Lee Thermon Jennings was born February 25, 1927, in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, to Vernon and Verda (Wade) Jennings. He passed away on Saturday, May 12, 2018, in Duncan, at the age of 91.
A memorial service is scheduled at Fort Sill National Cemetery in Elgin on Tuesday, May 29, at 11:00 AM. Arrangements have been entrusted to Whitt Funeral Home.
Lee attended Lawton public schools. He joined the US Army in 1945 and completed his enlistment in 1951. He then enlisted in the US Air Force in 1952 and retired in 1967. He faithfully served the United States during three wars: World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. After his retirement he married Carol Burgess. They ran an RV park in Joshua Tree, California. He and Carol loved living there and also in Alamogordo, New Mexico. He enjoyed working on his cars, especially old Chrysler cars, traveling, and visiting his family.
Lee is survived by his brother, Daniel Jennings; sisters-in-law, Joy Burk and Darlene Jennings; daughter-in-law, Lyla McHenry; nieces and nephews, Melinda Denman, Steve Jennings, Scott Jennings, Carla Sanelma, Candice Scareale, Kristie Anderson, Rebecca Robins, Jimmie Jennings, Laura Harget, Robert Novotny, Deborah Jennings, Beverly McClure, Adonica Jennings, David Jennings, Jason Jennings, and Jessica Jennings; many cousins; and his dogs, Cristy and Fancy.
He was preceded in death by his wife, Carol; son, Joe McHenry; parents, Vernon and Verda Jennings; sisters, Florene Jennings, Lorene Jennings, Bobbi Biggs, and Virginia Dexter; brothers, Murriel Jennings, Donald Jennings, and Jimmie Jennings; sister-in-law, Daphene Jennings; nephews, Larry Jennings and Mark Jennings; and his beloved dogs, Carol Lee and Princess.
Memorial contributions may be made in Lee’s name to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, 501 St. Jude Place, Memphis, TN 38105 or by phone at 1-800-805-5858.
Online condolences may be made to the family at www.whittfh.com.
Lee T. Jennings was born to Verda (Wade) and Vernon Jennings, in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma in 1927. The family moved to Lawton in the mid-1930s. Due to the failure of farming Oklahoma and the effects of the Great Depression on jobs, they faced absolute destitution. “We were about as poor as a family could be. We picked cotton and did anything we could to survive. We couldn’t afford to rent a house, so my mother put up a tent down near the railyard; that’s what we lived in. Dr. Angus (an early doctor and leader in Lawton) took pity on us and helped build us a rough shack to live in.”
“One of my distinct memories from this period was that one day when I was seven or eight, the family was chasing a rabbit to catch to use for stew. It ran into a bramble bush and, even though I was the smallest, I couldn’t get into that bramble to get it. Just then, a German Shephard came up, went into the bush, brought out the rabbit, then laid it at my mother’s feet. We always knew from then on that God was looking out for us.”
“Because we were so poor, I often had to stay home from school to help haul hay with my uncle. Eventually, I missed so many days, I was expelled. I was so young and so busy trying to help my family survive by truck driving, that I don’t remember much about the early years of the war. I do remember that about six months before the war started, my grandfather told the family, ‘War is coming; you’d better prepare’. I drove a truck hauling farm products until I turned 18 (1927). I was then drafted into the U.S. Army. I immediately went to Ft. Wolters, Texas for Basic Training. I really didn’t know what to expect – it was al new to me. We learned a lot of things there that kept me alive throughout my career. I was glad it was good training. Two things that we learned about were dynamite and snakes. I’ve tried to stay away from those two all my life!”
“After Basic Training, we went by troop train to Fort Ord, California. We were on that train for two weeks. That trip was the first time I saw the beauty of southern New Mexico. We stopped somewhere along the route for a break. When I got out, I saw the cliff dwellings of the ancient Indians who had inhabited the area. That kind of cast a spell over me. I always thought about going back, which I did later in life. Now I live in Alamogordo. I visit Lawton often because I have a brother there and am always reminded of those tough years for our family.”
