Lee Begole, June 22nd, 2016


Lee Begole, June 22nd, 2016


In this interview, Begole recounts his father's time serving in France, his own childhood on East Grand Boulevard, his time serving in World War II and the day the Allies marched into Rome. In 1967, he was the Director of Public Safety in Novi, MI. When they heard about the unrest in Detroit, he was hesitant to offer his new fire engine but he and a few of his men volunteered to come down and help with the situation. They attempted to help a man who was shot driving his car and were later accused by the FBI of shooting the man themselves.


Detroit Historical Society




Detroit Historical Society, Detroit, MI






Oral history

Narrator/Interviewee's Name

Lee Begole

Brief Biography

Lamont “Lee” Begole was born in Detroit, Michigan on July 4, 1920. When he was a child, he was sent to New York City to live with relatives. Eventually he returned to Detroit to live with his family on East Grand Boulevard. He served in World War II and was present when the Allied troops marched into Rome in 1944. He became the Director of Public Safety in Novi, Michigan and currently lives in Detroit, Michigan.

Interviewer's Name

Giancarlo Stefanutti
Hannah Sabal

Interview Place

Detroit, MI



Interview Length



Hannah Sabal
Julia Westblade

Transcription Date



HS: Hello, this is Hannah Sabal. I’m sitting here with Giancarlo Stefanutti and Lamont Begole. We are in Detroit, Michigan. The date is June 22, 2016 and we are conducting an oral history interview for the Detroit 67 Oral History Project. Thank you for sitting down with us today.

LB: Thank you.

HS: Can you start by telling us where and when you were born?

LB: Born in Detroit, Michigan on the Fourth of July, 1920.

HS: So you’re birthday’s coming up.

LB: Yes.

HS: Where did you grow up?

LB: In two separate houses. One in which you’re sitting, and the other was, then, two houses away. They’ve since burned it down. So the original house is still over there.

HS: So just two houses west? Okay. What was the neighborhood like when you were growing up?

LB: East Grand Boulevard was a real gem in those days. Easily accessible to people going to Belle Isle. There was traffic and people walking. The gaps we see in the housing around here now didn’t exist then. The houses on the Boulevard, Canfield, all of the streets were occupied [phone rings]. The houses were built within arm’s length of each other, except on the boulevard. There was plenty of room between them here. Great place to grow up.

HS: Were there lots of kids on your street?

LB: Yes. But we didn’t play around here. We stood out in front, on the street, ride down, ride down, and ended up on Belle Isle, practically every day. In the winter, skating. In the summer, did our own thing. Belle Isle was our playground.

HS: What did you do on Belle Isle?

LB: Anything you can think of, depending on the season: baseball, kites, playing in the woods in the center of the island. And even today, there’s mainly wooded. Mr. [unintelligible] ran the canoe shelter. The family lived there. His kids went to school with us, so we could always get a canoe. Paddled through the streams to the golf course area, cruise around out there in the still water. Watching down five or six feet to see a golf ball. We had long poles with little nets on the end. We’d fill the canoe with as many golf balls as we could find. We’d see some golfers on the shore, paddle over there, “Need any balls?” Yeah, sold them.

HS: So you sold them back to the golfers that had lost them?

LB: Yes.

HS: That sounds awesome.

GS: What did your parents do?

LB: Well, my father at this time, number one, [phone rings] prior to World War One, he was a teller, a bank teller. He ordered all the forms for the bank for the Richmond & Backus Company. They were one of Detroit’s oldest and biggest printing and stationary suppliers. They were on the corner of Woodward and Commerce. He had come into their employ directly from the bank. At the same time—I don’t know how he did it, but he predicted that we would be at war. Germany, France, and England had been at war since I think August of 1914, so he joined a program—the United States Army was just starting—to become a United States Army Officer. Two or three months, the young fellas from the chamber of commerce and all that would have to go over to Illinois, to Chicago, and get their military training. They had to dig trenches and fire guns and learn all about being a soldier and at the conclusion of that, all but one were commissioned as Second Lieutenants, Infantry, United States Army. That one was my dad. He was the only one in the class to come out as a First Lieutenant.

HS: Ooh. Nice. That’s impressive.[phone rings]

GS: Oh, wow.

