Historical adventure focuses on
Norwich grad’s role in late WWII battle © Aug. 16, 2013, Norwich University Office of Communications
In the dramatic final days of World War II in Europe, a Norwich University graduate John C. “Jack” Lee Jr. ’42, found himself in Austria, eagerly anticipating the end of hostilities after Hitler’s suicide and the fall of Berlin.
A tank commander with a reputation as a hard-charging, hard-drinking 1st lieutenant, Lee and his troops in the 23rd Tank Battalion of the U.S. 12th Armored Division found themselves in Kufstein, just south of the German border, chasing down Nazi remnant forces.
The war’s end would have to wait. On May 5, 1945, Lee fought one last, unexpected and very unusual battle: a harrowing mission to free high-ranking French prisoners stashed in a historic castle, Schloss Itter. His brave rescue effort against fanatical SS troops was a tiny and largely forgotten piece of World War II history. But it provides the fodder for military historian Stephen Harding’s meticulously researched new book, The Last Battle, which has been optioned as a movie.
Much of Harding’s book concentrates on how the castle came to be filled by imperiled French dignitaries, and how Lee’s end-of-war mission—with striking twists and turns—nearly ended in disaster. Thanks to flimsy bridges, jurisdictional snafus and the need to protect his flanks, Lee arrived at the castle with just one Sherman tank and a handful of soldiers. In a unique turn, 20 German troops changed sides and joined forces with Lee. They would be sorely needed when more than a hundred fanatical, well-armed Nazi troops attacked. Lee’s troops and rescue mission were in dire straits when a U.S. relief column unexpectedly arrived.
While researching Lee’s background at Norwich, Harding discovered an adventurous, “bright and inquisitive” young man who was a star football player and an avid cavalry rider. The latter was a skill that Harding says Lee translated into an exceptional talent for maneuvering Sherman tanks. In nearly a year of combat, Lee was promoted and hailed as a “swashbuckling” leader and fearless officer who won the Distinguished Service Cross.
Harding also sheds light on a unique period in Norwich University history.
“Jack Lee was at Norwich as the war had already started, and so he and his classmates all knew, right from the get-go, that they were going to the war in Europe or in the Pacific,” said Harding, who spent more than two years doing research, including time in Germany and interviews with tank crewmen and their families.
“This is a very fascinating part of our history,” agreed Gail Weise, assistant archivist at Norwich, who assisted Harding in painting a picture of the country’s oldest private military college in the early 1940s.
Everyone at Norwich joined the service with the war underway, and the curriculum underwent drastic changes to focus on military training, said Weise. “There was even an early commencement [for the Class of 1943] because the entirety of the Corps that was left had all been called up,” she said.
Between 1944 and 1946, there were no regular students and the campus served as a military training facility.
Harding credits the Norwich archivists with helping him get a sense of what Lee’s experience was like during those years. He used newspaper articles, The Norwich Record, photos and other documents, as well as personal interviews to gain insight into Lee.
“Everybody I talked to who actually knew Jack Lee said that he was a wonderful guy,” said Harding.
He writes that Lee’s passion for “team spirit, intricate maneuvering and broken-field running” in football translated into an “almost obsessive enthusiasm” for cavalry training.
At the time, Norwich was a cavalry school and horses were a huge part of campus life. Students went on long horseback excursions and did all sorts of equestrian training and hijinks, such as “mounted wrestling.” Students like Lee also trained in armored vehicles, “tearing up the grass” on the parade grounds — it was not treated as the revered space it is today, according to Harding.
According to Weise, approximately 1,600 Norwich students served in World War II, and 74 died in the conflict.
While Lee's exploits earned an article in the Saturday Evening Post, the event was a minor blip at the end of a very long war in Europe and Lee’s moment of glory quickly faded. He was discharged in 1945 with millions of other servicemen and women and returned to civilian life. It was not a happy transition.
Harding believes Lee had trouble adapting from the adrenalin-filled life of a tank commander. He tried to pursue a pro football career without success, and went through three marriages and several failed careers before dying at the age of 54 from symptoms characteristic of alcohol poisoning.
In hindsight, we understand today that Lee came back with what one would call “pretty severe PTSD,” said Harding. And with good reason: Around 8,000 Sherman tanks were destroyed in the war. Every day Lee faced death from his turret. “Because he was so good at what he did, he always got put out front.”
“In World War II, especially if you were a frontline grunt or a tank commander, it could just be a meat grinder every day,” said Harding.
Still, Lee thrived in that perilous environment. “I think he was probably secretly sorry that the war was over,” said Harding. “He didn’t really have any other profession.”
What he did clearly have was a gift for leadership, added Harding, calling it the “connective tissue” that ties him to current Norwich students and graduates who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lee was “a well-trained, competent military leader” loved by his troops.
“The tactics of war change, but the essential nature of war doesn't,” he said. “Good leadership matters.”