TOWN MOURNS DEATH OF WAR HERO IN MISSOURI PLANE CRASH
Colonel Lee Will Be Paid Final Tribute At Services On Monday
Body Being Sent Home By Rail – Will Arrive Here Friday Night
Norwood, Massachusetts, Thursday, October 7, 1954- Norwood’s leading wartime ace, Air Force Col. George T. Lee, 35, of 26 Rock street (sic), who compiled a record of 258 missions over enemy territory during World War II only to meet death in a peacetime mission when his jet plane crashed into the woods at Gerald, Mo., late Tuesday, will be accorded full military honors when his funeral service is held on Monday. His body is expected to arrive home Friday night.
The one time Norwood butcher boy who rose through the ranks in the Air Force, and the pilot of the jet plane, Capt. Kenneth E. Childs of Hickham Mills, Mo., lost their lives when the plane crashed during a heavy thunderstorm while they were on a routine flight from Grandview Air Force Base, near Kansas City, Col. Lee and Capt. Childs had tried to change their course to reach the Scott Air Force Base near Belleville, Ill. when the crash occurred.
Stunned by the news that the Norwood ace had crashed and died, Norwood residents mourned his passing yesterday and the flags on all public buildings were placed at half-mast in his honor.
The Air Force announced late yesterday that his body was being sent home for burial and that his personal friend and wartime buddy, Major Robert Hinck, would accompany the body to the home of his mother at 26 Rock street (sic), where his body will lie in state on Saturday and Sunday. A solemn high Mass of Requiem to be sung at St. Dennis Church, Islington, on Monday at 10 A.M. Members of all of Norwood’s military organizations, town officials and an honor guard will attend the services with
Friends of the late Colonel George Lee may pay their respects at the home of his mother, Mrs. Mary J. Lee, 26 Rock street (sic), on Saturday and Sunday between the hours of 2-5 and 7-10 P.M. A Solemn High Mass of Requiem will be sung at St. Denis’ Church, Islington at 10 A.M., Monday. Burial will be in Highland Cemetery.
Besides his mother, Mary J. Lee, he leaves three brothers, Thomas and Vincent both of Norwood, Robert of Ohio, and three sisters, Mrs. Alice Adams of Brimfield, Mrs. Dorothy Donovan of Norwood and Mrs. Catherine Jewell fo California. His father, the late Thomas Lee, died in 1943.
Native of Norwood
Born in Norwood 35 years ago, George attended the Norwood Public Schools until graduation in 1937. In his younger years he was a little too small to take an active part in school sports but he could always be found around the sandlots taking part in a baseball or football game. While in High School, George’s spare time was spent working in Welch’s newsstand with his mind always looking toward the future. It was here at the newsstand that the name George Lee started its fame long before the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.
Norwood residents took little George to their hearts as the quiet, soft spoken, bashful little paper boy. In later years, the same soft spoken boy was cutting and serving meats to these same people while he worked as a butcher in the A&P Supermarket, just prior to the war.
On December 18, 1941, at the age of 22, George left his home to begin training as an aviation cadet. Even before the United States got into the war, George had his heart set on joining the Air Force, but, there was a catch to it. He did not have a college education to his credit, one of the mandatory requirements to enlist. This, however, didn’t stop his life’s dream. Unknown to anyone, George attended night school at M.I.T. and acquired the education needed to pass the test, which was the first phase of his becoming one of World War II’s more famous air aces.
Local residents may well remember the time when George, on a promise to his mother, flew his P-40 at tree top level over his home on Rock street and then headed to Walpole where he flew upside down the length of Main street in a salute to hs friends with whom he worked at the A&P. This was just a few days prior to his leaving for overseas.
On October 12, 1942, Lieutenant Lee left with the 87th Pursuit Squadron to join Montgomery’s Forces in Egypt. He and his squadron spent many hours chasing Rommel’s forces out of there and he was also in on the final killing at Tunisia. Reports have it that he was also credited with shooting down the last German plane on the final day of hostilities here.
In a little less than a year overseas, Lee was promoted to the rank of Captain and in January, 1944 rose to the grade of Major, one of the youngest at the time in the Air Force. He refused several furloughs home during the Tunisia campaign as he elected to stay with his squadron until all the fighting was at an end. He continued on through Sicily, and Italy, where he chalked up a European Theater of Operation record of 258 combat missions, flow in his P-47 Thunderbolt fighter-bomber.
While all of these missions were going on, the high brass were keeping a sharp eye on the Norwood ace and in July, 1943, George met the famous General Montgomery who notified him that he was recommended for the Distinguished Flying Cross. He wore, at that time, the Air Medal with two Oak Leaf Clusters.
In September of the same year, most of the airmen of that theater will remember that George and another pilot flew into Italy and landed just for the sake of saying they were the first two Americans to land on Italian soil as the invasion was getting underway.
