the last few years. They were then moved in June to Pusan, in Japanese-occupied Korea, in their worst camp yet. After just a few days there, they were loaded onto a ferry and sent to the Japanese island of Honshu. They were moved again and again north through Japan, arriving at Hokkaido, where they’d remain until VJ Day.

During his internment, Chief Gunner Lee would repeatedly be subjected to physical abuse from his captors. As a warrant officer he was in a leadership position and he was also a large man of imposing stature. Both would cause him to be subjected to especially harsh treatment. At one point he had his front teeth knocked out by a Japanese rifle butt and on multiple occasions the Japanese guards would put out lit cigarettes in his ears.

In August 1945, after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which brought the Japanese Empire to its knees, many of the Japanese guards fled the camp. Seizing the opportunity and fearing the remaining guards would kill everyone, Lee and several other men fought back against the remaining soldiers there. Killing several of the enemy, they were able to take the camp. Lee recalled that he himself killed one particularly sadistic guard who had savagely beaten him several times.

Lee and his Marines held the prison camp until they were liberated by Allied troops weeks later in September. They were the longest held American prisoners of the war, having been interned for all but one day of the war.

Lee was dispatched to San Francisco, arriving September 22nd and then to Quantico. Upon arriving in Quantico he phoned the officer of the day (OD) at Headquarters Marine Corps. Identifying himself, he asked for a car to take him to the base. The legend of Bill Lee had been out of circulation for a time. Due to all the fighting in the Pacific, even three Navy Crosses and being a Chief Marine Gunner didn’t carry the weight he thought it would and the duty officer had no clue who he was.

The OD told him that the Marine Corps not only didn’t have the rank of Chief Gunner any more (in about 1943 the Marines commissioned them all as lieutenants and didn’t appoint any more until the mid-50’s) but there was no way he was dispatching a car for a warrant officer. Hoisting his sea bag, complete with newly issued uniforms, Lee walked to the base, some 30 miles away.

Lee too was commissioned, immediately on arrival at his new duty station. As happens with prisoners of war, he was promoted with his peers in absentia. Military paperwork being slow as always, he received a steady stream of promotion orders. About once a month one would come, and so by July 1946, he was a lieutenant colonel. At Lejeune he was in command of a rifle range at the camp.

Returning home was difficult, as Lee’s wife had died in an unfortunate bathtub fall while he was imprisoned. I ran across this story while researching Lee;

The story goes (and this one was told to me by his [Lee’s] daughter Nancy with whom I was well acquainted), that Bill caught some young miscreant “wasting food” by throwing the leftovers in the $hi+can in the mess hall. Not exactly armed robbery, mugging or assault, but you’ve gotta’ remember that Bill was shortly out of a Jap POW Camp where wasting food was a matter of life and death.

Bill sentenced the young lad to be tied to the flagpole in front of the range for three days, and so he was. Even though cell phones were in the future and communication by our current standards were somewhat crude, the word got back to the Base Commanding General seemingly at the speed of light. The Chief of Staff got on the phone with Bill (the General was of the old Corps and personally acquainted with ol’ Bill), and told Bill that he had spoken to the General and the General’s reply was that he understood the situation, but now that he (Bill) had made his point, he should cut the lad loose. Bill was outraged that anyone would interfere in what he considered an appropriate sentence, and told the Chief of Staff that if the General wanted the little ‘tool’ cut loose, he’d have to come out and cut him loose himself! Even with lack of Helicopter Transportation, the General arrived at the Range in an amazingly short period of time.

Bill had anticipated this of course, and was standing in front of the flagpole with a locked and loaded M1 Rifle. The General and Bill being acquainted from years past, cooler heads eventually prevailed and a much relieved lad was released (promising to never waste any chow ever again). Subsequently Bill was hustled off to the Naval Hospital for a bit of observation (under what would now probably be termed Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome).

By July 1 1950 he was retiring. In light of his record he received a “tombstone promotion” (i.e. a retirement promotion) to colonel. A tombstone promotion comes with the title and privileges of the advanced rank, but without the pay. Lee’s retirement came only a week after North Korea invaded the South.

