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Father of the Airborne

Sixty-eight years ago today, more than 150,000 American, British and Canadian soldiers landed on the shores of Normandy, France, launching the campaign that eventually ended World War II in Europe.

The hordes brought ashore in troop carriers the morning of June 6, 1944, were not, however, the first wave of the D-Day assault. That designation went to a group of paratroopers dropped behind German lines several hours before the amphibious attack began. Their role in launching the invasion affirmed the vision of Maj.. Gen. William C. Lee, NC State alumnus and “father of the airborne.”

Lee, a native of Dunn, had two separate tenures at NC State. In 1915, he transferred to the North Carolina College of Agricultural and Mechanic Arts after two years at Wake Forest College. Lee moved because NC A&M had an ROTC program and Wake Forest didn’t, according to “General William C. Lee: Father of the Airborne,” a biography by Jerry Autry.

As a student here, Lee played football and baseball and was a member of Sigma Nu fraternity. He left in 1917 to fight in World War I, returning as a professor of military science in 1922. Interest in the military dwindled in the 1920s, Autry writes, but Lee worked to build up the 75 cadets he taught in Raleigh. He focused on improving physical fitness and readiness among his students.

Maj. Gen. William C. Lee (center) receives an honorary degree from NC State Chancellor John Harrelson (left) in June 1945. Assistant University Controller G.S. Varris (right) watches.

A newspaper article announcing his transfer in 1925 referred to Lee as “the most popular member of the military faculty” and perhaps the entire faculty.

“The news that you will be transferred from Raleigh is not at all welcome to your friends, but they will all rejoice at the larger field of service that will come to you through this honor,” Pastor J.A. Ellis of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church wrote in a Nov. 1925 letter to Lee. The letter appears in Autry’s book.

Lee embarked on the work that became his legacy in 1940, when he was assigned to a project to develop airborne soldiers. The concept was unpopular among Lee’s superiors, according to Autry, but it captured Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s imagination when he saw newsreel footage of German paratroopers. Lee eventually became the first commander of the 101st Airborne Division, which joined British and French units in leading the airborne assault on D-Day.

Dava Johnson Lee (second from right), widow of Maj. Gen. William C. Lee, attends the 1965 dedication of Lee Residence Hall. Joining her are (left to right) Maj. Gen. Robert York, commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division; University of North Carolina President William C. Friday; and NC State Chancellor John T. Caldwell.

Lee didn’t join the 101st Airborne for its jump into France the morning of June 6, 1944. He’d suffered a heart attack four months earlier and was back in the United States. His name still echoed across the battlefield — his soldiers yelled “Bill Lee!” as they landed on French soil, according to Autry.

Lee died in June 1948 at age 53. In a cable to Lee’s widow, U.S. Sen. and former North Carolina Gov. J. Melville Broughton called Lee “North Carolina’s most distinguished soldier.”

Lee was “my ideal soldier, officer and gentlemen,” wrote Signal Corps Maj. Theodore B. Winstead, who studied under Lee at NC State in the 1920s.

Lee is part of a long line of general military officers who graduated from NC State. His peers and successors include Gen. Hugh Shelton, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Gen. Maxwell R. Thurman, former vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army; and Gen. Dan McNeill, current commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

Lee is also a physical presence on campus. Lee Residence Hall, built in 1965, was named for him.