Born in Germantown, Pennsylvania on November 4, 1894, Benjamin Lee II was the third son of Leighton Lee (1866-1898) and Mary Cooke Justice (1867-1949). Lee’s paternal grandfather, Benjamin M. Lee, was a practicing physician in Philadelphia, a member of the State Board of Health, and former president of the American Academy of Medicine, and his great-grandfather, Alfred Lee, served for nearly five decades as bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church of Delaware.
Six years after the death of her husband in a fall on an elevated railway in Chicago, Mary Justice Lee married Joshua Coffin Chase (1858-1948), a pioneer Florida citrus grove developer. In 1904, Chase moved from Philadelphia to Jacksonville where he took an active part in business and civic affairs, including serving as director of Barnett National Bank for more than 25 years. With the Cummer brothers (Arthur and Waldo) of Jacksonville, he developed the standard “nail box” for shipping citrus. Chase was also a member of the Rotary Club that created the memorial to Florida’s war dead. The Chases resided at 1357 Riverside Avenue, equidistant between today’s Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens and Memorial Park.
Benjamin Lee made his winter home here in Jacksonville with his mother and step-father from 1904 until his twenty-fourth year at the time of his death. At other times he spent a number of years as a student at Chestnut Hill Academy, an all-boys private prep school in northwest Philadelphia, and later at the University of Pennsylvania, where his father also had attended. Lee graduated from the Wharton School of Finance at Penn in 1917.
Afterwards, Lee took private aviation lessons at his own expense at the Curtiss Flying school at Miami, before being accepted into the pilot-training program of the newly-formed U.S. Naval Reserve Flying Corps. Sworn in the Navy as Seaman 2nd class at the US Naval Yard in Washington, DC, Lee reported for duty on May 17, 1917 at the Curtiss Flying school at Newport News, Virginia. To qualify as a pilot, Lee completed two months of Ground School, during which he learned navigational theory, structural mechanics and instrument work. Next came several months of Preliminary Flight training, followed by another month of Completing Flight School. By December 21, 1917, Lee had successfully completed all of his training as a Naval Aviator # 137 and he was commissioned an Ensign.
Ensign Lee went overseas in January 1918, first to Naval Air Stations in England and then in France, where he received training in bombing and machine gunning and additional flight practice. On one occasion he figured in the rescue of a crew of a British seaplane which had been wrecked on the North Sea after an encounter with a German airplane. As Lee explained the operation to an Associated Press correspondent in July 1918: “We landed near the crashed seaplane . . . and managed to taxi over to the wreckage and picked [up] the three men.”
Later that month Lee was assigned to Killingholme Naval Air Station, a former British RAF seaplane patrol base along the banks of the Humber River. It was here that Lee received his last orders on October 28, 1918: to fly to Dundee, Scotland, more than three hundred miles away, to assist in North Sea operations. Shortly after taking off, Lee’s F-2A #4067 seaplane unexpectedly stalled and went into a side slip and tailspin. Lee was able to pull out of the spin and straighten up but not before he nose-dived hard into the Humber River. Both his co-pilot and radio operator were rescued, but not Lee, whose body was never recovered.
In eulogizing Ensign Lee his commanding officer, Lt. Bruce G. Leighton, said that Lee was “keen, intelligent, skillful, daring, painstaking, thorough, and in all his actions showed himself to be the highest type of officer and gentleman.” Admiral William S. Sims wrote: “His death was a very severe blow to Naval Aviation and to the Service.” Added one of his fellow aviators: Lee was simply “the best pilot in the Navy.”
After his death his mother wrote a book about her son’s life, Benjamin Lee, 2d: a record gathered from letters note-books and narratives of friends. The full text of the book, including pictures, can be found through Google Books.
In addition to his book, Ensign Lee was memorialized on the Tablets of the Missing at Brookwood American Cemetery, Brookwood, England. His family erected a cenotaph for him in Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. And Lee Field at the Naval Air Station at Green Cove Springs, Florida was named in his honor in September 1940.