When George received his promotion to Captain he was also made the squadron commander. Although he did some daredevil flying, he took the responsibility of commander like a veteran and his only thought was to guide his “boys” through the war with a minimum of loss and the absolute in results. Whenever one of his men failed to return from a mission, it hit the young commander very hard as his heart flew with every lad under his command.
The tough Army life failed to harden George and one of the few times his group ever saw him really angry was when he became ill with an attack of appendicitis and had to undergo surgery which took him away from his squadron for a few weeks. When George had a job to do he thought it entirely unnecessary for an ailment like an appendectomy to interfere.
Rank and privileges never turned George’s head either, for when a friend, whether he was a high ranking officer or a mere private in the Army, walked in on the busy commander, work was always stopped short and a gabfest took place talking of the old home town.
The Lee family were always close, and, although the young commander had very few moments to himself, he always squeezed in a moment to write to Mom and Dad assuring them of his safety. In his letters, however, modest George would oftentimes conveniently forget to mention the high awards bestowed upon him such as the British Distinguished Flying Cross with Citation which had been approved by His Majesty King George VII of England. Or of the time he was bestowed upon by the President of the Provisional Government of France the Croix de Guerre with palm, which is similar to the United States Congressional Medal of Honor.
One of the more pleasant memories for George, his family, and all of his friends of Norwood and vicinity, was the boisterous welcome on the evening of May 18, 1944 to the young Major and hero of the Mediterranean Theater who arrived home for the first time in two years and found that his home town had been following closely his record-smashing performances as a Thunderbolt squadron commander.
Home for thirty days of peace and quiet after racking up a new mark of 175 sorties against the enemy in Italy and previous Mediterranean campaigns, Major Lee found the first 30 minutes anything but that. He had thought that his homecoming would be a simple, family affair, but hours before word had swept through the town that the youthful fighter pilot was coming. By 5:30, hundreds of townspeople had jammed the square, with town officials, clergy, the American Legion and Norwood’s crack St. Catherine’s Drum Corps waiting to welcome a famous son of Norwood home.
Two Buddies With Him
Met at the South Station an hour before by his two brothers, Thomas and Vincent, Major Lee found his route blocked at Washington and Howard streets by a cheering throng. With him were two veteran airmen of his squadron, Captains John L. Beck of Idaho and William Colgan of Georgia, who were stopping off in Norwood a few days before proceeding to their homes.
There at the outskirts of the business district, the three fliers were hurried into an open sports car and escorted down flag-lined Washington street (sic) by police, a detail from the Norwood Post of the American Legion and the uniformed [illegible] of St. Catherine’s parish. Townspeople, who only a month before had read of the new mark set by the youthful Major in flying his 164th sortie against the enemy, clapped in tribute to the returned airman and then broke into a thunderous roar.
At Nahatan street (sic), the car and it’s hero cargo turned into the curb before the cannon commemorating the exploits of Norwood men of another war, and there Chairman Harry Butters of the Board of Selectmen extended the official greetings of the town, and blessings were bestowed by Rt. Rev. Msgr. Joseph C. Walsh, St. Catherine’s pastor, now deceased. There he was also greeted by his two sisters, Mrs. Alice Adams and Miss Dorothy Lee.
Greets His Mother
The ceremonies were cut as short as possible to allow the major to continue on to his home where his mother, a widow of a year, had been preparing excitedly for his return since receiving word by telephone from New Jersey. The line of march formed again and the procession continued down Nahatan street to Lenox turning into Rock street and stopping in front of the Lee residence at number 26. Rushing up once familiar steps, he was greeted at the doorway by his mother, who wept with joy and repeated, “Thank God, Thank God,” as she embraced her son. Spectators turned away with misty eyes as the flier stepped through the door for the reunion with his family.
The homecoming for Major Lee was the first for a Norwood boy in World War II. Circumstances were right and the town did itself proud.
Early in the day neighbors heard that he was coming home. They learned that his arrival in Norwood was scheduled for the vicinity of 5 o’clock, and then went to work on arrangements. Selectman Clem Riley was contacted and from then on he had a job on his hands. St. Catherine’s rectory was one of the first places to receive a call, to see if the Drum Corps could march. Fr. Christopher Griffin, director of the Corps, was out of town, for problem number one, and number two was the fact that the day was a holy day n the church and St. Catherine’s School was not in session, making it difficult to round up the boys and girls of the Corps. However, Fr. Griffin was located, and he returned to Norwood immediately to spend the rest of the afternoon locating the youngsters.
Meanwhile, Clem Riley was busy contacting other members of the Board of Selectmen, town officials and the Legion, and form then on plans mushroomed fast. Word spread around town like wildfire that Major Lee was coming home; Riley made arrangements with the radio station WORL to make three announcements to the effect that a homecoming was being planned, and the MESSENGER hit the street with the story at 3 o’clock to cap the advance publicity.
