This story is part of a series, called Georgia Groundbreakers, that celebrates innovative and visionary faculty, students, alumni and leaders throughout the history of the University of Georgia – and their profound, enduring impact on our state, our nation and the world.
Daniel Warnell Lee didn’t complain about the severe wounds he suffered in battle during World War II.
He also didn’t boast about receiving the nation’s highest military distinction – commonly called the Congressional Medal of Honor – for his acts of valor during that battle. His medal was not prominently displayed at home, said his daughter, Beth Lee von Mersveldt.
“Dad was a very humble man,” von Mersveldt said. “He was very much a patriot and a man of faith. We found the Bible he carried during the war after he died. He truly believed in our country and his faith got him through all those difficult days.”
On Sept. 2, 1944, while commanding a squadron as a U.S. Army second lieutenant in Montrevel, France, Lee single-handedly attacked a heavily armed German mortar position. Despite suffering a shattered thigh from German fire, Lee crawled toward the enemy position and attacked it with a rocket launcher. After the Germans retreated, Lee struggled back to his troops, where he collapsed from pain and loss of blood.
Lee – who enlisted in the Army after graduating from the University of Georgia – was decorated on Jan. 23, 1946, by President Harry S. Truman.
His official Medal of Honor citation dramatically details his actions.
“1st Lt. (then 2d Lt.) Daniel W. Lee was leader of Headquarters Platoon, Troop A, 117th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, Mechanized, at Montrevel, France, on September 2, 1944, when the Germans mounted a strong counterattack, isolating the town and engaging its outnumbered defenders in a pitched battle.
“After the fight had raged for hours and our forces had withstood heavy shelling and armor-supported infantry attacks, 2d Lt. 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 down the reverse slope.
“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. Scorning retreat, bleeding and suffering intense pain, he 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 with which to neutralize this threat.
“Despite his wounds, he inched his way toward the car through withering machine gun fire, maneuvering into range, and blasted the vehicle with a round from the rocket launcher, forcing it to withdraw. Having cleared the slope of hostile troops, he struggled back to his men, where he collapsed from pain and loss of blood. Second Lt. 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.”
Lee’s citation doesn’t tell the rest of his story from that day. At the end of the battle, Lee’s platoon ultimately surrendered to the German troops.
“They were outnumbered and they were holed up in the Montrevel schoolhouse. The Germans took the soldiers who were able and they left my Dad because of his serious wounds,” said von Merveldt. “Dad told my brother that a German soldier made the decision to leave him there rather than kill him or take him as he would not have made it. Dad was forever grateful.”
Humble beginnings on a farm in Georgia
Born in 1919, Daniel Warnell Lee grew up on a farm in Alma, Georgia, long before he was a soldier. Lee was one of seven children who grew up in the family home, described by his daughter as a plain wood-boarded house on stilts with a dirt driveway, no air conditioning or window units, no bathroom and a barn in the back.
Like most farm families, the Lee children woke early to do chores, went to school and returned home to do evening chores. Von Nerveldt says working on the family farm gave her father the determination he needed to strive for a better life. To do so, he enrolled at the University of Georgia and began working toward an agriculture degree. He paid his tuition with the help of a two-year scholarship from Sears, Roebuck and Co., working for one of his professors, typing papers for other students and working summers surveying crops.
Lee was a member of Phi Kappa Phi, Aghon, Alpha Zeta, Agronomy Club, Xi Phi Xi, 4-H, Saddle, Sirloin Club and Junior Cabinet and UGA ROTC. He made the Dean’s List in 1939-1940.
Lee earned an agriculture degree from UGA in 1941 and began a career working in soil management. He attempted to join the Air Force, but was denied due to being color blind. In 1942, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. He and Sallie Davis married in December 1942.
Von Merveldt says her father also didn’t talk about his time at UGA, but she remembers her mother having a UGA bracelet, a gift from Lee when they were dating. She also remembers her father’s love of UGA football.
“We always supported Georgia when we watched college football,” she said. “He always rooted for the Bulldogs.”
After WWII, 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. He and his wife raised two sons and a daughter. As a civilian, Lee rose to the position of senior vice president of Southwest Region of Military Service Company, the oldest division of EBSCO Industries.
Like many American soldiers, Lee did not return home unscathed.
“He would get severe headaches and cluster migraines and he would have pain in that leg because he still had shrapnel in it. But he didn’t complain,” von Merveldt said.
Learn more about the outstanding UGA men and women in the Georgia Groundbreakers series.
She said the Vietnam era was a difficult time for her father because of the amount of anti-military sentiment.
“My Dad was in a Battle of Flowers parade in San Antonio. All the Medal of Honor recipients were booed and heckled,” she said. “He was so upset. Things like that stand out.”
Lee was active in the Medal of Honor Society and his family continued to stay connected to the select group after his death in 1985 at the age of 65.
On the 50th anniversary of the battle in France, Lee’s wife, daughter and one of his sons attended a ceremony at the site. “Members of Dad’s platoon took us through the area where the battle took place,” von Merveldt said. “There are still cement walls along streets with bullet holes in them from WWII.”
In 2019, on the 75th anniversary, a small group gathered in France. “Two French men have devoted themselves to capturing the history of the Montrevel conflict. There are many French men and some women who had family members that were part of the French Resistance that worked to aid Americans. They have collected details and photos,” she said.
Lee was buried with full military honors in Rosehill Cemetery in his hometown of Alma. 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.