A moment in time: UGA agriculture alum is Georgia’s only WWII Medal of Honor recipient

American military helmet on white backgroundA 1946 Medal of Honor recipient, awarded for his valor in World War II, first studied agriculture at the University of Georgia.

A Georgia native, Daniel Warnell Lee (BSA — Agriculture, ’41) was born in Alma in June 1919. He grew up on a farm with five brothers and one sister. He graduated from Alma High School and subsequently earned a degree from what was then known as the UGA College of Agriculture. After World War II began, he joined the Army, serving in the 117th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron.

In spring 1944, the 117th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron deployed to Italy, where it participated in heavy fighting during operations to drive northward and liberate Rome. The squadron’s role lay in overcoming teams of Germans charged with delaying and disrupting the Allied advance. The unit fought its way into Rome and participated in the pursuit of German forces further up the Italian peninsula until it was detached for use in the August 1944 invasion of Southern France.

U.S. troops vs. German Tigers

At this time, Lee commanded the headquarters platoon of A Troop as a second lieutenant. He and the rest of A Troop supported the 36th Infantry Division during the initial invasion and creation of a beachhead, while the remaining assets of the cavalry squadron were attached to other infantry divisions.  Within a few days, the squadron was used to form Task Force Butler, a fast-moving, combined arms team intended to strike inland deeply and rapidly to disrupt German defenses, provide information on enemy actions, and seize critical objectives. The task force covered 235 miles in four days, outstripping its supply lines. Periodic German counterattacks inflicted casualties. One such engagement resulted in the death of the A Troop commander and Lee’s superior officer.

An obelisk erected in honor of Daniel Warnell Lee is flanked by American flags in Alma, Georgia’s Memorial Park.

By the end of August, Task Force Butler’s primary objective was deemed complete and the 117th Cavalry received the mission of attacking Montrevel, France, and establishing roadblocks to slow the large-scale withdrawal of German forces from Southern France to preserve men and materials for the defense of Germany proper. Slowing or disrupting this exodus became increasingly important as the Allied forces moved forward at a pace dictated by overstretched supply lines and German delaying tactics. The town lay astride one of the primary German retreat corridors and the line of supply and communications for those units continuing to fight.

In the early morning hours of September 3, B Troop attacked and seized the town. Some A Troop elements were also present, including Lee’s platoon. Indeed, one non-commissioned officer remembered finding Lee asleep before the attack began and roughly awakening him. With the town secured, the troopers began to establish roadblocks and observation posts. They were soon subjected to a major assault by elements of a German armored vehicle division determined to clear its rear area of the American cavalry.

Equipped with heavy Tiger tanks and an assortment of smaller armored vehicles, mortars and artillery, the Germans mounted a series of attacks upon the town. The 117th Cavalry elements inside were soon surrounded and isolated. In response to a plea for reinforcements, the rest of A Troop moved to support them. Additional forces were promised, and the troopers were told to hold the town. In response, the Americans launched a series of local counterattacks against the Germans, although lacking sufficient anti-armor weapons. Most of their antitank guns were no larger than 37 mm and of limited utility against the Tigers. Using small arms and captured weapons, the troopers inflicted casualties upon their aggressors.

After the fight had raged for hours and U.S. forces had withstood heavy shelling and armor-supported infantry attacks, Lee organized a patrol to knock out mortars which were inflicting heavy casualties on the beleaguered reconnaissance troops. He led the small group to the edge of the town, sweeping enemy riflemen out of position on a ridge from which he observed seven Germans manning two large mortars near an armored half-track about 100 yards away. Armed with a rifle and grenades, he left his men on the high ground and crawled to within 30 yards of the mortars, where the enemy discovered him and unleashed machine-pistol fire which shattered his right thigh.

In April 1946, Georgia Magazine announced that President Truman had recognized Lee’s service with the Medal of Honor, the U.S.’s highest military award for valor.

Exposed but enduring

Scorning retreat, bleeding and suffering intense pain, Lee dragged himself relentlessly forward. He killed five of the enemy with rifle fire and the others fled before he reached their position. Fired on by an armored car, he took cover behind the German half-track and there found a panzerfaust — a shoulder-type German antitank weapon — with which to neutralize this threat. Despite his wounds, Lee inched his way toward the car through withering machine gun fire, maneuvering into range and blasting the vehicle with a round from the rocket launcher, forcing it to withdraw. Having cleared the slope of hostile troops, Lee struggled back to his men, where he collapsed from pain and loss of blood.

By late afternoon the situation had become critical. The promised reinforcements failed to arrive and nearly every soldier in B Troop had been killed or wounded. With ammunition running out, most of the vehicles destroyed and no possibility of escaping the town, the troop commander surrendered. Many of the A Troop soldiers survived and avoided capture. But Lee was not so lucky and was taken prisoner. The German captors did not remain in Montrevel long, and when they withdrew they left the most seriously wounded behind, including Lee. He was found two days after the fight and evacuated to an American hospital.

Lee is recognized as a Medal of Honor recipient on the east-facing center plaque at Memorial Park in Alma, Georgia.

Lee made a full recovery and returned to his unit in mid-January 1945. Assigned to C Troop, he was soon leading patrols. Along with the rest of the 117th Cavalry, he supported the 36th Infantry Division in position along the Rhine River. German opposition remained stiff and the squadron was not able to cross the river into Germany until March. The same month, Lee was promoted to first lieutenant. He became the commander of C Troop and remained in this capacity for the remainder of the war, leading his troop into Bavaria and toward Stuttgart. Amid combat operations, he had to shield growing numbers of prisoners, refugees and survivors of concentration camps. When the fighting ended, Lee’s C Troop and the rest of the squadron were in Austria. The 117th Cavalry remained overseas, serving as the personal security force for General Eisenhower, before its deactivation in November 1945.

A career of service

Lee returned to the U.S. where, on January 23, 1946, he received the Medal of Honor for his actions during the Battle of Montrevel from President Harry S. Truman at the White House. His Medal of Honor citation reads: “Lee’s outstanding gallantry, willing risk of life, and extreme tenacity of purpose in coming to grips with the enemy, although suffering from grievous wounds, set an example of bravery and devotion to duty in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service.”

Afterward, Lee joined the Army Reserves and was recalled to service during the Korean War, serving for two years at Fort Knox, Kentucky, at the rank of captain. As a civilian, Lee retired as the senior vice president of Military Service Company, a division of EBCSCO Industries. He was also an active member of the Medal of Honor Society. He died in January 1985 at the age of 65, leaving behind a wife and three children.

Lee was not forgotten by his home state of Georgia. He was buried with full military honors in his hometown of Alma in a ceremony attended by other Medal of Honor recipients, his family, friends and community leaders. In 1996, the Georgia legislature passed a measure to memorialize a highway bridge in his honor. At that time, Lee was one of just 22 native Georgians to have won the Medal of Honor. He was the only Georgian to win the Medal of Honor for his service in World War II.

—Excerpted from the 2010 nomination materials to name a fire and maneuver range at Fort Benning, Georgia, in Lee’s honor