At Fort Ord, we did another four weeks of training, especially on bayonets, ship debarkation and other skills related to assault landings. Next, we went to Fort Lawton, Washington to be shipped to Okinawa. I recall Fort Lawton because there had been a major earthquake there and the barracks were all tilted in crazy ways. We didn’t stay there long.”
“We shipped out on a Liberty Ship, the "Marine Devil" in a convoy. About three days into the trip, tragedy hit when a rogue wave swept over the ship, washing 29 soldiers overboard. None of them were ever recovered. I was lucky; even though I was on the top deck, I managed to hold on. There really wasn’t any bad weather or storms to give us a warning. It was just bad luck. But, those things seem to happen in war; there’s not much that can be done about it. We spent 37 days on that ship, stopping in both Hong Kong and Shanghai. I recall that when we were three days out of China, we could smell it. We could still smell it three days after we left. I’ve never liked Chinese food since that experience.”
“By the time we arrived in Okinawa, the war was over - Japan had surrendered. I was then assigned as a squad member in “L” Company of the 7th Infantry Division. The 7th had experienced some of the heaviest fighting in the bloody battle for Okinawa. Most of its ‘old hands’ were anxious to get home.”
Almost as soon as arrived, we were shipped out to South Korea. I didn’t know it at the time, but when the Japanese surrendered and started moving their occupation troops back to Japan, the Soviets immediately wanted to occupy the entire Korean peninsula. Though the U.S. didn’t really want to send troops to Korea, it was necessary to keep the Soviets from ‘grabbing’ the peninsula. The country had been terribly exploited by the Japanese and was in an awful mess. I was stationed around Taegu in the southern part of the country. Our mission was to ride as train guard for U.S. supply trains moving from the port of Pusan up-country toward Seoul. The Koreans were starving and it was not fun keeping them off the trains. But, our soldiers needed these supplies.”
“As a result of being exposed to mosquitos in this land, with so many rice patties and standing water, I came down with malaria. I don’t recall there being any pills or anything that we were supposed to have taken. I remember waking up in a hospital near Taegu to hear the doctor say, ‘Look at the ceiling and tell me how many cracks are in it’. I said, ‘There are a hundred.’ There was only one crack. Penicillin had just come out then; they thought it might cure malaria. I was given massive doses of it; but, it didn’t help much. I spent about three weeks in the hospital and then returned to my unit. My enlistment was up in about six months.”
“I got out of the Army about six months later, returned home and began driving a truck again. However, I wasn’t over the malaria and started passing out from the heat. I soon re-enlisted and, in 1948, I was sent to Company K, 16th Infantry Regiment of the Berlin Brigade. We lived in a massive troop barracks which had been occupied by the German Infantry during the war. It had a huge 25-meter pool and a 50-foot diving tower. I was a good swimmer, so I really enjoyed that pool!”
“In those days, Berlin was split into four sectors, one each administered by the U.S., British, French and the Soviet Union (the largest). The entire city was surrounded by a Soviet-controlled zone that had been assigned to them after the war. My unit pulled guard duty al over the city, so I got to see a lot of it and got to know the people. Even three years after the war, Berlin was still primarily rubble, caused by U.S. and British bombing during the war, and Soviet destruction of the city when they captured it at the end of the war. The German people were desperate for food, fuel and almost everything needed to keep life going. The Soviets would not allow German farmers or industry in the areas surrounding Berlin to provide any food or supplies to the occupying forces or German civilians in the Allied sectors. This meant that all supplies had to be shipped in. Shipping this tonnage was a pretty tall order since all of our convoys had to pass along a 100-mile Soviet-controlled autobahn to get to Berlin. The Soviets were constantly up to “dirty tricks” on the autobahn and elsewhere in the city to get us to abandon Berlin.”
Finally, in October 1948, the Soviets closed the autobahn and refused to let supplies be brought into Berlin by road. This was a real crisis, especially with the brutal Berlin winter coming on. The U.S. and allies, determined not to buckle under this blockade, started the Berlin Airlift. It used primarily U.S. C-47 cargo aircraft – many of them flying multiple flights per day – to bring all kinds of supplies to the city (coal, food and other essentials). The airlift was particularly hazardous because Tempelhof Airdrome, where I worked in the American sector of Berlin, was an old airfield, around which tall apartment buildings had been built. Given the fog, ice, snow, winter gales and weight of the aircraft loaded with supplies, this made for some very hazardous flying. I recall that one time a plane was too heavily loaded; the pilot made the crew parachute out to lighten the landing load.”
