By Paul Mills
The man who has had more close calls and dodged more bullets than just about any person I have ever known died at the end of March. The wonder of it all is that he died of natural causes and lived to be nearly 93. His name: Johnny Lee.
Some of the most gratifying years of his life were associated with Maine including four years at Colby and a 40 year domestic partnership and marriage to the daughter of former two term Maine Governor John Reed. But his personal journey and the first two decades of his eventful life began some 7,000 miles away – half way around the world.
It’s November 1945. Beijing – then known as Peiping – had just been emancipated by US forces from eight years of Axis Imperial rule. Lee himself has endured emotionally and physically painful personal injuries by the Japanese occupying forces. As if witnessing the firing squad executions of many of his civilian neighbors was not traumatizing enough, his own father, the CEO of the Chinese Division of Universal Studios narrowly escapes also being assassinated. Whole villages were wiped out because one person in it defaced an Imperial Japanese proclamation. It is against this backdrop when the 16-year old Lee begins his association with an American naval officer, Peter Mills, this columnist’s father.
Lee is among several hundred students at a Peiping prep school. Mills, as Lee later described it was the “first liberator” most of them had seen since World War II had ended three months earlier. Having been subjected to not only eight years of Japanese oppression but also to a distorted and highly censored interpretation of world events, the students are on the edge of their seats as Mills brings them up to date on news of the war that had long been withheld from them. Mills’ presentation is interrupted by the inability of the teacher who is his interpreter to continue.
At this point Lee’s peers thrust him to the forefront. He has impressive bilingual facility in both English and Mandarin Chinese despite a ban on the use of English that had been imposed by the Japanese Through his interpretive talents they learn for the first time the details of how the American Navy won the battles of the Pacific that led to their being rescued from the yoke of Axis domination. These include Mills’ description of how he was wounded in the first ever kamikaze attack just off the Philippines in a confrontation that also saw his ship, the USS Santee, nearly capsized in a torpedo attack in the largest naval battle in world history.
Out of gratitude for what the Allies had done, several of Peiping’s leading citizens extend their hospitality to the Americans, treating them to dinner in their own homes. Among them: Lee’s parents, who like Lee himself, were fluent in English.
Over dinner, Mills discusses with Lee’s parents the possibility of Johnny attending school in the states. Mills especially commends to them his own alma mater, Maine’s Colby College.
Thus, a few weeks later in the midst of his month long round the world journey back home Mills writes a letter to Colby’s redoubtable Dean Ernest Marriner urging consideration of Lee as a prospective applicant for admission. “After seeing the young man and observing his rapid fire mind in action…I hope the college will send him the information necessary for application.”
Back home in Farmington, Mills resumes his contacts with the Lee family with an exchange of letters in which each of them reminds the other of their mutual interests in exploring the possibility of a Mayflower Hill collegiate experience in Lee’s future.
Lee’s parents begin to equivocate, however, at the prospect of shipping off their only child out for a four year term at a point as far away in the United States as one can get from China. “Maybe graduate school but not college,” in America is the way they look at it now.
So, by the fall of 1947 Lee matriculates at Yenching University, the so-called Yale of China. (By coincidence, Mills had accepted its surrender by the Japanese in October of 1945.)
Just over a year later, however, Lee is beginning to relive the nightmares of the War. This time, the invaders are Maoist Communists, who with their impending march towards Yenching University forces Lee to flee on foot for a hasty retreat – leaving almost all of his possessions behind – in the 20 miles back to his family’s Peiping home. “The feeling of panic must resemble the feeling of drowning, because that was what I felt,” Lee later wrote.
“People were running in all directions. Scientists, farmers, and soldiers, appearing from nowhere crashed into each other in their haste.”
Though Lee successfully eludes the onslaught of invading forces his family realizes that Peiping’s future – especially for families like themselves that have a history of doing business with America – is imperiled by advancing Mao forces. The idea of Johnny going to college in the United States suddenly becomes more fathomable though getting there is now fraught with risk. There’s also some wistful ambivalence about leaving behind not only his parents but also his fiancée.
By mid-January young Lee, still only 19, manages to find his way aboard a plane chartered for fellow Yenching students headed to Shanghai. Mao has overrun so much of the city that the airports are closed and his flight takes off from a make-shift airfield at the site of Tiananmen Square. It was one of the last flights out of Peiping before its complete surrender to the Communists six days later. He would never see the fiancée again nor his parents for another 30 years.
In Shanghai, Lee spends the next four months as a reporter for the English newspaper, The China Daily Tribune. He is almost murdered by a street gang. Its editor was executed by the Communists shortly after Lee leaves. Nevertheless, his work with the paper includes an interview with Hollywood Director Otto Preminger, Tyrone Power, and the Chief of the Nationalist Navy.
By May 20th Lee again narrowly escapes another onslaught. The airstrip that his plane is taking off from sustains machine gun fire from Communist forces on the ground as the plane takes off to Hong Kong. It is just two days before Shanghai itself falls to Mao forces.
The story of how Lee finally makes it to Colby and his celebrated adventures in America over the next seven decades unfolds in my next column.
Paul Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.