President Dwight D. Eisenhower may be the most famous Kansan General to serve during World War II, but while Eisenhower called Abilene home, there was another WWII General who called Junction City home. General John C.H. Lee, known both as “Courthouse” because of his strict adherence to rules and regulations (as well as a play on his middle initials C.H.) and as “The Bishop” due to his strong Episcopalian beliefs, served as one of Eisenhower’s top Generals on the Western front. But before he could become a decorated General, John C.H. Lee started as a local Junction City boy. Known as Clifford (his middle name) as a child, General Lee was born and raised in his grandparents’ home on Fourth and Adams. In his memoir he recalled, “The Old family home at Fourth and Adams Street in Junction City had been re-constructed by our step-Grandfather, James Streeter…Across Fourth Street was the little stone Church of the Covenant, the oldest in Kansas.”
Before entering the service, General Lee was an upstanding Geary County citizen. He graduated Junction City High School in 1905 and recalled working at Rockwell General Store as a young man. “The pay was small but it was helpful. Moreover, it gave me an opportunity later to get a steady job when mother was faced by a real emergency [and] Mr. George Rockwell, gave me a steady position in the grocery department of the big store.”
As a child, General Lee reenacted moments from the ongoing Spanish War of 1898. “We played many games of a military nature, had constructed models of the naval ships and fought over again and again the campaigns as reported in Cuba.” But it wasn’t until his visit to West Point in the summer of 1899, that his interest in becoming a soldier was crystalized. As if further proof was needed that General Lee was meant to be a soldier, later that same year he met Dr. Fred O’Donnell, who cared for his aged grandmother in her final days, and who would continue to encourage young Lee throughout his military career. When he entered West Point in 1905, he credited Dr. Fred for persuading him to apply for the prestigious military academy. Both men would serve with the United States Army during the First World War in 1917 and remained close friends for the remainder of their lives.
When he graduated from West Point in 1909, a write up was done in the Junction City Sentinel praising him. General Lee ranked 12 out of 103 fellow graduates and received an assignment into the Engineer corps. The Sentinel declared “he has gone through the four years’ course with credit to himself and his state. He always stood among those at the head of his class, receiving many honors and distinctions.” This distinction would continue through his military career, which covered both World Wars. In WWI he received the Distinguished Service Medal and the Silver Star. In WWII, he was named deputy commander of Allied Forces in the European Theater by General Eisenhower. He was charged with the supply of American Forces in Europe, which included the unprecedented buildup of men and supplies in preparation for the invasion of Normandy in 1944.
In 1945, Lee was honored in Junction City with a celebration and a parade through downtown Junction City. General Lee retired in 1947 with the permanent rank of Major General and settled with his wife in York, Pennsylvania where he took an active role in his religious community until his death in 1958.
In 2017, the Geary County Historical Society will be celebrating the Year of the Soldier. The goal is to share the many stories of our military community from the founding of the county in 1855 to the present. Do you have a story to share? Are you a soldier? Was your ancestor a local soldier? Stop into the museum to share the story. Loans of military artifacts and photographs are also welcome. Contact Heather at the museum for more information at 785-238-1666 or stop in the museum Tuesday-Sunday from 1-4.