LB: And the reason for that: he could put on a show, and did quite often. He had a mind like I’ve never seen before or since. He had a black board and he’d say, “Anybody give me a number with six numerals in it,” you know, 2,314 or whatever, he’d write that down. “Give me another number.” He’d write that under it. And he’d just write the total. And he’d say, “Give me something to multiply it by.” “Multiply it by 13.” He’d give you the answer. I don’t know how he did it. I never learned, I was never that sharp. But he put on that demonstration when he was in Illinois, it was Fort Sheridan. He put on a demonstration several times for everybody there, and they were enthralled. They thought that was great.

HS: That’s awesome.

LB: All of a sudden, the United States was on the verge of war. They officially declared war, but in the meantime, this entire graduating class was notified that they were now on duty as army officers, and the first thing that occurred to some of them, including my father, was that the army wanted them—no troops, just the officers—to go immediately to England, and the reason for that, the US Army had no experience in trench warfare, which was complicated and very, very unknown to American soldiers. Their only combat experience [phone rings] since the Spanish American War was down at the Mexican border. No trenches down there. They arrived in England, and each one of them is sent to a different British unit, in the front line trenches. So my father’s unit was picked for him, he didn’t pick it. He would’ve if he had a chance, if he knew what he knew later; it was the Sherwood Foresters, and they came from that area of England where Robin Hood, all those people. So he was in the front line of the Sherwood Foresters, and he learned quite a lot in trench warfare. He also learned some other things. Those trenches—he told me about them many times—were always wet and unpleasant and muddy, and most everybody in the trench warfare in those days came down with either an extremely bad Irish head cold—pneumonia, or something, and the British cure for it, you boiled a glass of scotch, got it good and hot. Boiled half a glass of water, mixed the two, drank it right away, rolled up in as many blankets as you could find, and when you woke up you’d probably be cold, you’d be shivering, but they chased that away whatever it was. And the reason I know that is my father used that method with all of us kids. And at first, I hated the taste of scotch. After a year or two, I began to be getting a lot of colds. [phone rings] Anyway, then of course, these 50 officers had been sent to England before we were officially at war. All of a sudden, we were at war, so they pulled them out of their British units. And each one of them was assigned to a newly arrived American unit. My father was assigned to the Old Hickory division, a National Guard division, from east Tennessee, which had just arrived. He became a company commander and that company came from Sevierville and Gatlinburg, and I’ve been down there with him to meet some of the guys he served in France with. So he was in the front lines, and he took his brand-new American unit into the front lines, and he saw a lot of combat. They were doing pretty well in the hedgerows, and all of a sudden, just behind them, a British tank—and the British had, I didn’t know this until I heard my father’s experiences. I researched it because I went in the army myself. This British tank came over the hill. Now these British tanks—the big ones— were as good as anything we had in World War Two and began to draw German fire, artillery fire, they had observation balloons. And my father ran up to it and he’s pounding on the side with the butt of his revolver. He had a .45 revolver, not an automatic like everybody else carried. He preferred that. He’s pounding on the side of the tank, the [lammy ?] looked out, the tank commander. [phone rings]My father said,  “Get your ass out here, you’re drawing fire on my men!” Just then, a shell hit the tank. Well, the tank went out of action, so did its crew. The only survivor was my dad, and his men from Tennessee rushed up, put him on a door they took from a bombed-out house, shelled house, and carried him down in the basement. Put him there, and never returned for three days. So, meantime my mother had received a—well, a week’s elapsed between all this—first that he was missing in action, then that he was killed in action. But he ended up—they came back, drove the Germans away, rescued him. Then they put him on a train, then a boat, and he ended up in the Third London general Hospital in England. He was there until the war ended, and he was sent on a hospital ship back to the States. He met my mother because their mothers both lived on the same street right around, do you know where Holy Family Church is in Detroit?

HS: I don’t.