Unsurprisingly for a hard fighting Marine, Colonel Lee attempted to return to active duty, but was denied. Apparently the Corps believed that more than 30 years of service, four of which were as a prisoner of war and 22 of which were overseas, three Navy Crosses (in a single deployment no less), and three Purple Hearts was more than Uncle Sam should ask of one man.

Iron Man Lee resided in the town of Quantico, living in a house next to a small two-room schoolhouse. On occasion the kids’ balls or toys would wander into Colonel Lee’s yard. One woman, who as a child was always picked to go get their stuff, recalled that Lee cut an imposing figure, always smoking a pipe and with long white hair. She wouldn’t find out for many years of his wartime exploits and heroics, but she always ended every sentence spoken to the man with “Sir!”

Lee took to participating in Civil War reenactments, firing his collection of muskets at every available opportunity. For the centennial of the Confederacy, he donned a Confederate uniform in 1961 and wore it all throughout Fredericksburg until 1965. He became something of a local celebrity, even appearing on postcards because of his eccentricity.

Lee would serve as an NRA referee or other match official at shooting meets throughout the Quantico area. He’d give speeches and lectures whenever asked. He even showed up for a Marine Corps Ball in 1977 in a new set of evening dress uniforms, wearing the rarely seen boat cloak with it.

In 1992, Quantico named one of the ranges in the Calvin A Lloyd range complex after Lee. This is a fitting tribute as he was a shooting partner and son-in-law of Lloyd. As legend tells it, Lee (at age 92 mind you) took an M16 downrange and christened the new course himself with a magazine of anti-rodent rounds.

Lee lived a long time after his retirement. He wouldn’t pass until 1998 at age 98 from cancer. He’s buried at Quantico National Cemetery.

Category: Historical, Marines, Navy Cross, POW, We Remember

Comments (15)

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  1. Jeff says:

    Wow, just Wow!

  2. The Stranger says:

    Now that’s one hell of a Marine…

    Nothing follows.

  3. KoB says:

    DAAAAYYYUUUMM! Guess the name “Iron Man” also came from those metallic cajones that Gunner Lee developed. Also a lot of “Irony” in a Massachusetts Native joining the “Confederate Army” in 1961 and fighting thru the whole “Centennial of the War.” Maybe he was inspired to do that from the stories that Chesty Puller told him about Chesty’s Grand Pappy’s Confederate Service.

    Great story Mason, did not know of this Hero Warrior. Because of the recommendation of a coupla miscreanted deplorable d’weeds here (Skyjumper and Thunderstixx IIRC), I’m about 1/3 of the way thru the Ghost Soldiers History. I think a lot of the history of the atrocities of the Japanese during WWII have been brushed aside. Looks like a lot of our history may take the same path.

    • David says:

      About 3% of American POWs died in German captivity. Almost 60% of those captured by the Japanese died. ‘Nuff said.

    • Mason says:

      Japanese atrocities have definitely been forgotten, at least in the West. Ask any kid about the Holocaust and they can probably give you at least the gist of it. There’s no recognition at all of what the Japanese did. Their medical experimentation was worse than what Mengele and the Nazis did.

      • 11B-Mailclerk says:

        Proven cases of Japanese officers of camps eating the flesh of prisoners.

        That was hushed up, as we wanted Japan on our side against the Soviet Union and other monstrous communist regimes.

        • KoB says:

          The liver was considered by some as a particularly special delicacy. Something else I read made mention of a slang term for POWs was loosely translated as “long pork”.

          And some folks wondered at the adamant refusal of my old friend and neighbor that was on the “March” to have a single Japanese built product in his home. RIP Mr. Allen Carr.

      • NHSparky says:

        In the East as well. Japanese kids are taught none of it. Hell, they used to think the USS Arizona was propaganda made up by the US.

  4. HMCS(FMF) ret says:

    One tough SOB and Marine!

  5. AW1Ed says:

    Hand Salute. Ready, Two!

    Thanks again, Mason.

  6. Sparks says:

    One tough man. Thank you for this post and remembrance of one of the many heroes I did not know about.

  7. Jay says:

    Good Lord….death had to come for the old man at age 98, because he probably would’ve kicked its ass any time sooner.

  8. xyzzy says:

    All fine men and a credit to their Corps.

    Can we get Dakota Meyer’s name added?