On June 27, 1944, Frank Lee, a soldier from Louisiana bayou country who had just turned 26, waded ashore at Utah Beach with the 51s t Engineer Combat Battalion.
Allied forces had landed on the French coast three weeks earlier — D-Day, June 6 — to launch a campaign that would help liberate Europe from Nazi control. Now Lee and his Army unit, delayed for nine days at sea because of bad weather, were about to join the struggle.
The contribution of America’s fighting forces during World War II often has been hailed at home and abroad – a chorus of cheers for the stalwart young men like Frank Lee who helped save a continent, and, perhaps, the world, from tyranny.
In the eyes of a grateful public, each is worthy of gratitude – even if recognition comes decades later, as it did this year for Lee at the French Embassy in Washington.
Lee, 98, a former lithographer and a member of Graphic Communications Conference/ IBT Local 14 in Philadelphia, and union pension fund administrator, was awarded a Legion of Honor medal in a solemn ceremony of gratitude. It’s the highest commendation France bestows on non-citizens.
The moment was precious and worth waiting for, Lee said. “It’s hard to put in words,” said Lee, who lives in Chesapeake City, Md. “I was pleased and proud.”
France began its Legion of Honor program in 2004. It has decorated 10,000 World War II veterans so far. Bobby Wingate, of New Castle, Del., a veterans’ advocate who served as a paratrooper in the 1970s with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, nominated Lee for the medal.
“I put a package together for the French Embassy in July, 2015,” said Wingate, who insists the bravery and sacrifices of World War II vets must “never be forgotten.” Frank Lee “is an American hero,” Wingate said.
The French government agreed and cited Lee and 10 other U.S. veterans – two posthumously – who served in the European campaign, in a ceremony several months ago.
It was nearly 62 years from the day Lee and the men of the 51st climbed down the sides of a Liberty ship on rope ladders and onto landing craft. When Lee’s unit arrived on shore, there was no resistance. But, recalled Lee, “We could hear the small arms fire. The Germans weren’t very far inland.”
The battalion went to work. Troops built bridges and roads, ran sawmills and cleared fields of booby traps. They moved through Belgium and Luxembourg and survived the fierce German offensive at the Battle of the Bulge.
Though an engineering unit, the 51st saw its share of action. Lee was the battalion mail clerk but carried a weapon and used it on more than one occasion. “We were involved in skirmishes lots of times,” said Lee.
Under fire, the men bridged the Danube River south of Munich. At the Rhine River, German soldiers bombed and strafed the Americans working on another span. Did the bridge get built? “Hell, yes,” said Lee. “In less than 24 hours.”
Whatever Lee and the 51st had seen in war could not prepare them for what was ahead.
In late April, 1945, the engineers reached Dachau as Allies were liberating the notorious forced labor/extermination camp where thousands of Jews and others perished.
The scene was terrible. “Corpses were stacked like firewood – in rooms and boxcars,” Lee said. Survivors were emaciated and on the verge of starvation. The stench of decay was everywhere. “Every once in a while, it still comes back,” said Lee.
Lee escaped the war without injury – “God was good to me,” he says – and was discharged in November, 1945. He returned to Louisiana and a job in the printing office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans.
He was a southern fellow, no doubt – Lee once worked on Mississippi River tow boats and when away from home carried a bottle of Crystal hot sauce to spice up his food – and had strong roots in the area.
But before shipping out from Fort Dix in New Jersey, Lee had met a local girl named Nancy Jacobs at a USO dance. The two kept in touch during the war and romance was in the works. When he got home, Lee wasted no time.
He proposed to Nancy and asked her to take a train with him to Louisiana. Nancy stayed two weeks and met Lee’s family. Then he “put her on a train to New Jersey so she could make up her mind.” It didn’t take long. “I was it,” he said.
The couple was married on April 27, 1946, had three children and were together until Nancy Lee died three years ago at age 87. They first made a home in Westmont, N.J. – Nancy’s hometown—and later moved to the New York suburbs and Annapolis, Md., as demanded by Frank Lee’s pension job.
Settling into family life, Lee went to work in the Philadelphia print industry.
He joined the bookbinders’ union in 1946 and when he found a job as a lithographic cameraman at the Todd Company, transferred to Local 14 – now Graphic Communications Conference/IBT Local 14-M—of the Amalgamated Lithographers of America. The ALA merged with the International Photo Engravers Union in 1964 to form the Lithographers and Photoengravers International Union (LPIU), a distant forerunner of the GCC/IBT.
Earlier in life, Lee said, he had been strongly anti-union. Many people in the South were antagonistic toward organized labor and he went along with the popular view. “To me, growing up, ‘union’ was a dirty word,” Lee noted. Big money interests spent millions to portray union people as “thugs and outlaws,” and to depict labor as corrupt.
Experience quickly taught Lee otherwise. He found union people strong, decent and supportive. “I went to meetings and the more I saw the more I liked. I learned that what I had been raised to believe was wrong. The union was the most democratic organization I ever belonged to.”
Lee became active in the local. He served as Secretary-Treasurer and took part in contract negotiations. “He was as good as any of us,” recalled Elwood “Woody” Freeman, a retired Local 14 executive board member who also served on negotiating committees.
Lee was cordial, dedicated and diligent, said Freeman, father of Kurt Freeman, current president of Local 14-M. “He always went above and beyond – a great guy and you wouldn’t find anyone nicer.”
Skilled as a financial officer and contract negotiator, Lee applied to become the first administrator of the union’s Supplemental Retirement and Disability Pension Fund, now the National Pension Fund. He was competing with applicants more highly educated – Lee has a high school diploma – but his ability, quick intelligence and union allegiance proved decisive.
He got the job, started in 1969 and remained at his post until retirement in 1980.
“He was very efficient with the pension fund,” said Andy Douglas, former Local 14-M president and retired chairman of the Inter-Local Pension Fund. “He took on a big job and nobody knew where it was going to go.”
Taking on tough work was nothing new for a World War II veteran who had fought to save a continent from Nazi oppression. On the second day of summer this year, the French government assured Lee’s service will never be forgotten.
For the embassy event, Lee and four friends – Bobby Wingate, Julie Graham, a team leader at the Elkton, Md., Veterans Center, and neighbors Al and Cheryl Klerlein – drove to Washington, D.C. The ceremony was memorable, said Klerlein, a Vietnam veteran, who served in the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. “It was really an emotional thing,” he said. “Long overdue.” Added Graham: “It was very touching. I was honored he asked me to attend.”
Frank Lee was dressed in a khaki shirt and slacks – he wanted to look like a soldier – and an “overseas” cap with red piping Wingate found in a military shop. Jean-Marc Todeschini, the French Minister of State For Veterans And Remembrance, pinned the medal on Lee.
A choral group sang “The Star Spangled Banner.” Lee, who gets around with a cane and sometimes a walker, pushed on the arms of his chair and stood at attention. The choir paid tribute to America. Frank Lee saluted.
Photo: World War II veteran Frank Lee, a retired member of the Graphic Communications Conference-IBT, receives a medal of honor at the French Embassy recognizing his heroic service in the conflict. Graphic courtesy The Graphic Communicator via PAI Graphic Service.