LB: It’s right downtown. It’s the Italian National Church. Roman Catholic. It was founded by the Italian immigrants, most of them from Sicily. It’s still there; it’s going strong. [phone rings] The other was Corktown. So one of my grandmothers, my mother’s mother, lived in Corktown, and my dad’s mother lived in Italian Town, they called it Italian Town, because it was. They got married. In the meantime, one of the grandmothers, you know those houses down there, like living in a shoe box on Woodward. They were high in the apartments, there was 11 people in there. My mother and father moved in with her mother, who had a large family including some other unmarried daughters, so it was pretty crowded. So then grandmother started looking around, and she heard—I don’t know how, I wasn’t around—she heard that the houses on the Boulevard were all occupied by the original people that built them, but they were no longer happy with the Boulevard so they were going to Grosse Pointe, Bloomfield Hills, and they were renting their houses. So she came out, she talked to one of the owners of the house, it’s still there, and he rented half the house to her for her family. That was 273 East Grand Boulevard. Everybody went to 273, it was jammed. When the kids started to come—and of course I’m the oldest, I’m the first of them—the other grandmother, [phone rings] she had a daughter that was pretty sharp, and she married a guy that was even sharper and they moved to New York City. So that grandmother lived there in New York. The crowd of people over there started getting down into everybody, so they thought, “Hell, we’ll send one of the kids to New York.” So I had nothing to say about it, I ended up in New York City. Until the housing situation in Detroit grew slightly better. The reason it grew better: this house came up for sale, and my mother and father bought it. Then they came over and got me. But I was there a long time.

HS: So you were with your aunt and uncle?

LB: No, my grandmother.

HS: Your grandmother. Okay.

LB: That one was my father’s mother. My mother’s mother stayed right in the Corktown area. The New York experience, I was very young, but I still remember the amazing things I saw. One of the things, on East Grand Boulevard, maybe once every two or three months, there’d be a fire and the motorized fire truck would come. They were sedan pumpers. I found out later when I became a fire fighter, but at any rate, I didn’t think horses had any part in the fire world, so my dad came over one weekend, and we’re walking down the street [phone rings] and we passed the fire station. I looked in and I saw three horses looking at me. I wanted to see those horses, so he brought me in and a fireman came out and while we were there, a big gong rang. All of a sudden, the harnesses dropped from where they were held up around the ceiling. They dropped right on the horses’ back, somebody jumped on the back, and they had a stove back there, a boiler, some thing. Fire and smoke. Those three horses pulled that pumper out of that station while I was watching it. I couldn’t believe it; I’d never seen horses pull a fire engine in Detroit. It was quite interesting. The next time my dad was over, he had to get a haircut, so I went to the barber shop with him. There was a guy on the chair there, and he had a big sheet, white sheet, covering up his clothes to keep the hair off. The reason he wanted to keep the hair off when he stood up, when he was done and they took that sheet off, why he was a New York City cop. He had the full uniform. He was the first police officer I ever saw, that I can remember.

HS: Wow. And how old were you?

LB: I was about 7 or 8. The fella was quite a sight. Eventually, after they had settled here, they had room for me in the attic.

HS: Do you remember what year you came back from Detroit?

LB: No, I don’t. I could look it up.

HS: About how old were you?

LB: Probably 10 or 11. [phone rings] It was an experience I’m very happy I’ve had. What do you know, I came back and by this time, my parents were living here, so I came to this house. It’s my residence of a kind ever since. But, the house over there was the first one I remember on the Boulevard. This house my parents, they lived over there, crowded, and a lot of people, unmarried—my mother had unmarried sisters. They had boyfriends. I don’t remember it, but I heard the stories. The house here, when I came back, I went first to that house, and then slowly got into this one. It was quite a change for the better. I stayed in this one with my mother, father, and brothers, aunts, uncles. We jammed. When World War Two came along, I had gone to school in Canada, Windsor. Graduated high school in Windsor, and college in London. The University of Western Ontario. I was a Canadian Army reserve, and also, I had just completed the Canadian Officer Training. [phone rings] When I graduated, I was supposed to go to Camp Borden where officers advanced, but I couldn’t pass the eye testing, so I got a discharge and thought, well, I got it made now. The U.S. was not at war. The British Empire went to war in like August of 1914, and the United States went three or four years later. World War Two was a different story. You came back here to the States and I went to the Navy, and they turned me down. I thought, hell, the Marines are better than the Navy; I’ll join the marines. I walked in there with glasses like these, and that’s as far as I got. And I thought, well, goddammit, I think I’ll try the army. So I went to the army, and they said well, we’d like to have you; you’re physically perfect, except you’re below our minimum for eyesight. I said, well, do something about it! Ain’t nothing we can do, man, you’re just lucky. I didn’t think I was lucky. Nobody had no conception of war then. I thought you just ran around in a uniform, people fired at you, but they always missed. Well, I found out I was mistaken much later. Anyway, I lived right here and I finally had a chance [phone rings] to get in under limited service. Couldn’t go overseas, couldn’t have a combat job, couldn’t have anything else. It was better than nothing. I had the same uniform, did the same duties, but the minute we actually went to war, the limited service people no longer were limited service, so I went up the line and when the war ended, oh I got shipped out to overseas, Africa, Sicily, and Italy. You crossed the Straits of Messina to mainland Italy. I went with the fifth army up through Italy right to Milano. Some of them wanted to stay in Italy, but we just kept on going until and went into Switzerland, and stayed two weeks there. Finally had to get the hell out fast, and no Allied soldiers allowed. They were neutral. I got back here in the States and right back to this house. I saw the Army National Guard in action during World War Two. I didn’t end up in a Guard division, but I knew they did a wonderful job. They were reforming the Michigan Army National Guard, and I had received a direct commission so I was a lieutenant. [phone rings] The first time I had was a company commander in the new Michigan Army National Guard. I was in the job about a month. I had to stop with nothing but myself and one regular army enlisted guy, Company C of the 425th infantry. I used to have a sign, “Detroit’s Own Regiment.” Anyway, what happened was I joined and I had been in it two months, and June of 1950, I think it was ’50, came along, and we were in the Korean War. I spent all of the Korean War with Michigan Army Active National Guard. Of course, I had to stay with that unit but I got home, at least for lunch or supper, about four or five times in a week. Wasn’t too bad a unit. People were getting drafted, they were being sent down to Camp Shelby, Tennessee or something, and it was miserable down there. At any rate, what happened was I became an infantry replacement  because they needed replacements, people were getting killed and wounded and all that stuff, so they put me in a boat with about a thousand others, and I went over to the European Theatre and there was [phone rings] there, Africa, Sicily, Italy, all that. Finally got out of it and came back to Detroit and lived in this house ever since, except I had to go back on Active Duty a couple of times.

