The Birth of the American Airborne
Major General William C. Lee, Dunn, North Carolina’s famous airborne hero, was a North Carolina State University ROTC graduate who stayed in the Army after World War I, and was assigned as a peace-time observer in Germany. In this position Lee took note of Hitler’s development of his airborne troops.
Lee returned to Washington as a Major in the Office of the Chief of Infantry. He was still infatuated by what he had seen the German Army doing with its airborne forces.
Major Lee talked about it constantly. Finally the infantry Colonel who shared the office got tired of hearing about it. He told Lee angrily, “Major, I am sick and tired of hearing your nonsense about airborne warfare. No American soldier is ever going to have little enough sense to jump out of an airplane even in a parachute, and I don’t want to hear the word airborne spoken in this office again. This is a direct order.” The only thing Major Lee could say was, “Yes, sir.”
A few weeks later, Major Lee, as the junior officer in the office, answered the telephone. “What are you folks doing toward developing airborne warfare?’ the caller wanted to know. Under direct orders not to even use the word, Major Lee replied, “Just a minute and I will let you speak to my superior,” and he handed the phone to the Colonel. “Who the h___ wants to know?” asked the Colonel. “The President of the United States wants to know and I am calling on his behalf” was the reply. The Colonel handed the phone back to Lee and ordered, “Tell this man anything he wants to know.”
The gentleman on the phone was President Franklin Roosevelt’s military aide. He told Lee the President had been reading about Hitler’s airborne activities and wanted to know more about it. Major Lee was invited to the White House to brief President Roosevelt on what he had seen in Germany. The President was so impressed that he ordered airborne planning and training to begin immediately.
The first airborne command was organized with Major Lee as the commander. The Dunn man became the “Father of the American Airborne.”
Lee had seen a parachute drop at the World’s Fair in New York that lifted customers by pulley and dropped them to the ground by parachute. He ordered two of the lift towers erected at the parachute school at Fort Benning, Georgia, where they are still being used. This was the beginning of America’s airborne forces, which were credited a short time later in shortening World War II by years and saving countless lives.
He earned the Distinguished Service Medal for his early leadership in airborne forces. By August of 1942 Lee was the first commander of the new 101st Airborne Division based at Camp Claiborne in central Louisiana.. He promised his new recruits
"The 101st has no history, but it has a rendezvous with destiny."
General Lee developed the plans for the air invasion of Normandy on D-Day and had trained to jump with his men, but was sent back to the states a few months before the battle due to a heart attack. To honor their "father", the paratroopers yelled out "Bill Lee!" as they made their jump on D-Day. He listened to the invasion by radio in his Dunn home on Divine Street, the current site of the General William C. Lee Airborne Museum