Jerry Tyrus Lee

First Lieutenant
Army of the United States
01 August 1943 - 13 May 1969
Rocky Mount, North Carolina
Panel 25W Line 095

Silver Star

Army Aviator

Purple Heart, Air Medal, National Defense, Vietnam Service, Vietnam Campaign
Jerry Lee

The database page for Jerry Tyrus Lee

30 May 2000


      In the fall of 1959, my 16-year old brother Garry brought home a new friend - a classic "tall, blonde, and handsome" young man, with an infectious grin and an engaging friendliness, named Jerry. I never suspected, by his manner, that his father was vice-president of the largest bank in Rocky Mount, our home town.

      It would not be an understatement to say that I fell in love with him at first sight; even though I was only twelve years old at the time, I knew, without doubt, that this was who I wanted to spend my life with. He was funny, not just bright but clever, sensitive, thoughtful, all the things that women have always looked for in a man. But he was much more than these things; there was an animation in Jerry that made any room he entered seem like a special place to be. When he smiled, you could see everything about him that mattered; there wasn�t one phony, calculating bone in his body. The essential goodness and sweetness of his character, and his integrity, were clear in his eyes. He put his entire focus and energy into the person or event that had his attention; I wanted to be that person, and had not the slightest doubt that fate would make it so someday.

      That conviction never wavered throughout the next few years, as he and Garry became best friends, formed a band, practiced self-taught karate in our backyard, and destroyed a few rose bushes throwing a "discus" which looked strangely like a 10-pound barbell weight. They invented stupid contests whose rules changed as they went along, depending on who was winning, engaged in endless philosophical and existential discussions, and did all the things that teenage boys do to amuse themselves. I was constantly hanging around, an admiring audience, but Jerry always had time for the annoying little sister during the years while I was waiting to grow up enough to close the gap in our ages.

      We came close to that time when I was 16 and he was 20, flirted with each other, even went on a date to the bowling alley, (I made an impossible spare because he said he would hug me if I did, a miracle, because I�m a terrible bowler.) But he was a "college man," and I was still a little too young.

      I did receive three letters from him that I kept under my pillow and reread every night before bed. Meanwhile, we were having lengthy, intense, but frustratingly platonic long-distance conversations. On one memorable occasion, he took me out rowing, during a family vacation at our cottage on the Pamlico River. Almost shyly, he said that a girl had told him once that he would be easy to love. I was young, even more shy, and didn�t tell him that I had already loved him for years.

      When they were both home on weekends and Jerry came over to see my brother, he gradually began dividing his time between us. Garry, understandably, wasn�t too happy about this change in the relationship between his best friend and his "little" (17 by now) sister. He made his feelings known, and Jerry respected them. I continued to bide my time, with an almost superstitious belief that he had to make the first move, even though we saw less and less of each other as time passed. I was certain that he would really see me someday, the day I had imagined for so many years. When he became engaged, I almost wrote to tell him how I felt, but this was 1965, and nice young women didn�t do those sorts of things. So, eventually we both married other people and life went on.

      In February of 1969, Jerry called me. His marriage had broken up, and he was back in Rocky Mount to see his family and friends before leaving for Vietnam. Although we hadn�t seen each other for a couple of years, I fell into one or both of those categories, and he came over to say good-bye to me.

      Jerry had to go through a lot of red tape, special exemptions, and medical examinations, to enlist in the Army; he had a heart condition called tachycardia which would otherwise have kept him out. This was during a time when draft-eligible young men were demonstrating, burning their draft cards, and going to Canada to avoid the war; anti-war songs and protests were the order of the day. When I questioned his decision, worried about him, he recited lyrics from "The Impossible Dream," and said he felt strongly about going to fight for his country, no matter what sacrifice was required of him. He said, in fact, that he intended to stay for more than one tour of duty; that was the way he did things, with his whole heart. He wanted his father to be proud of him.

      We spent several hours, reminiscing about "the old days." He insisted on going to a local record store, buying me a copy of a Glen Campbell album, then listening together to the song "Gentle on My Mind." It was a message to me, graceful and tender. I told him I�d kept his letters under my pillow, but not why. He said he was glad that I might be pregnant with my first child (something I had not told anyone else), because he wanted the people he cared about to be well and happy.

      As he backed out of the driveway that day, as I stood in the yard with tears in my eyes, he stopped, rolling down the window, and sang along with Kenny Rogers on the radio, "But you know I love you, I love you ... I love you." I had waited nine years to hear him say those words. He smiled at me, that smile that lit up his whole face, continued backing out, and drove away.

      Three months later, he was dead. The Medevac helicopter he was piloting had been shot down while airlifting a wounded soldier. We learned later that he didn�t try to take any sort of evasive action, because that would have jeopardized the man he was trying to rescue. That is the sort of man Jerry Tyrus Lee was -- kind, compassionate, believing that doing the right thing was more important than doing the easy or self-serving thing. He had planned to become a doctor after the war.