HS: After the Korean War, is that when you joined the police force?

LB: Let me think now. No. Oh, yes, it was. I had the Korean War behind me. But I didn’t join the Detroit force.

HS: Novi? Is that right?

LB: Well, I was the first officer ever hired by Novi. The outfit that I joined was the Wayne County Sherriff Road Patrol. We patrolled Wayne County. I lived here on the Boulevard. I’d take the Greyhound bus out to our headquarters. 25850 Michigan Avenue, just outside of Wayne. Get there in time to work eight hours driving a patrol car. I had favorite areas but you couldn’t work your favorites, unless you got along good with the higher ups. So I usually did, and I could work where I wanted to. There was one area on the east side, just one—the others, the other five were on the west side—the area on the east side was Gratiot Township. People today have never heard of Gratiot Township.

HS: I’ve never heard of it.

LB: Well, what happened to Gratiot Township: it was patrolled by the Wayne County Sherriff. They had no township police department. And all of a sudden [phone rings] they had to form one in a hurry because Gratiot Township incorporated as the City of Harper Woods. So I was offered a job, as was my partner, Clyde Garden, with the new City of Harper Woods. And I thought, I’m not gonna spend a career in a small little fragment of Michigan like this. So my partner, he took the job with Harper Woods, and I went back to the west side, which was a 30 mile, 30-some mile drive every day, twice a day. So I got to the West side, I’m working with the Wayne County Sheriff Patrol, and—oh, I forgot to mention: the reason I got my police experience, the state of Michigan had a contract with the federal government during the war, and what it involved was guarding the border: the tunnel, the bridge in the Detroit area. The tunnel, the bridge, the ferry docks—the tunnels included the car tunnel, the railroad tunnel—that was a tough job. The ferry docks, Windsor Ferry, all that, so I was with the state for about three months, then with the state police, the Michigan state troops. My commanding officer, Carl Revold, [phone rings] was hired by Wayne County to reorganize the Wayne County Road Patrol. I’d never heard of the Road Patrol, but he took three of us with him, so I had a new career with Wayne County Sheriff Patrol. It was great, fantastic, but it included patrolling the townships: Plymouth Township, Northville Township, Brownstown Township, all the townships and I know them all. I got to be pretty well acquainted in Plymouth Township and Northville Township because the local governments were glad to have us. What do you know? By this time I’m taking advantage of the GI Bill of Rights, which meant that I could go to college, fully paid, and did.

HS: Awesome.