By 5 o’clock there were few people who hadn’t heard the news and everyone who could make it was on hand for the celebration.
There was sadness mingled in with Major Lee’s happiness in returning to his native town for he was told in a family gathering of the death of his father while he was overseas. They had not informed him at the time because it was feared the shock would hurt his flying record. Major Lee took the message bravely and fussed over his mother who burst into tears at his sight. She whispered a prayer of thanks as she clung in his arms.
Major Lee said that his furlough was as much a surprise to him as it was to his family, all of whom were present except a sisted (sic) who lives in Florida. “I was told 24 hours before I was to start for home of the plans,” he said. When he reached North Africa he sent four telegrams to his family, but none reached the Norwood residence.
Major Lee saw many faces he had become familiar with over the counter of a local A&P store, in the reception given him. But he missed the presence of his pal since childhood, Eddie Desmond, then a member of the Infantry stationed in England, who used to work with him when they were both chain store clerks.
He mentioned Jerry Gotovich of Norwood, whom he met in Alexandria, as the only local boy he had come in contact with since his assignment overseas. Major Lee was to be in the country for 30 days before taking up a new assignment overseas.
He spoke of the unexpected homecoming celebration. “I’m very grateful to the people of Norwood for their thoughtfulness. No word can express what I really feel in my heart,” he said.
Major Lee came home with a nickname bestowed upon him by fellow airmen while in training – G-3. The letter and numeral pertain to a plan in the Air Corps. “I’m not too please (sic) with it but I get a kick out of it,” he said. He was called that at flying school and only members of his original squadron still stick to it.
One of Youngest
The youthful officer not only had set a new record as a fighter pilot but was one of the youngest majors in the Air Forces. His thoughts had always been in the air since the first time he walked down to Wiggins’ airfield to find what it would feel like up in the sky. That was shortly before his enlistment in July of 1941 and had managed to receive some lessons as a pilot at that field before he was called to the colors shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack.
As a commanding officer, he worked with leaders of the Allied forces both of the Army and Air force and told of visits by Generals Arnold, Spaatz, Cannon, Sir Charles Portell, chief of the R. A. F., as well as attending Air Marshal Cunningham’s New Year’s Eve party.
Spaatz, and Arnold’s visit were made to congratulate Major Lee and his squadron for their outstanding work with the Army in Egypt, where they fought all the way across the desert and straight into Italy. During this period they maintained an average of better than five to one in victories over the Luftwaffe. The squadron’s main task was the bombing and strafing in support of the ground forces.
Pal Met Death
One of the horrors of the war to George was the death of his best pal who had a share in his victories. He went on a flight and didn’t return. That happened while they were in action in Africa.
Return to Europe
With the well-earned furlough completed, Major Lee returned to the European Theater to resume his flying against the enemy with the 12th Air Force. After several months of blasting enemy positions in support of the Allied Ground Forces in Northern Italy, Lee completed his 200th mission. Shortly after this feat, George removed his Major’s leafs and pinned on the silver leafs of the rank of Lt. Colonel to which he had been promoted.
Approximately nine months later, and at the age of 25, George was promoted to the rank of Full Colonel which, at the time, was considered on of the youngest Colonels in the history of the Air Force.
On October 1, 1946, it was VJ all over again for Norwood as it was the second homecoming for the air-ace and some 3,000 citizens went all out to show their appreciation to their local hero for the wonderful account he made for himself and for the people of the United States.
He got out of the Air Force shortly after the war and opened up the Wings Club on Walpole street (sic). It was an instant success and soon became a favorite spot for such important people as the late Secretary of Labor Maurice Tobin and former Governor Paul A. Dever. But running a nightclub, even a successful one, was not for George.
He reenlisted in the Air Force as a Colonel at the age of 28 and became a jet-pilot. To some in the Air Force, 28 seemed like a rather old age to be flying one of these 600 mile-per-hour planes, but George just took it in stride the same as everything else.
Following a stint in the United States, Colonel Lee once again took off for Europe and this time was based at Giebelstadt Airfield as group commander of the 36th Fighter-Bomber Group.
Since that time, George has flown steadily with the Air Force up until the time of the accident which took the life of not only Norwood’s hero, but a hero of all Americans who ever heard or came in contact with George T. Lee, Colonel , United States Air Force.
The Nahatan St Bridge was dedicated in George T Lee’s honor in 1988.
In 2005, Norwood Public Access Television general manager Jack Tolman discovered some footage of Lee flying missions over Europe, which led to the documentary `The Col. George T. Lee Story″. The documentary aired on Nov. 9, 2008 on NPA TV. Thanks to the sales of the documentary and a donation by his nephew, Alan Lee, the Nahatan Street Bridge was rededicated to George on October 4, 2009 with larger and more readable signs.
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