Lieutenant “Jack” Lee had a reputation as a fearless and aggressive leader who had led his tank company through France, Germany and Austria. Lee was described as “bright and inquisitive” young man who was a star football player and an avid cavalry rider. These skills helped him gain an exceptional talent for maneuvering Sherman tanks.
During his years of combat, Lee was promoted and hailed as a “swashbuckling” leader and fearless officer who won the Distinguished Service Cross. Every day Lee faced death from his turret. A biographer wrote,
“Because he was so good at what he did, he always got put out front.”
It was in the dramatic final days of World War II in Europe, and Lee found himself in Austria, eagerly anticipating the end of hostilities after Hitler’s suicide and the fall of Berlin.
One day as he was chewing on a cigar, Major Josef Gangl showed up. Gangl was a hardcore Wehrmacht veteran of 17 years. He’d had enough of the Nazi SS atrocities, and he was there to tell the Americans about some political prisoners at a nearby castle.
Reichsführer Himmler had been using the castle for VIPs from France, including two French prime ministers, two former supreme commanders, and the sister of Charles de Gaulle. The guards had abandoned their posts, but the prisoners knew too much about Dachau concentration camp 75 miles away. The SS had been ordered to retake the castle.
In no time, Jack was on his way with two tanks, six volunteers from another unit, Major Gangl and a truckload of German soldiers.
This unlikely rescue party encountered SS troops at a roadblock. The American and German troops opened fire, brushing them aside.
When they got to the castle, the French dignitaries were unimpressed with this odd force (insert a sigh here). They were even less dazzled by Jack’s attitude. You know the one, that American cocksure, “Get off your high horse” approach to things.
But the French were soon glad he was there: crack troops of the 17th Waffen-SS Panzer Division surrounded the castle and opened up. The American and Wehrmacht troops fighting for their lives and those of the prisoners.
Ammo was running low when a phone rang in the castle. It was American Major John Kramers calling from a nearby town. (Really, I just couldn’t make this stuff up!)
Kramers told Jack that help was coming.
The Waffen-SS were about to blast through the front gate of the castle when they heard the sound of automatic weapons and tank guns behind them. Kramer and his force were fighting their way through.
When they arrived, Jack went up to one of the tank commanders and said, “What kept you?”
A cigar wasn’t mentioned, but I like to imagine one in his hand. And maybe a bottle of schnapps.