north carolina highway historical marker program
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program
 

 
 
 

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Essay:
      William Carey Lee, the “Father of the Airborne,” was born in Dunn in1895, the son of Eldrege and Emma Lee. He attended public schools prior to studying at Wake Forest College from 1913 to 1915. From 1915 until 1917 Lee attended North Carolina State College, where he played baseball and football. Caught up in the patriotic fervor of World War I, Lee volunteered for the United States Army and received a lieutenant’s commission.

      Lee served in France as a platoon and company commander before returning to the United States at war’s end. He remained in the army, returned to teach military science at North Carolina State College and then served a three-year tour in Panama. Lee subsequently entered the Tank Corps, and trained with French armored personnel in the mid-1930s. He returned to North Carolina in the late 1930s, and completed a bachelor’s degree in education. In 1939 he was assigned to the Chief of the Army’s office in Washington, D.C., where he became part of a small, maverick group of army officers advocating for the development of an airborne army infantry force.

      In June 1940, the Army authorized the development of a test platoon of paratroopers, and placed Lee, now a lieutenant-colonel, in charge. The following year Lee was appointed head of a provisional detachment of paratroopers, and by 1942 was the colonel commanding the entire Airborne Command Headquarters. In July 1942, after Army officials authorized the raising of two airborne divisions, Lee received command of the 101st Division. For the next two years he oversaw its development and training and was instrumental in getting airborne and glider operations begun at both Camp Mackall and Laurinburg-Maxton Army Air Base.

      The inclusion of the airborne divisions in the Normandy Invasion in June 1944 was directly the work of Lee. Nevertheless, Lee would not be allowed to jump into occupied France with his beloved paratroopers. A heart attack on February 5, 1944, ended his war. Although he survived, Lee was forced to retire. However, the members of the 101st Division, the Screaming Eagles, were ordered by their new commander, Gen. Maxwell Taylor, to scream the name “Bill Lee” as they departed their transports over France in the early morning hours of D-Day, June 6, 1944.

      Lee’s health continued to deteriorate. He died on March 1, 1948, survived by his wife Dava Johnson Lee. He is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Dunn.


References:
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, IV, 45-46—sketch by W. Lee Johnston
James A. Huston, Out of the Blue: U.S. Army Airborne Operations in World War II (1972)
Jerry Autry, William C. Lee: Father of the American Airborne (2005)
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