      I named my second child after the man who will always be young, smiling, full of life in my mind. I still dream sometimes that I find him again, that it was all a mistake. In my dreams, we are both waiting for the time to be right, knowing that we are meant to be together forever. Sometimes, waking up with tears on my face, I believe that we still are. When he died, he had a picture of me in his wallet.

I would be honored to hear from others who knew Jerry,
and I would especially like to hear from his family.

Emilie Ross Raphael, Ph.D.
46 Diana Del Silva Court, Chapel Hill, NC 27516

Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year's leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year's bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide.
There are a hundred places where I fear
To go, - so with his memory they brim.
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, "There is no memory of him here!"
And so stand stricken, so remembering him.

- Edna St. Vincent Millay -

18 Jul 2008

Dear Ms. Raphael,

I also hope this e-mail finds you in good health and spirits. Though the reflections herein are a bit dated, and maybe overdue. Perhaps, they will find a receptive heart, ear and mind.

I need to say this little bit while I can. I have intended to write for months. I met Jerry during our basic Medical Service Corps officer's course at Ft. Sam Houston, in San Antonio, Texas. I think it was Army policy to have commissioned officers, who were just reporting for duty attend a two month familiarization course to show us what the branch did. As I recall, the Army had 19 branches. Our branch ran the hospitals and ordered supplies for the doctors. However, like myself, Jerry was one of the new 2Lt's who volunteered for flight training - with an eye on becoming a Medical Evacuation Helicopter pilot (Medevac).

I would speculate that, after my class saw the moving and heroic activities that our branch was responsible for and we were asked if any of us wanted to volunteer for flight training, ten or eleven hands went up. From that group, at least one person 'came to his senses' and opted out. Of the remaining group, four officers did not pass the aptitude test or meet the medical requirements. That whittled the group down to six. Again, this is mere speculation. My albumin read high, whatever that meant, and it was monitored to determine whether I was medically qualified. I was.

After the two month branch orientation at Ft. Sam, the six of us went to Ft. Wolters in Mineral Wells, Texas. We all probably ended up in the same trailer park. My roommate in the two bedroom trailer was Lt. Mike Cole, a Southern University graduate. I suspect we all started out in the 'Brown Hat' class. Each class of aspiring aviators wore a different color hat. Jerry was in my class.

It was a difficult, very 'sticky' time for us all. Race relations were 'edgy' and epiphanies about us all having more in common than we had that was different were years in the future. There were three black officers, Rochon, also a Southern University grad, Cole and me. I was a graduate of what, then, was Morgan State College. While we were still at Ft. Sam Houston, Martin Luther King was assassinated. This stirred up a lot of emotions. It made a difficult task, being a black pilot candidate in a white-dominated area of the military, even more challenging. It brought out good and bad in everybody. In fact, that is why I am taking this moment to write, Jerry was one of the all too rare 'good guys'. Jerry was clearly not just another 'good ole boy' he was a very pleasant, good-humored guy, who seemed able to accept differences and seemed to merely want to just get along. Frankly, he was one of the few guys I liked and who acted consistently decently towards me. He was a gentleman. He was comfortable to be around. And, given his southern roots, his attitude of tolerance was noteworthy and touching.

Though we were all around the same age, Jerry seemed like an old soul to me. He seemed to have a laid back, mature way about him. I suspect that I was not the only one who liked and respected him. What am I saying? I know he was well regarded - by all.

He had a saying. I don't know if he coined it for flight school, whether he had said it for years or just thought it up, once he joined the military. It was: "If it's fair, we'll do it."

He was say this with a southern drawl, but it was always said pleasantly and with the implication that what mattered most was doing the right thing.

During flight school, my roommate ran into a snag on some block of the training. He was set back to the class behind us, to give him time to get whatever was right, i.e., to master the skill he had not originally shown adequate acumen with. He became part of the "Orange" cap class or the "Red" cap class. I cannot remember which color it was for sure.

Ultimately, of the six officers who came into flight school together, four were assigned to Korea. That was a thirteen to fourteen month hardship tour. Reportedly, it was not without it hazards. The North Koreans regularly shot across the DMZ at our aircraft. However, it was not as hairy as the hostile fire we faced in Vietnam. Only Jerry and I went to 'Nam. I recalled hearing that he was assigned to the large unit in Danang or that area. I started out in Tuy Hoa and the entire unit moved to Chu Lai.

You may find it interesting to know that any aircraft in that war which had room could carry wounded or injured personnel. However, only our branch had the red cross on the nose and doors of the chopper. This meant we flew under the Geneva Accords and that we were non-combatants, there only to help preserve life. Stated differently, our aircraft had no machine guns or mounted weapons. The crew was allowed to have personal weapons to protect ourselves if we ever went down. These were defensive and not offensive weapons. My unit's personnel wore .38 caliber revolvers rather than the .45 caliber automatics that many Army personnel were issued. I don't know what Jerry carried.

I was saddened to learn of his loss. I think his aircraft was struck by fire from a .50 caliber machine gun. Choppers had no defense against such a heavy weapon. It was something every pilot dreaded.