“Our unit was unloading coal one day when one of the Air Force NCOs asked for anyone who knew about repairing engines to speak up. I did…and, I did. From then on, I helped to repair the engines of aircraft landing in Berlin so that they could get back to the U.S. airfields located in the U.S. occupation zone of Germany. About this time, the U.S. Army Air Force became an independent military department as the U.S. Air Force. I could have transferred to the USAF at that time, but I didn’t because I had found a girlfriend and wanted to stay on in Berlin. Her family had been bombed out; I used to take ‘care packages” to her family. For years afterwards, my mother would still send her family things to eat because it took a long time for the German economy to rebound – especially in Berlin where they were surrounded by the Soviet Blockade. After about a year of the airlift, the Soviets saw that the Allies were not going to abandon Berlin and began allowing supplies to be shipped by road again.”
“In 1949, I was reassigned to Fort Lewis, Washington. From here, we went on one of the strangest maneuvers I ever participated in. It was called Operation Mickey and was focused on conducting assault landings in urban areas. To this end, we ‘assaulted’ the beach in San Diego, set up our camp and were released to go to town, where we spent a lot of money. Next, we ‘assaulted’ the beach at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, set up camp, went to Honolulu for a great time and spent more money. For some reason, we were paid three months’ pay in those two months. Most of us concluded that the economy in those two cities needed ‘a shot in the arm’ and our division provided it.”
“I was due to be discharged; at 9:00 a.m. on June 9th, 1950, I was in Fort Lewis, Washington at the discharge center, ready to process. An officer came in, announcing that President Truman had signed an Executive Order extending all enlistments for a year due to new conflicts erupting in Korea. I knew what that country was all about and wasn’t excited about the prospects of going back.” Despite my lack of enthusiasm, I was soon on my way as part of the 2nd Infantry Division. I was assigned to the infantry security company for the Division Headquarters. Our CG was Major General Ruffner. One of our missions was to protect him. I saw him often and even talked with him on several occasions.”
“In October, the Division went ashore as part of the landing at Inchon planned by General McArthur. After landing, we began a pursuit of the North Korean Army up the peninsula. We finally halted along the Yalu River – Korea’s border with China. Our headquarters was on a mountain overlooking the Yalu. That was around Thanksgiving of 1950. The Chinese Communist troops attacked with overwhelming troops within the next couple of days. We began a desperate fight, retreating back down the peninsula. To this day, I won’t get in a sleeping bag because I was in one when they attacked; it was almost impossible to break out of it to get away from them. I tore that bag up, getting out! The night that the Chinese attacked is something that I’ll remember forever. They were closing in on the Division Headquarters. In desperation, I picked up a recoilless rifle, which was normally mounted on a large tripod, and put it on my shoulder. I fired it almost point blank at them. I expected to be knocked completely over or worse; but, surprisingly, it really was recoilless. I survived.”
“On that day and the days that followed, we were superhuman. We were all heroes in many ways and we were all cowards in other ways. Until you are there, you really don’t know what you’re going to be. Every day is different. To this day, I don’t know how I got out of that fight alive. Many of my comrades and others in the division did not. We had two enemies on that bitterly fought retreat: the unmercifully bitter cold and the unrelenting Communists. For the most part, we were surrounded and the Chinese controlled the high ground. As was our mission, we stayed close to General Ruffner to protect him. As we walked along behind his command van, he and I would pick up the dead ad wounded left beside the road and put them in the van. All the time the Chinese on the high ground were shooting down the mountain at us as we walked along the road in the valley. Eventually, the Princess Pats (Canadian Light Infantry) came forward and relieve us; we withdrew to Seoul to reorganize.”
