Introducing Captain Gary Lockee, Reluctant Lumbee War Hero
When I was a teenager, I was friends with Miss Lula Lockee. She was born about 1900, just a few years after my grandmother. She would have me do some work around the farm for her, or we would just sit and talk. She would feed me. Her son Gary and I agree that his mother was an angel. She and her husband Archie Lockee had three boys and three girls. All three boys—Arch, Gary and Otto, the youngest—were in the Navy in World War II. Gary and Arch stayed in, and Otto got out and went to college.
Miss Lula would tell me about her boys in the military. Gary was in the Navy for 30 years and Arch was in the Air Force for just as long. Gary was a ship commander, and Arch was a wing commander.
The third bombardier I flew B-52s with, August Vilseck, had been stationed at March Air Force Base with Arch. He loved Arch to death, telling me many times that Arch was the best pilot in the Air Force. He couldn’t believe that I had never met him, especially since we were both from the Lumbee Tribe. But I never met another Indian the eight years I was in the Air Force and the Air Force Reserve.
The funny thing is I never met Gary or Arch back then. It seems that every time they were home in Pembroke, North Carolina, I was never around. I was either working or I was gone. I spent summers at my grandpa’s farm in Virginia from the time I was 7 until I was 11. Then momma put me to work on our farm. Daddy was in the hospital and there was no one else to do it. I worked the farm for five years. It motivated me to want to get an education.
Archie had a farm and worked in town at the Pates Supply grocery store. Gary and his two brothers also had to do all the farm work—plowing, disking, running rows, putting out fertilizer, planting, hoeing, picking cotton, pulling corn, cropping tobacco, chopping wood, cutting ditch banks. Farming is hard work, people.
Their three sisters, Georgia, Joyce, and Claudette, had to do their share as well, cooking, ironing, washing, milking cows, and housework. They had to do field work, too, hoeing cotton, picking cotton, hoeing corn, harvesting tobacco, and breaking tobacco suckers. All of them were so motivated by it that they got educations and moved to Fort Worth, Texas. Georgia and Claudie both became teachers, and Joyce worked as a bookkeeper and secretary for 50 years.
Gary and I started corresponding a couple of decades ago; it later turned into e-mail. This past Labor Day I went to visit him and his wife Sally for three days in La Grange, Tennessee. I learned that the man I had thought of as a hero when I was a boy was an authentic one.
His momma would tell me about her two boys in the military. She was very proud of them. She would tell me where they were stationed, what kind of work they were doing, when they got promotions, and so on. Both retired at the top, Arch as a Colonel and Gary at the same rank, Captain in the Navy. I heard so much about them that both Gary and I were surprised when we realized we had never laid eyes on each other.
He told me about being in a play in high school with my mother. When they had evening rehearsals, my grandmother Jessie told him to stay and take care of her. “I used to put her on the handlebars of my bike and ride her home,” he told me.
Gary realized he could not get the education he wanted in the Indian schools, so he left home in 1938 and lived with his grandfather Aaron Spencer Lockee in Camden, South Carolina. He finished his last year of high school there, and enrolled at the University of South Carolina. He ran track there, while working the whole time to pay his bills. He was inducted into the Robeson County Hall of Fame in November for his track skills, but mainly for his hunting and bird dog skills.
From the university he went straight into the Navy in 1943. He was assigned to the USS Laws in Task Force 58 and headed straight for the Pacific. He was in nine major campaigns, each one with several battles, in World War II, and never lost a man. The USS Laws steamed over 100,000 miles, fired 5,000 rounds from each of its five major caliber guns, and never had battle damage. The USS Laws was the only ship in the squadron not to suffer battle damage. Of the nine ships in its squadron, three were sunk and the other five were severely damaged.
He fought all over the Pacific from 1943 to 1945. The Navy awarded him the Legion of Merit and a chest full of others. His ship won the Battle Efficiency Award twice, meaning it was the best in the squadron. The first time he won the award he was in a squadron of six ships, and the second time he was in a squadron of eight.
After the war, he served on seven different ships—the USS C. K. Bronson (1946-47), the USS Tanner (1948-49), the USS Ellyson (1950-51), the USS Brough (1954-56), the USS Turner (1960-62), the USS Albany (1962-63), and the USS Wainwright (1966-68). Just before he became commander of the Wainwright, his last ship, he was the Executive Officer (XO), or second in command, on the USS Albany. He would become one of the first Indians to command a Navy ship. CDR Ernest Evans, Cherokee, was the first Indian to command a ship. Evans was given the Medal of Honor in WWII.
Gary would command three Navy ships—the USS Brough, the USS Turner, and the USS Wainwright. The last one was his last tour of duty, off Vietnam in the heat of that war. The Wainwright was a huge ship, 547 feet long with a crew of 418 men. It served as a radar station and missile launch platform in the Gulf of Tonkin for a year.
Ironically, in the early 1950s he was a Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) instructor at the University of North Carolina. It was ironic because there were no Indian students on the campus then; it was illegal! But here he was a Navy instructor and the only Indian on the campus. He says ROTC was his favorite job in 30 years.
In between battle tours, Capt. Lockee earned his MBA degree from George Washington University. He also earned the equivalent of another master’s degree from the Industrial College of the Armed Forces in Washington, D.C.
He also served an unbelievable four tours in the Pentagon, where he met all the Navy brass. Most people in the military are lucky to have one tour in the Pentagon. He also served on the staff of the Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet under Admiral Felix Stump. And he served on the staff of the Commander of the Military Sealift Command.
After WWII was over, Gary married his college sweetheart, Billy Jean Bobo. They were married for over 30 years until she passed away. They had one daughter, Jean Chesno, who lives in Blythewood, South Carolina. Her husband is a clinical psychologist with a Ph.D. Their daughter just finished her Ph.D. last year. The Chesnos have three children and four grandchildren.
Several years after Billy Jean died, Gary married Sally Storm. They are both avid bird hunters. As I write they are in south Texas hunting quail, which Gary has been doing since he was 6. When I visited them, he showed me his ten dogs—pointers, setters, and retrievers.
His best dog, Jerry’s Runaway Bandit, won 11 championships and 42 placements—an astounding record. She is in the Field Trial Hall of Fame at the National Bird Dog Museum in Tennessee. Gary is in it, too.
When I asked him how it felt to be a war hero, he answered, “I’m no hero. I’m a genuine lover of our great country, a loyal citizen, a protector of our security, and a promoter of education for all our citizens.”
We learned recently that his great-great-grandmother and my great-great-great-grandmother were the same person, Rachel Chavers. She gave birth to my great-grandfather Angus Chavers’s father and to Gary’s grandmother’s grandfather, Richard Carter. That was a surprise to both of us. And Gary was amazed that I had traced our lineage back 12 generations, to 1645. I am still amazed by it myself.
Gary is 90 years old. When I visited him, he showed me around the 23,000-acre Ames Plantation where they do all their field trials to see how well the dogs can find birds. And he showed me around his museum. He was the founding president of the National Bird Dog Hall of Fame and Museum in La Grange, Tennessee, which is a huge place now. It also houses the Field Trial Hall of Fame, the National Bird Dog Museum, the National Heritage Center, and the National Retriever Museum.
Gary visited every state in the union to solicit support for it. It took him over a decade to put it all together. He was never paid for his time. In fact, he gave both his time and his money to the cause.
It is a pleasure to meet one of your heroes, even if it takes 50 years.
Dr. Dean Chavers has been writing this column, Around the Campfire, since 1980. His last book was “Racism in Indian Country,” published by Peter Lang. His next book is “The American Indian Dropout.”