He was a nice guy. I suspect he was a good pilot also. Sadly, it was not a war for good guys or good pilots. God called a number of them to his side. I hope he had some important jobs lined up for them. I hope those jobs included the task of watching over their friends and relatives. He allowed some of us to stay here to do work on this earthly plane. I look at it this way because there has to be some kind of Divine rhyme or reason behind some men at such a young age being admitted into Heaven and some of us being left behind. I hope Jerry's spirit has touched you and his family.

I hope that others who knew Jerry find his page on The Virtual Wall and share their recollections of him. He was such a nice guy that his friends and family, by association, have to be equally nice and deserve to hear more details about his life. Though I intended to write as soon as I came upon the page honoring his service, I was recently blessed with a contact letter from a man I served with in Vietnam. After 37 years, he reached out to greet me and I appreciated the sentiments. I am writing to you in the same spirit.

I hope this letter is not untimely or intrusive. It is intended to provide a few details which may round out your knowledge of Jerry's military experience and maybe, just maybe, provide some solace to those who loved him. If anything contained herein gives you and any surviving family of Jerry any comfort, do not hesitate to share this.

Sincerely yours,
Arnold H. Sampson
a friend and fellow pilot
68th Med Detachment
March 1968 - Feb 1970
Dustoff 85

A Note from The Virtual Wall

During the Tet Offensive of 1968 the NVA had staged an entire NVA division and other VC forces through the A Shau Valley for its massive attacks on Hue and Da Nang. Although Tet '68 turned out to be a military disaster (but a political victory) for the NVA and VC, by early 1969 it was becoming apparent that A Shau Valley was once again an area of high NVA activity, logistically and strategically, and an important terminus for the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

In May of 1969 the American command planned to clear out the A Shau Valley using ten battalions of infantry, including the 9th Marine Regiment, the 3d ARVN Regiment, the 3/5th Cavalry, and three air assault battalions: 1/506th, 2/501st, and 3/187th. The overall plan of attack called for the Marines and the 3/5th Cavalry to combat-assault into the valley and move toward the Laotian border while the ARVN units cut the highway through the base of the valley. The 2/501st and the 1/506th were to destroy the enemy in their own operating areas and block escape routes into Laos.

The "Rakkasans" of the 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry, drew what turned out to be the toughest part of the operation: Clear and occupy Dong Ap Bia, a mountain that rose to 970 meters at its highest point with ridgelines at 800, 900, 916, and 937 meters high. The terrain in the area favored the defenders. The mountains they were to defend and their ridges were along the Trung Pham River on the Laotian border. The area was covered with a tropical, double- and triple-canopied jungle. The land beneath the trees was a tangled mass of saw-toothed elephant grass, thick stands of bamboo, and other foliage that inhibited foot movement, even without an enemy presence. The hills gave way to ridgelines, cut with deep ravines, saddles, draws, and smaller hills. It was an area long occupied by the NVA and fortified with bunkers, spider holes, deep tunnels, trenches, and underground shelters for aid stations, command posts, and storage depots. And this time the NVA intended to stay their ground.

Operations began on 10 May 1969 when the lead companies of 1/506th and 3/187th Infantry were inserted by air and began movements toward their assigned objectives. Although the initial landings were not opposed, by mid-afternoon Bravo 3/187 was in contact. 3/187 went into a night defensive position at dusk on 10 May and continued movement toward Dong Ap Bia's peaks at daybreak on 11 May. Contact increased during the day, and captured documents indicated 29th NVA Regiment, with a strength of between twelve and eighteen hundred men, was defending the hill complex.

12 May was a battle of inches, with 3/187's rifle companies assaulting up-hill against a well-entrenched enemy force. D Company, 3/187, was tasked with clearing a ravine and then assaulting up-hill along the ravine's sides. While some progress was made, nightfall found 3/187 still on the hillsides with more work to be done on the 12th. At daybreak, D/3/187 continued movement up the ravine, encountering increasingly heavy enemy fire:

"Delta Company, with platoons on both banks of the ravine, returned the fire with every available weapon and called for gunships. They also called for a MedEvac helicopter, which arrived on the scene at 1510 hours. As the Rakkasans were hoisting the wounded into the hovering helicopter, an RPG slammed into it. It crashed down on Pfc. George Pickel, killing him instantly. One of its whirling blades killed Sp4 William Springfield and wounded Miguel Moreno."
- Fred Waterhouse -
The helicopter, UH-1H tail number 67-17844, was from the 326th Medical Battalion. Only the pilot, 1LT Gerald M. Torba, survived; the other three crewmen did not:
  • 1LT Jerry T. Lee, Rocky Mount, NC, copilot
  • SP4 James A. Margro, New York, NY, medic
  • SP4 James R. Walters, Riverhead, NY, crew chief
The two men on killed on the ground were SP4 William V. Springfield of Elyria, Ohio, and PFC George W. Pickel of Astoria, New York.

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With all respect
Jim Schueckler, former CW2, US Army
Ken Davis, Commander, United States Navy (Ret)
Memorial first published on 30 May 2000
Last updated 08/10/2009