“We had taken a terrific beating. General Ruffner was eventually relieved as Division Commander. I always hated that because he was a good man. One incident that was meaningful to me was that after we got back into a safe area, I wanted to write my mother to let her know that I was okay. So, I went over to the Red Cross man to get a piece of paper, an envelope and a stamp. I was only making about $50 a month, so that was a lot of money for something I thought should be free after what we had just gone through. As I glumly walked back, Genera Ruffner saw me and asked what was wrong. After I told him, he immediately walked over to the Red Cross man and told him to pack up his bags and get out of the area immediately. He did.
“After refitting, the Division went back into the line and conducted several operations, including Operation Ripper. I recall once when we were having some success, we overran an area on the coast where the 1st Marine Division was to conduct a beach assault. They came ashore and one of the funny things was that, because we had already secured the area, Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxell (in the country on a USO tour), were down on the beach singing, ‘If We Knew You Were Coming, We’d Have Baked a Cake.’ The Marines didn’t like that very much.”
“After serving out the ‘Truman Extension’, I mustered out in the summer of 1951and came back to Oklahoma. I was sure glad to see my mother! She told me that during the entire time I was trapped in North Korea, that she had walked the floor praying for my safety; she knew that is what brought me back.”
“I re-enlisted in 1952 – this time, in the Air Force. I had to go through the Air Force Basic Training, but that was okay. I had several interesting assignments, but one of the most interesting ones was a crew chief on an aircraft flying rescue coverage for the U2 spy aircraft. Anytime there was a U2 aloft, we flew at a low altitude, over friendly or neutral territory along its flight path, so that in case of an emergency, we would rescue the pilot. That took us over every part of the globe – including both Polar Regions. Another interesting, but stressful time, was during the Cuban Missile Crisis when I was recalled from leave and immediately began ferrying airborne troops from Fort Bragg North Caroline to Homestead AFB in Florida to support a possible ground invasion. My gosh, we worked so hard during that time – it was literally non-stop trying to get that force built up in Florida! That was the only time in my life that I have ever taken any stimulant stronger than coffee. I wound up staying awake for here days! I have never done that again.”
“I had several other assignments and ‘learning curves’ as new aircraft came into the inventory. In Vietnam, I was assigned to Da Nang Air Force Base. Because I was familiar with the older, slower aircraft, I was assigned to support the Air Commandos flying out of Da Nang. These were very dangerous missions because we often ran low-level airdrops of supplies and personnel over highly contested areas. In other instances, we conducted Short Take Off and Landing (STOL) missions on super short, unimproved and contested remote landing strips. Believe me, that could be very hairy at times!”
“Unbeknownst to me, or at least not recognized at the time, the flight line for the C-47's delivering Agent Orange throughout the country, was immediately adjacent to us at Da Nang. I was never directly hit with Agent Orange, nor did I ever deliver it, but given the issues I have had – and continue to have – I am almost positive that the chemical spray must have blown over onto our flight line during the year that I was there.”
“After I returned from Vietnam in 1967, I retired. He says life in the service was varied, challenging and interesting. He still does not know why he was selected to live through all that he did when so many around him didn't.”
“I was mentally and physically exhausted – going through some very dark times. Fortunately, I met a very good woman, a former Deputy Federal Marshal, who was ‘a real live wire’ and just what I needed. Carol helped me get through my challenges and we were married (1972). I lost her a few years ago to cancer. I miss her greatly.”
“I’ve learned a lot in my life. I should have understood more of what I had when I was a boy and been more satisfied. I had a good family and I was happy, but I was too dumb to know it. I wish I could re-live some of those years. I also learned early on that you have to be your own person. I grew up so poor that I let people run over me. That had to change and it did. I have been lucky in so many ways. My life in the service was varied, challenging and interesting. But, I still don’t know why I was selected to live through all that I did when so many around me didn’t. I will always be puzzled by that. I learned that good health – physical and mental – is everything. I have had challenges in both areas, but have dealt with them through the caring of my family and personal will power. Last, I would like to say that a good wife is something to be treasured. Do whatever you need to do to keep a good relationship!”
Courtesy of (Retired) Lt Colonel Don Sullivan