In July 1940, Lee formed the Parachute Test Platoon, and within three months, this organization had grown into a parachute infantry battalion. Following Germany's successful seizure of Crete with airborne forces in May 1941, the British and Americans developed large airborne formations. Lee, promoted to lieutenant colonel in February 1941 and colonel that December, had a major role in that effort.
In March 1942, the army established the Airborne Command, and it was headed by Lee, who was made a brigadier general that April. The Airborne Command consisted of two airborne divisions: the 82nd and 101st. Lee was promoted to major general in August 1942, and he took command of the "Screaming Eagles," the 101st Airborne Division, and accompanied it to Britain for the June 1944 Normandy Invasion. Lee—the oldest parachute-qualified officer among U.S. forces—did not accompany the 101st into battle. He suffered heart attacks in February and March 1944. Medically retired in December 1944, he died in Dunn, North Carolina, on 25 June 1948. His home there has been transformed into an airborne museum.
James M. Bates
Autry, Jerry. General William C. Lee: Father of the Airborne. San Francisco: Airborne Press, 1995.; Breuer, William B. Geronimo: American Paratroopers in War II. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989.; Huston, James A. Out of the Blue. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1972.