Willaim A. Lee, second from right, and Chesty Puller, smoking a pipe, in Nicaragua in 1931, They are flanked by two Nicaraguan Soldiers.

William A. Lee, 98, Marines' Acclaimed Ironman


By Eric Page,, January 2, 1999


William A. Lee, whose exploits in Nicaragua between the two world wars earned him three Navy Crosses, the nickname Ironman and a lasting place in Marine Corps legend, died last Sunday, December 27, 1998, at Mary Washington Hospital in Fredericksburg, Va. He was 98 and lived in the nearby town of Ferry Farms.

Lee, whose 32-year career with the Marines included nearly four years as a prisoner of the Japanese during World War II, was one of the last "of the old corps that fought in the banana wars between World War I and World War II in Central America and the Caribbean," said Robert Moskin, an authority on the service.

"It was hand-to-hand combat, small-unit combat," Moskin said. "And people like Bill Lee were courageous."

That much was evident from what he wore on his chest. For sailors and Marines, the Navy Cross is second only to the Medal of Honor among decorations for combat heroism. To win it three times, as he did while an enlisted man fighting in Nicaragua, was extraordinary.

William Andrew Lee was born in Ward Hill, Mass., and enlisted in the Marine Corps as a teen-ager in 1918. He saw service in France near the end of World War I.

In 1926, when Washington feared that a rebellion then under way in Nicaragua might bring leftists to power there, the Marines were dispatched with the ostensible mission of safeguarding U.S. property and citizens. In fact, they were soon in action against the rebels, who were led by Augusto Cesar Sandino.

Lee, a crack shot and skilled knife fighter, won two Navy Crosses for actions there from March 20 to Aug. 19, 1930, and again from Dec. 11 to Dec. 20. But his finest hours appear to have been those he shared with the famed Marine Chesty Puller between Sept. 20 and Oct. 1, 1932, after the rebels had ambushed Nicaraguan National Guard contingents commanded by two Marine lieutenants, both of whom were killed. He and Puller were then leading a Nicaraguan Guard company.

Moskin recounted the events of those weeks in "The Story of the U.S. Marine Corps" (Little, Brown, 1979).

"On Sept. 20," he wrote, "Lieutenant Puller set out from Jinotega with Company M, his special mobile patrol of about 40 men. While crossing a mountain stream on the 26th, they were ambushed by rebels firing machine guns and Browning automatic rifles from cover. Lt. William A. Lee, Puller's second in command, was wounded in the head and right arm.

"A Marine gunnery sergeant, Lee was an expert shot. While Puller directed the attack, Lee was able to pin down the enemy with a light shoulder-fired Lewis machine gun until the Guardia had climbed the ridges above the trail and could fire on the rebels. The patrol killed 16 guerrillas and suffered two dead and three wounded.

"To save his wounded, Puller headed back to Jinotega, some 75 miles away. Company M fought through two ambushes and arrived at base safely on the 30th."

For that patrol, Lt. Puller received the second of his five Navy Crosses, Sgt. Lee his third.

By now carrying his nickname, given him by Puller, Ironman Lee was sent to China in 1939, after the outbreak of World War II, and was stationed in Qinhuangdao, a port on the coast east of Beijing. There, in August 1941, he was commissioned a chief Marine gunner.

He was captured four months later after he and a group of 20 other Marines received a message from superiors telling them to offer no resistance to a cordon of Japanese forces that had surrounded them.

He spent the next 44 months as a prisoner of war. In an obituary this week, The Free Lance-Star of Fredericksburg said: "Lee and 200 other Marines in north China were 'herded like animals into boats and trains,' he wrote in a 1995 column" for that newspaper. "They were taken to a mountainside stockade in Japan, where they were beaten, burned with cigarettes and starved."

In August 1945, the United States dropped the two atomic bombs that ended the war. Half a century later, Lee recalled: "One day in August, we noticed the guards and the people outside the stockade were running around in a panic and it appeared they were scared to death. The next morning there was not a guard in sight; all the Japanese had left overnight."

In the following years, Lee held various positions with the Marines in Quantico, Va., and rose through the officers' ranks. He retired as a colonel in 1950.

His first wife, Helen Lloyd Lee, died. He is survived by his second, Anne Bradbury Lee; four daughters, Edith L. McMillan of Plano, Texas; Nancy M. Lee of Fajardo, Puerto Rico; Linda L. Sutton of Roan Mountain, Tenn., and Beverly L. Karras of Falmouth, Va.; three stepsons, William E. Shelton of Falmouth, Va.; Thomas C. Shelton of Blacksburg, Va., and Edwin C. Shelton of Hartwood, Va.; a brother, Joseph O. Lee of Rough and Ready, Calif.; 11 grandchildren, and 2 great-grandchildren.


Colonel William Lee

This photo was probably taken sometime around 1928-29; and most likely the locale is Nicaragua, because the pith helmet was part of the mess dress for Marines in Nicaragua at the time. As you look at the photo, the medal to the left is the Navy Cross with star, so the photo was taken after his second Navy Cross award.

Thanks to Ben Lee Sutton < BnSutton@aol.com> for the above photo of his grandfather. He writes:

"To tell you the truth I never thought that my grandfather would die. He really was the "Ironman.'"

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© 2000 by Neil Mishalov