Silent Key - Oliver Lee - W0LCI
102-year-old Oliver Lee: a Navy veteran with a knack for communicationOliver Lee operates his ham radio every day.
His love of radio led him to the U.S. Navy and a commendable military career which spanned three decades.
By Don Benjamin/Contributing Writer
Delta resident, Oliver Edward Lee, is a Colorado native who ended up traveling the world. Raised on a 10-acre farm near Hygiene, Colorado, he figures he was in 5th or 6th grade when his family moved to town. They didn’t stray far from their roots.
“This was back in the days when all the family settled around grandparents,” Lee recalled.
Bitten early by the ham radio bug, Lee soon mastered the complexities of Morse Code. He was in high school when an older classmate graduated, leaving the nearby Longmont National Guard Armory without a code operator. Taking the graduate’s place, he held the position until a general came to inspect the armory and encountered the boy.
Lee recalls that the general asked, “What the hell’s this civilian doing here?” Informed that Lee was the only kid left in town who knew Morse Code, the general insisted that the young technician join the unit. So, although he was only 16, Lee became a member of the Colorado National Guard. He still has a letter, dated August 18, 1938, from then-Governor Teller Ammons commending him for his service in the Guard. Later, in 1939, he officially joined the Naval Reserve in Boulder.
Around that time, the Navy ran an advertisement in the Longmont daily newspaper. The ad encouraged local ham radio operators to apply for a super-secret program. Intrigued, Lee responded and the young reserve was sent to an electronics school in Los Angeles where he learned that the secret program involved “radar.”
“We weren’t even allowed to say the name outside of training,” he recalls.
Following Pearl Harbor, Lee enlisted in the regular Navy. More training followed at California’s Treasure Island where he joined with eighty other ham radio operators. At the close of training, those with last names A-L joined the Navy’s surface fleet. Last names M-Z went to naval air.
Lee reported to Portland, Oregon, where his first ship, USS Daring, was being constructed. Once at sea, the newly launched minesweeper sailed directly to Hawaii and then to Guadalcanal where the Japanese were engaged in a pitched battle with Allied forces. The enemy was continuously bombing the American airstrip at Henderson Field and U.S. and Japanese aircraft were engaged in fierce dogfights in the skies above the besieged island.
As the fighting raged, Lee and other sailors were dispatched in multiple small craft to rescue downed pilots. Each boat was assigned to a designated search area and the vessels also carried drums of gasoline to refuel PT boats which accompanied the searchers. Lee’s specialty was electronics and communication, but, while on rescue missions, he took on other roles.
“Most of the time I was assigned to the boat’s anti-aircraft gun,” he recalls. “Because I’d hunted ducks and I knew how to lead a duck or a plane.”
One afternoon, while on rescue patrol, Lee’s boat was bombed, trapping several crewmen below decks. When the craft began to rapidly sink, the spare fuel caught fire, encircling the boat. As the ranking enlisted man on deck, Lee directed survivors to remove their life jackets in order to swim under the burning water. Some of the men were poor swimmers, but all made it under the fire only to be attacked by sharks.
Seeing the sailors struggle, Marine planes flew low and strafed the water in an attempt to kill the sharks. Lee and ten others made it to shore where the unarmed sailors managed to elude Japanese soldiers who chased them over sharp coral. He still bears the scars from his barefooted dash to cover. Marine aircraft strafed the beach to keep the enemy at bay until other ships arrived to rescue the stranded sailors.
In recognition of his leadership that day, Lee was promoted to Warrant Officer. He remained in the Pacific Theater, serving onboard USS Daring and later USS Hollandia Bay with action at Bouganville, Hollandia, Tulagi and Guam.
At the close of World War II, Lee remained in the Navy Reserves, serving from November 1945-August 1949 as officer in charge of the Naval Electronic Warfare Unit in Denver. He soon returned to active duty as a chief electronics technician and, joined by his wife and three children, he traveled to Japan.
Anticipating a bitter reception, he was surprised to find the defeated Japanese to be amiable, cooperative and friendly. He and other technicians were assigned to help the Japanese upgrade a rural radio station.
“It was out in the boonies,” he recalls, “where there was space to put a large antenna. And it was underground.”
Only one of more than 100 Japanese working on the project spoke English and none of the Americans spoke Japanese, but they still managed to move the station to the surface. The Korean Conflict erupted while Lee was stationed in Japan. As a member of his admiral’s staff, he traveled to the war zone periodically to deal with electronic communication problems.
Lee and his family spent four years in Japan. By the time they left, his children had learned a great deal of Japanese. After a variety of Stateside assignments and a stint onboard the USS Logan, he and the family traveled to Adak, Alaska, where Lee served at the Naval Radio Station there. Returning to San Diego, he became a training officer until 1959 when he served onboard USS Henrico.
In 1962, he and the family traveled to the Philippines. At that station, the expertise of Lee and other officers and men of the U.S. Naval Communications Station was instrumental in helping the Seventh Fleet respond to the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident in which American ships repelled attacks by North Vietnamese vessels.
Of his service during conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, Lee insists that—like his fellow veterans—he was merely doing his job.
“I was never a great warrior,” he said. “I was just there.”
In 1966, Oliver Lee officially retired from the U.S. Navy, ending his career as an electronics maintenance officer having achieved the rank of Chief Warrant Officer, W-4. In his 28 years of service, he survived bombs and fire and sharks while serving on four ships and faithfully fulfilling shore duties as a technical trouble-shooter in five states and three foreign countries. Wherever he worked, his dedication to duty earned him medals, ribbons, a wealth of commendations and the admiration of a grateful nation.
Mr Oliver Lee was a member of Montrose Area Radio Club
In June 2020 - We made him an honorary lifetime member and Kathy presented him a plaque for being our oldest living club member.
He was given a 80 years of service certificate from QCWA
He also recived the "Centurion Award" from ARRL.
In case you'd like to know a little more about Oliver Lee, he has self published his memoirs which can be found at https://w9ziy.com/#p=1
Obituary and Graveside Service - Sept 27th, 2022