Just outside downtown Dunn, N.C., a historic antebellum-style house honors Maj. Gen. William C. Lee, a hometown hero often described as the father of the U.S. Army’s airborne infantry. The World War II veteran served as the first commanding general for the 101st Airborne Division, nicknamed the “Screaming Eagles,” and helped plan the Allied forces’ D-Day invasion of Normandy.
He’s a widely respected, if somewhat obscure, military figure — which is why, after anonymous vandals attempted to torch a statue of him last week, museum officials concluded it had been a case of mistaken identity. They suspect that the perpetrators thought they were burning a memorial to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
“This is not a Civil War museum and this is not Robert E. Lee,” Mark Johnson, the curator for the Maj. Gen. William C. Lee Airborne Museum, told WNCN on Tuesday. “This is General William C. Lee from United States Army Airborne from World War II.”
Dunn, a city of under 10,000 people, is located in the greater Raleigh-Durham area, where some of the most heated debates over removing Confederate memorials have taken place in recent years. In August 2017, protesters in Durham, N.C., took matters into their own hands by toppling a bronze statue depicting a Confederate soldier that sat in front of the city’s old courthouse. A year later, activists and students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill used ropes to pull down the monument known as Silent Sam, which was originally erected in honor of UNC graduates who died fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War.
While the vandals who targeted the memorial to William C. Lee last week didn’t leave anything behind that would explain their motivation, Johnson told the Daily Record that he thought they were trying to make a similar statement about racism and slavery.
“So just an alert to people who may be thinking about such things,” he said, “this is the wrong general.”
In a Facebook post, the museum said that the fire had started at around 10 p.m. last Thursday, after some “jerk punks” doused the statue with a flammable liquid. A ring of burn marks on the pedestal appeared to show where the fuel container had been set down. Fire crews responded and put out the flames, which failed to do any significant structural damage to the white marble statue but left it blackened and scorched.
Authorities are reviewing security camera footage from the area to see if they can identify the culprits, WRAL reported.
Speaking to the Daily Record on Tuesday, Johnson said visitors to the museum sometimes ask him if Dunn’s Lee was related to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. But as far the museum is aware, no one has ever uncovered evidence suggesting the two men share any ancestors — or have anything in common besides being military officers from the South who happen to have the same last name.
“Complete different generation, complete different war, complete different everything,” Johnson told the paper. “Everything is different.” He added he believes Lee, the father of the U.S. Airborne, would have been horrified to learn that anyone had mistaken him for a symbol many now consider racist.
“Idiot, missed their history class that day,” one outraged woman wrote on the museum’s Facebook post. Others suggested the person or people responsible should be dropped from a plane without a parachute, or beaten by Airborne unit soldiers.
But some doubted the vandals had really thought the statue was memorializing Robert E. Lee. “I don’t give them that much credit,” wrote one man. “They probably saw a statue and just said let’s burn that. It’ll be fun.”
Regardless of the intent, the damage to the decorated general’s memorial horrified many members of the military community. “Spineless cowards who deface monuments like this have no respect for how our country was founded and no clue about sacrifice, honor or duty ...” wrote one woman who identified herself as a former medic with the 82nd Airborne Division.
“I’m sure I speak for every Paratrooper when I say I’m heartbroken,” another veteran wrote. “Please let us know if insurance is not going to cover the repairs, I’d gladly donate.”
The Dunn Police Department is offering a $1,000 reward for any information that leads to an arrest, WNCN reported.
Johnson told the Daily Record that because marble is so porous, it will take more than just soap and water to clean off the statue. He anticipates that it will cost the privately run museum several hundred dollars to have a professional fix the damage, which he described as an insult to veterans and to the city of Dunn.
“This really represents the face of the community and there’s really no need to come over here and take out anything you’re upset about on this guy,” he said. “It just doesn’t work.”
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