Lee, 85, was an eye witness to the unspeakable horrors of World War II and a veteran of the virtues of marriage for 44 years before his Italian wife succumbed to cancer in 1995.
In the aftermath of both love and war, Lee managed to find a place inside himself where abiding peace and undying love still exist to overshadow the pain and agony of living through a world at war and the painful death of the love of his life.
After his junior year at Bradley Central High School, Lee said he was drafted in August 1943 along with other students, but chose the Marines to serve his country in the Artillery Battalion during the war. Lee went through his own specialized training in communications.
“I was a communications man. I had to handle radio and telephone to direct fire from the front, back to the guns so they could zero in on the visitors,” said Lee regarding his introduction into the war.
“I went from San Diego to Guadalcanal. We did a little clean-up there. There were a few holdouts there. We had to mop them up. Then I was in on the invasion of Guam and we came back to Guadalcanal.”
On Guadalcanal, Lee and and his unit, the 6th Marine Division, trained hard in individual and collective tasks. Lee said his division was formed specifically for the invasion of Japan.
It was the only Marine division, as an entire unit, never to serve within the continental United States. During the invasion of Guam, U.S. forces reportedly suffered almost 8,000 casualties with more than 1,700 killed. More than 18,000 Japanese defenders died.
Amazingly, Lee ran into several of his old Bradley Central high school buddies during the war, particularly in 1945.
“I ran into Fred Miller who was also in the Marine Corps,” Lee recalled. “We weren’t in the same unit but we were in the same area. We also saw Joe Grigsby who was in the Navy. We ran into Billy Don Wilson from Cleveland and Charles Smithson from Cleveland. Charles had to come home because he was injured.
“We were all preparing for the invasion of Japan but when they dropped the bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in August, the Japanese surrendered. So we didn’t have to go to Japan as an invading factor. We got there in September 1945 and left there in January 1946.
After the Japanese surrendered, Lee and the 6th Marine Division sailed to Tsingtao, China to accept the surrender of the Japanese in September 1945. The division occupied Tsingtao until April 1, 1946.
The 6th Division also seized more than two-thirds of the physical land area of Okinawa, captured vast stores of equipment and supplies, won the battle of Sugar Loaf Hill and smashed the last line of defense at Mezado Ridge.
One year to the day after its landing on the Island of Okinawa, Lee’s division had ceased to be.
“I came home in January 1946,” said Lee, who was still single at the time. “I went to school at Tennessee Wesleyan College and worked as a carpenter. Then I re-enlisted in the Marine Corps in August 1948.”
Lee said he was discharged from the Marines July 29, 1950, after receiving a telegram from the Navy to accept an appointment as an Army O.C.S. and attend officer’s candidate school, which he did. Lee went to Fort Knox, Ky., for the platoon leader’s course. On Feb. 21, 1951, Lee was discharged from the Army OCS, having decided to return to civilian life.
In 1951, he moved again and went to work as a machinist at the Chrysler Tank Plant in Newark, Del. On one busy day Lee got a tiny piece of metal in his eye.
“I went to the sick bay to get it taken care of,” said Lee. “I got something in my eye that day that I never got out — my wife.” Lee said Louise Corpetti was a beautiful plant nurse born in Italy but raised in Delaware.
“It took me six months to convince her that she could put up with my infernal ways for the rest of her eternal days,” he said with a laugh. “The heck with all the rest of it. She was the adventure of my life.”
The couple married later that year and lived in several states before settling in Cleveland. They had three children, eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren over the next four decades. The happily married couple were given some devastating news, however, when they learned Louise had ovarian cancer. The news changed their perspective on life and the time left to live it.
“My wife and I retired in 1989. She retired from the state health department here in Bradley County. We had six years from the time she was diagnosed until the day she died,” said Lee.
“We had a motor home and we were able to travel all over the country. We went to Italy where she was born, to Israel, back to Delaware where she was raised, to Phoenix and several other places.
“When we left Jerusalem, she leaned over and put her head on my should — we were on the plane — and she said, ‘You know — I am at peace. I walked where Jesus walked. I sat where Mary sat. I’m at peace.’”
Lee knew exactly what his wife meant. After all the radiation and chemotherapy his wife had taken during her treatments, Lee knew this war was almost over — a war every bit as devastating as the war he fought while in Guam and in Okinawa. The difference was that in this battle, death became the merciful way to end the fight.
“The thing of it is, when it came to the point she didn’t want to suffer anymore, she said, ‘Honey, let me go,’” Lee said in a solemn voice. “I said, ‘If I ask you to stay any longer, honey, I’m being selfish. I have to love enough to let go.’ And that’s what I told my grandchildren. She is ready to go.”
According to Lee, Louise chose to stop her treatments and he respected her wishes.
“In fact, she was being fed through a port-a-cath in the hospital in Chattanooga over that weekend,” said Lee. “When the doctor came in Monday, she had refused that morning the supplement. I told him she refused it because she was ready to go. The doctor looked at her and asked her, ‘Is that right?’ She said, ‘Yes. I want to go home.’”
The Bradley County native said he misses everything about his adoring wife, from her personality to her delicious cooking, every single day.
“That’s why when I lost her I made the statement to myself that I would never marry again,” said Lee. “I’m spoiled. I had the best.”
Still, he knew his wife wanted him to make the most out of life and that is what the Cleveland widower said he intends to do. Although Lee may have discovered all is not fair in love and war, the veteran of both military and matrimonial affairs says he lives by a certain code.
“Just enjoy life,” he said. “Enjoy people and enjoy your life. God gave us this. We have to make the best of it.”
When asked if he, like his wife returning from Jerusalem, was at peace, Lee looked outward and responded in a broken voice, “Definitely. Definitely! Because I know I’ll see her again.”