Future Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Sharon Gail Lee did not like what was on her plate. But her father insisted she eat everything in front of her. She suggested he send the contents to children in China.
This did not go over well with her dad.
“I never said that again,” she says, laughing at her childhood memory.
Today, Justice Lee sits on the highest court in the state of Tennessee, joining with four other judges in deciding issues of great legal weight. But her thoughts are never far from her father, or why it was important to him for her to clean her plate.
Although a common rule, Charles Lee was doing more than teaching his daughter a lesson about not wasting the blessing of food; he was acting on instincts lodged in his mind during one year and one day as a prisoner of war. While incarcerated in German prison camps during World War II, most of his meals consisted of a soupy mixture of rotten cabbage and bread made from sawdust. Upon his release, the six feet and three inches tall man weighed 86 pounds.
In his mind, one simply did not waste food.
Charles was a 19-year-old farm boy from Tellico Plains when he joined the Army Air Corps in January 1943. Trained to be a waist gunner on a B-17 Bomber, he and his crew began carrying out missions over Germany.
On May 12, 1944, Charles and his men took part in the massive air campaign that preceded D-Day. During the attack, German forces shot down his plane. Although Charles suffered multiple injuries, a fellow airman helped him to bail out. Soon after Charles parachuted to the ground, members of the German guard captured him.
German forces eventually took Charles and the rest of his crew to a newly opened prison camp in Poland called Stalag Luft 4. There, guards shot and killed prisoners who didn’t obey the strict rules; food was scarce; and prisoners lived in cold, overcrowded barracks. Charles never received treatment for the injuries he suffered during the battle, or anything to wear other than the bloodstained clothes he had on when he was captured.
Due to his untreated injuries and a subsequent battle with hepatitis, Charles grew very ill. He survived due to the persistence of his fellow prisoners, who daily helped him to get up and walk.
However, the worst part of his incarceration came when German forces transported him and 60 other men to a prison camp in Barth, Germany in a cattle car. The weather was cold, there was little food or water, and the boxcar was so cramped, nearly everyone had to stand day and night. The journey took ten days.
On May 13, 1945, Charles was liberated. He returned to the States, was hospitalized for a time in Florida, and then returned home to Tellico Plains, where he started a business, married, and raised a family. In the wake of his physically, mentally, and emotionally traumatic war experience, Charles ran a trucking company and a real estate business, and served 12 years as commissioner of Monroe County.
He also taught a future Tennessee Supreme Court Justice to eat everything on her plate.
No matter how much time passed, however, Charles was forever changed.
“He could never be around fireworks. They made him nervous. And he could never be in a crowd,” Justice Lee says. “But on the other hand, he worked hard, he never held a grudge, and he was understanding. If a waitress was rude, he’d say, ‘You never know what someone is going through.’”
Because of his determination to live a normal life after the war, Justice Lee and her younger brother and sister were born and are living productive lives. In addition to serving on the Tennessee Supreme Court, Justice Lee often accepts speaking engagements during which she tells the story of her father and four other prisoners of war who survived unimaginable ordeals and returned home to have children who are serving as judges and lawyers in Tennessee.
The idea came to Justice Lee as she was mulling over topics for a speech she was to give to the 12th Judicial District Bar Association in Sewanee. “I wanted it to be interesting. Engaging your listener is easier when you give a speech about which you’re passionate,” she says.
At the recommendation of another judge, Justice Lee had recently read Soldiers and Slaves by Roger Cohen, a book about the World War II prison camp at Berga, Germany, where the judge’s father had been incarcerated. Justice Lee knew another judge in Tennessee whose father had been a prisoner of war, so she combined their stories with her dad’s and wrote the speech.
Justice Lee was known for giving lighthearted speeches, so her somber talk surprised her listeners at Sewanee. However, the audience responded well to her message about remembering the sacrifices of others. Soon, she was receiving requests from around the state to give the speech to different groups.
Over time, Justice Lee added two more stories and refined her presentation, which includes photographs that create a mental collage of the horrific experiences she recounts. But the reaction remains the same: people appreciate her keeping the history of these veterans alive in a way that touches the hearts of the listeners.
“People need to hear these stories. They need to understand the cost of their liberty,” Justice Lee says.
Justice Lee’s father taught her more than the value of a clean plate; he showed the value of a life well lived, even in the wake of extraordinary hardship.
The physical issues that resulted from his incarceration never left him; neither did the emotional and mental scarring. In prison, he’d been cold, hungry, and sick, and wondered if he’d ever see his family again.
But he never gave up. His tremendous love for his family and country gave him the strength to endure. And the death and violence he’d seen made each day that followed his release a gift and compelled him to live life to its fullest.
“There’s a lesson in this story for all of us,” Justice Lee says as she’s concluding her speech. “As we face adversity of a much, much lesser scale, we need to remember each day is a gift. We should face each day with optimism, hope, and determination to succeed. We must never forget the sacrifices our veterans have made for our freedom.”