WWII prisoners of war are seen as heroes by their children
Carolyn Krause provides this two-part “Historically Speaking” column featuring a lecture given by Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Sharon Lee on prisoners of war.
At a recent meeting of the League of Women Voters (LWV) in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Supreme Court Justice Sharon Lee presented compelling stories about five U.S. soldiers captured and held as prisoners of war (POW ) by the Germans during World War II. One of the soldiers was his father, Charles James Lee. The other four were James Hugh Ross, Harold Leibowitz, David Goldin and Bruce Foster Sr. All five had children who became lawyers and judges in Tennessee.
His presentation, titled “American Heroes with Common Bonds”, was inspired by the story of his father and the stories of his colleagues – lawyers and judges – who also had fathers who had been captured in Germany during the war. She has done considerable research to understand the conditions endured by these POWs and how their experiences shaped their lives after release. This is the first of two summaries of Justice Lee’s presentation.
When Sharon Lee was 6, she looked in a cupboard and pulled out a light blue mug with a Nazi symbol on it. She asked her mother, “What is it?” His mother replied, “Put it back. He’s your war father. We are not talking about war. So Sharon never spoke of it again for years, but the incident reignited her curiosity about her father’s wartime experience.
When he reached his 80s, he first spoke about the war in a guest talk at the Kiwanis Club of Madisonville, the seat of Monroe County.
“I went to hear it,” Judge Lee said. “He talked about the long, crowded ride to the prison camp in the cattle car and he broke down. I had never seen my father cry before. After so many years, the thought of this war experience was so painful that he could not finish his speech without tears.
During her virtual slide presentation, the judge told the League audience about her father and four other POWs she heard about from some of their children — her fellow lawyers. Her father, Charles J. Lee, died less than a year after Justice Lee was nominated in 2008 to the Supreme Court of Tennessee. She served as Chief Justice from 2014 to 2016.
Staff Sgt. Lee, the eldest of eight children who grew up on a farm in Tellico Plains in Monroe County and worked at the Fontana Dam for the Tennessee Valley Authority, joined the Army Air Corps at age 19 in January 1943. He was stationed at a base camp. in England, where he was trained to serve as a waist gunner and flight engineer on a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber.
“My father and his crew began flying missions over Germany in a B-17 bomber they nicknamed Smokey Stover,” Judge Lee said. “The crew had to complete 25 missions before they could return home. The average number of flights made by American airmen before being shot down was five.
On May 12, 1944, the Army Air Corps launched one of the largest air campaigns of the war in preparation for D-Day. The goal was to bomb the German synthetic fuel production facility, which converted coal into oil for the manufacture of jet fuel. That day, 935 B-17 bombers flew from London to Germany.
“Of the 26 planes in my father’s squadron, only 12 returned,” she said. “It was his sixth and final bombing mission as an enemy fighter jet targeted his plane. Dad was shot and wounded in the head, shoulder, back and wrist. With the help of a fellow airman, he was able to jump out of the plane.
After being parachuted to the ground, he was captured by members of the German Home Guard. He was driven in a truck to a prison in a small town outside Frankfurt and held in solitary confinement for 10 days; he never received medical treatment for his injuries. Then he was transported by train to the newly opened prison camp in Poland called Stalag Luft IV, which held almost 10,000 prisoners.
The food provided to them consisted mainly of “a soup made from rotten cabbage and bread made from sawdust”, Judge Lee said. “American Red Cross food parcels were often not delivered there.”
Justice said each barracks in the camp was designed for 16 prisoners, but typically 25 POWs were forced to live there, meaning some had to sleep on hardwood floors or bare woodchips.
“There was very little heat in the barracks. My father never gave anything to wear. He was wearing the bloodstained clothes he wore when captured. Due to his untreated wounds and his battle with hepatitis, he became very ill. He only survived thanks to the perseverance of his fellow inmates who helped him get up and walk every day.
In late May 1944, the Lee family was notified of his capture by Western Union; days earlier, the POW’s father, Clement Lee, had dreamed of being in a plane that was attacked by three other planes. The family did not know how much Sgt. Lee suffered during the worst part of his incarceration – the 10-day train journey to another prison camp in Barth, Germany.
He was crammed with 60 other prisoners of war into a covered wagon (also called a cattle car, much like the train cars used to transport Jews and other targeted groups to concentration and extermination camps). Prisoners had to stand all day and all night in cramped conditions. Many suffered from dysentery and other illnesses. They were cold because they had no coats. They had to share a single toilet – a metal container in the middle of the boxcar.
While Lee was imprisoned, his family in Tellico Plains received his medal from Army Air Corps officials in a somber ceremony. On May 13, 1945, a year and a day after his capture, Staff Sgt. Lee and the other prisoners were freed by Russian soldiers and flown to France to be repatriated. Lee’s first meal was a cheeseburger. He was six feet three inches tall and weighed just 86 pounds. He was hospitalized in Florida where his starving body learned to eat again. He later acknowledged that food was scarce in Germany during the war; he knew German guards who endured hunger.
“My dad got married, raised a family, ran a trucking business and a real estate business, became a general contractor, and served as city administrator for Madisonville,” Judge Lee said. “For 12 years he was commissioner of Monroe County. He died on February 27, 2009, at the age of 86.
More POW stories
Judge Lee spoke movingly of four other POWs whose children she knows; two of his stories are featured here.
James Hugh Ross of Etowah, Tennessee, was a radio operator on a B-17 bomber that was hit by German ground fire and crashed in the Sahara Desert in November 1942. The crew’s mission was to bomb a Nazi base on the Mediterranean Sea. in North Africa. En route to a prison camp near Munich, Ross was forced to sleep in an ancient Roman catacomb. He suffered from the cold and very little food (soup made from water and fish heads). After 14 months in captivity, he returned to Etowah and had four children, including a now retired criminal court judge. Although he lost his sight to wartime malnutrition, he was elected tax assessor for McMinn County and served as postmaster of the Etowah Post Office.
Lt. Harold Leibowitz, a Jewish volunteer for the Army Air Corps from Brooklyn, NY, and
father of retired criminal court judge Mary Lou Leibowitz of Knoxville, parachuted into a field in Poland. Two engines of his plane had caught fire during a bombing on September 12, 1944 on a synthetic fuel factory in Germany. Polish farmers delivered it to the Nazis.
In an interrogation camp in Frankfurt, he was forced to wear a dog tag marked with an “H” for Hebrew. He was asked, “Why are you here, Jew?” Don’t you know what we do to the Jews?
He replied, “I am an American soldier fighting for my country.”
Freed with 9,000 American airmen by Operation Revival in mid-May 1945, Lieutenant Leibowitz returned home, raised a family, and worked as a special agent with the Internal Revenue Service. He died at the age of 86.
In the second and final article in this series, Judge Lee shares the stories of two other fathers of her colleagues who became citizens and fathers of integrity after being prisoners of war in Germany during World War II. She will also describe the common bonds of POWs whose stories she learned from and shared with many.
Thanks Caroline. Then look for the conclusion of Judge Lee’s speech.