Colonel William A. "Ironman" Lee, winner of three Navy Crosses and three Purple Hearts; veteran of World War I, the Banana Wars and World War II; distinguished shooter; Old China Hand; prisoner of war; one of the last of the Old Corps; and authentic Marine Corps legend, died in Fredericksburg, Va. He was 98.
"In the days of wooden ships, Lee would have been an Ironman," said the late Lieutenant General Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller of him during their days of fighting bandits and rebels in Nicaragua. Puller was the only Marine with more Navy Crosses (a total of five) than Lee.
Born in Ward Hill, Mass., Lee enlisted in 1918 and served in France at the end of the "Great War." In 1926, rebellion was brewing in the "banana republics" of Central America, and Lee was among the Marines sent to safeguard American lives and property. Much to the dismay of the rebels led by Augusto Cesar Sandino of Nicaragua. Lee thrived in the potentially deadly environment. He was a superb rifleman and pistol shot who in later years would be one of the Corps? distinguished team shooters.
From the late 1920s to the early l930s, Lee, Puller and other Marines sent to Nicaragua were appointed officers in the Guardia Nacional and protected American lives and property by engaging in counterinsurgency action against rebels and bandits. In 1932, Lee and Puller set out on a series of patrols as wild as anything in the Corps? history or, for that matter, in the American West.
On Sept. 20, 1932, Puller and Lee struck out of Jinotega. On Sept. 26, the patrol crossed a stream, Auga Carta, 75 miles out of Jinotega. In his "Soldiers of the Sea," the late Col. Robert Debs Heinl Jr. wrote: "Rifle fire, mingled briefly with the chatter of automatic weapons, burst from the jungle. The guardias, keen and aggressive, counterattacked, and the bandits melted into the bush. Puller estimated that the brief ambush came from 80 men with at least two machine guns, trying to mainly pick off the officers.
"The patrol moved silently ahead. As the point advanced, Captain Puller, the second man in the column, dove for the ground; so did the point. As they dropped, bandit automatic rifle fire literally truncated the man behind Puller, drenching the captain with a sheet of blood. The whole ridge to the right exploded with dynamite bombs, musketry, hand and rifle grenades and fire from at least seven machine guns with automatic rifles. Three guardias fell wounded. So did Lieutenant Lee, hit twice (in the head and arm) and unable to slash the patrol?s Lewis gun loose from its pack mule.
"Up the slope the guardias began to fight their way under intense fire. Exerting all his strength, Lee managed to get the Lewis gun and bring it into action. Then more bandits opened fire from the opposite ridge. This brought the total number of bandits to over 150. After more than an hour?s desperate fighting, the patrol was safe. Better still, they had won. Sixteen dead bandits were found, plus bloody traces of many more wounded.
"His own wounded forced Captain Puller to turn back. Four days later, after two more futile ambushes which only further lacerated the bandits. Puller?s patrol emerged from the jungle at Jinotega. In 10 days they had marched more than 150 miles, fought four battles, destroyed 30 bandit camps, killed 30 bandits by count, and probably many more. Lieutenant Lee was promptly flown to Managua.
"For this epic patrol, Captain Puller was awarded a second Navy Cross and Lee his third?until the Second World War, the highest number of Navy Crosses ever won by a single individual. Lee was also presented with two Medals of Valor by the government of Nicaragua. Lee?s fame as a Navy Cross holder, however, was not quite universal. In China in 1939, shortly after reporting for duty, he was questioned by his commanding officer, ?Lee, isn?t that a Navy Cross I see you?re wearing?? ?No, Sir,? replied Lee, ?that?s three of them.?"
He was a chief warrant officer in China on Dec. 8, 1941, with a 20-man detachment at the Camp Holcomb rifle range near Chinwangtao (Qinhaungdao) when word came down of the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. Lee broke out crated ammunition, machine guns, automatic rifles and submachine guns, steaming them free of cosmoline and organized a perimeter as Japanese forces watched. Only a message from his superiors kept the detachment from participating in another Alamo.
Subsequently, Lee and the rest spent 44 months as prisoners of war where they were, as he often recounted, beaten, burned with cigarettes and starved.
After the war Lee returned to the United States and became legendary as a marksman. He led USMC shooting teams to international competition prior to his retirement as a colonel in 1950. Recognition for his skill as a rifleman came in 1992 when a $5.5 million range was opened at Quantico and named after him.
Settling in Fredericksburg, Va., Lee, until very recently, appeared at many local civic functions reciting patriotic poetry and telling stories of inspiration. He was a close friend of the
Leatherneck staff, who benefited from his frequent visits and warm friendship.
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