Lee?s Destroyed B-17. At about 8:20 a.m. on December 7, twelve B-17s en route from California to Oahu flew right into the middle of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Unarmed and low on fuel, the planes became instant prey for Japanese fighters. Lee was a gunner in this B-17 bomber that landed on fire at Hickam Field.
By Patric Hedlund
This Monday, while the VFW is holding its 10 a.m. Memorial Day ceremony at the Cody Prosser Veteran’s Memorial in Frazier Mountain Park, Gary and Lois Lee of Lockwood Valey will be remembering Gary’s father, Lt. Bert Lee.
Lee was in the first plane to be shot down in the surprise attack of December 7, 1941 at Pearl Harbor. He lived to tell the tale. The phone rang this spring with an amazing message for his family.
The well-known turkey rancher and apple grower, who passed away in 2006, had many tales to share around the dinner table about fighting for his country in the great battles of the Pacific during World War II. Now, suddenly, their surprise caller has brought them news that means the memories of their dad’s accomplishments will be far less abstract.
As Lois Lee tells the first part of the family story, “Gary’s father was a counselor during the summers at the Boy Scout Camp built in 1936. He met the Plush family’s cute daughter Louella at the turkey ranch next door, but then he went off to war.” He joined the United States Army Air Corps.
In 1941 Lee was a gunner assigned to a B-17 stationed near San Francisco. Their squadron was to fly to Hawaii where they would prepare the planes to continue on to the Philippines.
On December 6 they began the flight. Almost 12 hours later they were approaching their destination when three Japanese planes zipped by. The B-17’s guns were packed up in cargo crates. The plan was to install them in Hawaii. The crew couldn’t fight back and they couldn’t raise the flight tower. Lee was shot in the leg. Then they were on fire and going down.
The pilot managed to guide the plane onto the tarmac of Hickam Field. The pyrotechnics that were on board were exploding. The crew dashed out of the craft only to be strafed by the Japanese flyers above them. Their squadron flight surgeon was killed, but the others found shelter and survived.
Gary Lee picks up the story: “Dad went to Australia. He flew in the battle of the Coral Sea, and when the marines were fighting the Battle of Guadalcanal, they used the B-17 for aerial surveillance. They called it the ‘Flying Fortress.’"
“Dad applied for Cadets, which is like Officer Candidate School now, and he went to pilot training and became both an officer and a pilot. He was a Lieutenant. The P-51 Mustang fighter has an inline engine that is light, with longer range and is more agile for aerial combat. He shot down two Japanese planes. They painted rising sun flags on their hatch door to keep score."
“On Memorial Day I think about the sacrifice that our men made. I think about my dad who was just a kid. My grandfather who homesteaded our ranch was a World War I pilot. It was pretty brutal. He flew over the trenches and saw what was going on. It was pretty upsetting. He crashed a couple of times.”
When Bert Lee died in 2006, the family arranged a memorial service for him with the Commemorative Air Force in Camarillo, a group that collects old military aircraft. His grandson Wesley Lee, Jr. took his grandfather’s ashes up in a P-51 Mustang to spread across the Pacific.
Then, this March, an attorney from Philadelphia named James Beasley, Jr. gave them that call.
He said the plane Gary Lee’s father thought had been destroyed in Indochina after the end of the war had actually been sold to Sweden, which sold it to Israel, which sold it back to Sweden, which sold it to a collector in Britain. Beasley had located it and brought it back to the United States to restore it to look exactly as it did when Bert Lee flew it during World War II, complete with his name on the side under the canopy handle.
What is Gary Lee’s message about this week’s ceremony?
“On Memorial Day I’d want people to remember the sacrifice people have made for our freedom. There are people in this country who will sacrifice their lives so we can live like we do.”
This is part of the May 22, 2009 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.
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