WWII ACE FLIES AGAIN
By Robert Carroll GLOBE CORRESPONDENT
Smoke spewing from his fighter plane, the Nazi pilot is desperate to escape the American on his tail. Up, and then down. A hard bank left, a rash dive to the right. Still, the American continues to fire round after round into the smoldering fuselage until the German, in a last-ditch effort to survive, ejects from his plane.
A heartbeat later, the American has his sights set on a lone truck chugging along the Italian countryside. Zeroing in; the pilot holds steady as flashes of enemy fire whistle past. Showering the truck in gunfire, the American pilot never pulls up until the roadway is scorched by flame.
And on and on the images captured by the nose camera of Colonel George T. Lee’s P-47 fighter plane unfold: each grainy snippet providing a rare glimpse of a World War II skirmish as seen by Norwood’s most decorated flying ace.
“The films.” said Jack Tolman, “are stunning to watch.”
Tolman, head of TV and video services for Norwood Public Schools, discovered the long-lost reels of 16mm film while searching for footage of football games in a basement storage room at the high school. He said that when he first found the films in 2001, he watched one “for only a few seconds” before deciding that the sepia images must have been part of an old social studies project.
“I really didn’t think anything of it,” he recalled recently.
It wasn’t until last summer, when Tolman again came across the three metal tins holding the reels, that he decided to investigate further. He noticed “Lee” written in faded pencil on the canisters. He also saw “Pisa, Italy” and “1945” inscribed. He immediately called his father-in-law, George Foley, figuring that as a veteran and Norwood native of a certain age, he might know a thing or two about WWII combatants.
“I asked him if he had ever heard of someone named Lee who was a fighter pilot,” said Tolman. “He said in a surprised voice, ‘Are you kidding?’ I knew at that point I was on to something.”
Tolman then called Edmund W. Mulvehill Jr., an Air Force veteran and director of the town’s Department of Veterans Services, and left a message that he might have something Mulvehill would be interested in seeing.
A few days later, the two men got together over the film projector. And Tolman was right: Mulvehill was floored by what he saw.
“It was stuff that you would see in a Hollywood movie,” Mulvehill said. “But this was real life. These cameras were on a lot of the fighter planes, and they operated whenever the pilot hit the trigger button. They would run for a few seconds more after the shooting stopped. You see how good a shot Colonel Lee was. He was hitting trains and cars and all kinds of targets.”
In one 5-second segment, Lee appears to be shooting randomly at trees along a river in northern Italy. Suddenly a massive explosion jolts both the ground and Lee’s plane.
“He must have known there was a munitions barge in there, and he hit it square on,” said Mulvehill. “The concussion from the explosion is incredible. Too bad the films don’t have sound.”
Each of the three films lasts about 13 minutes. Tolman and Mulvehill figure Lee, who died in 1954 when lightning struck his plane during a training mission over Missouri, somehow obtained permission to keep the films at the conclusion of World War II.
‘It was stuff that you would see in a Hollywood movie. But this was real life…. You see how good a shot Colonel Lee was.’ Edmund W. Mulvehill Jr. Norwood Veterans Services director, on the aerial footage
“It’s rare, even atypical, to find films like these brought home by the officer,” said Blair Hayworth, an official with the Pentagon’s Center for Military History. “They must not have contained anything deemed classified.”
The Norwood men said they think the films were shown as part of the high school’s history curriculum during the 1950s and ’60s.
“Eventually, they were forgotten and found their way into the film room,” said ‘Iblman. “We want to bring them back out to remind people of what a great person the colonel was.”
Joe Davis, a Veterans of Foreign Wars spokesman in Washington, D.C., lauded their efforts, and said, “Films like these preserve a part of history, and a part of life, that can never be captured again, but can be relived.” Mulvehill and Tolman have spent the past several months gathering information about Lee for a documentary they are preparing for the local cableaccess television channel, with a target air date of Memorial Day or before. So far, they have about three hours of footage, including the 39 minutes of Lee’s exploits, and interviews with relatives and close friends of the pilot. “Lee’s story really is interesting,” Tolman said.
The fourth boy among Thomas and Mary Lee’s seven children, Lee was raised on Rock Street. The 1937 Norwood High graduate was working at the Walpole A&P grocery store on Dec. 7, 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked. As with so many Americans, the event spurred him to join the war effort. He decided to become a fighter pilot and began taking courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology every day after work to improve his chances.
Within a year of joining the Air Force, Lee was flying missions over North Africa and in the Mediterranean. By the end of World War II, he had flown 258 sorties — roughly one every third day — and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, the British Distinguished Flying Cross, the Silver Star, and the Croix de Guerre for his aerial heroics. He was promoted to full colonel at age 25, a rare feat.
One relative recalls Lee returning home to a hero’s welcome, as well as a bit of controversy.
“George was on leave, and he wanted to make an entrance,” said Foxborough dentist Alan Lee, a nephew of the colonel. “So he flies a fighter plane in and buzzes his mother’s house.
He then flew upside down over the Walpole A&P to impress his friends there.”
As word spread of Lee’s return, town officials scrambled to organize a motorcade celebration, and Lee, whose steely nerves were matched only by his shyness, was propped up on the back seat of a convertible for the parade. According to newspaper accounts, Washington Street was lined with thousands of well-wishers, including hundreds of schoolchildren let out early to attend the festivities.
“George meant a lot to the town,” Alan Lee said. “He was a quiet man, but he was also a daredevil. I remember being 7 years old and having him pick me up in his yellow El Dorado convertible. He’d drive that thing with the top down so fast. It was a cool car ride around Norwood.”
Following the war, George and his brother Tom went into business together, opening a club called the Wings at Wilson and Walpole streets in 1946. Known for its pizza, live entertainment, and family-first environment, the hangout became a town staple during its 23-year run, hosting such luminaries as sitting Massachusetts governors Paul Dever and Maurice Tobin. It closed in 1969.
“From what I’ve heard, the Wings was a huge landmark,” said 42-year-old Jim Lee of Norwood. “George was my father’s uncle, and I unfortunately never got to meet him. But I’ve heard the stories. I actually took George as a confirmation name, and became a jet mechanic in the Marine Corps because of those stories of his heroics. He was and still is a source of pride for the family.”
Similar pride continues to run through Norwood, where motorists on Nahatan Street cross a railroad bridge honoring Lee, and where customers of the new Brooks pharmacy, built on the Walpole Street site of the old Wings club, can see a plaque remembering the Lee brothers. Tom Lee died last summer, just two weeks after Mulvehill tracked him down at a local nursing home to tell him about the films.
“Tom told me he had been looking for those films for years,” said Mulvehill. “He started to cry. I told him we’d be back to show him and how we wanted him to be a part of a documentary. But, sadly, he died before we got together again.”
Now, 51 years after George Lee’s death, a generation brought up on video war games will soon get to see a real sky fighter in action.
“I think people are going to be surprised when they see the films,” said Mulvehill.