LB: I picked the University of Detroit, just down on Jefferson. So everything is going real fine, and I would go to college in the morning, catch the Greyhound out, and work the County Patrol in the afternoon shift. Mighty fine. Well, the city of Plymouth then decided—they had three full-time firemen: the chief—one of the best chiefs I ever ran into—the chief, the captain, and the lieutenant were full-time. What they wanted was one more full-time fireman. And that full-time fireman, the chief, the lieutenant, the captain would drive the engine. He’d go with them during the day. [phone rings] I took all the testing, which didn’t amount to too much. About a day. I was the either lucky or unlucky, depending on how you look at it, but they hired me. Just about that time, the city clerk retired so I was appointed city clerk. Had to go to all the council meetings, of course, take care of the elections, and also, as fire department engineer. And what do you know? It worked.

HS: So you were in the military, the police, the fire department, and city government.

LB: Right.

HS: Wow.

LB: I was city clerk of the City of Plymouth. One of the guys that hung around, Cameron Lodge. He was an electrical inspector for Novi Township. They were having a lot of problems in Novi Township because they had no full-time firemen. They had a large and very good—in fact, most of them knew more about firefighting than I did—fire department. All volunteers. All paged only on calls. They wanted somebody full-time to run it, so I went before the Township Board and they said, the audience is full, they said, “So you want to be the fire chief?” I said,“Hell no.” “You don’t want to be the fire chief? What do you want to be? What are you doing here?” I said, “I want to be his boss.” “Explain that.” So I said, “Over in the city of Oak Park, Glen Leonard [phone rings] has something new over there. He’s the director of public safety, he’s in charge of police and fire, and every full-time employee is not only a policeman, but he’s a fireman. That’s what I’d like to set-up.” After about five minutes, they said, “We’re going to adjourn and discuss this. We think you might have some possibilities of employment here.” So a week later they met again, and they announced that I had been appointed Director of Public Safety for the City of Plymouth. I took over. It worked out very well. But this Cameron Lodge, in Novi Township—it was a township then—was looking for somebody to run the fire department full-time. That included a lot of perks, like an apartment above the fire hall, everything. And I got the job. I stayed with it for about 40 years.

HS: So you were working in the Novi Fire department in the 1960s?

LB: Oh yes. But, I was running it. I had a complete volunteer department. I was not the chief, I was the director. I was the chief’s boss. I had power to appoint the fire chief and everything else. And of course then, we had a contract with the Oakland County Sheriff in Novi—Novi being in Oakland County—called for two deputies, and they would go on duty at four o’clock every night [phone rings] until midnight. Because the regular sheriff patrol, they had one car east, one car west. The state had one car for both, so the police response was damn poor. Finally, a lady was getting off the Greyhound, Novi Road and Grand River and she slipped in the snow, fell under the rear tire, and she was there about 45 minutes. So they wanted to make a change. So they decided to put on their own police department. They said, “What do you think of that?” I said, “Well if you do, I’m running it; I’m the Director of Public Safety.” They said, “You just volunteered yourself into a job.” So I did. I stayed with Plymouth and finally Novi Township hired me full-time to become their first full-time fireman and their first full-time police officer. It grew from there and I stayed with them almost 40 years. During the township, I was the director of safety in charge of police and fire. Then Novi became Michigan’s largest incorporated village and because they had nothing to the township, there was a portion of the township left. The village hired me and I just did the same job for the village. The village became the city, I did the same job for the city. So I stayed. [phone rings] Worked my way up. Worked my way out as fast as I could.

HS: Moving into the unrest that occurred in Detroit in 1967, you said you were still living here on the Boulevard at the time. How did you hear about the events that were happening down at Twelfth and Clairmount?

LB: Well, I heard about it in this way. I knew nothing. We didn’t have TV news. We did have good radio news but no TV. Not everyone had a TV, not like they have today. It was a Sunday, I guess it was Saturday night when the trouble started. Sunday morning I began to hear something about it, so I thought, Oh, i better go on the job. I drove out to Novi and we had a brand-new LeFrance Fire Engine, the best we could buy. The reason we bought a LeFrance: Plymouth, before I left their employment, had just bought a brand new LeFrance. All of a sudden—and the chief in Plymouth was a very good friend of mine, so I wanted the same thing and got it. I got a call on Sunday morning out in Novi, get a call, “They need some help right away down in Detroit.” Would I send a fire engine down? And I’m looking at my new, LeFrance. Oh, and on the way out, I noticed smoke coming from the downtown area. [phone rings] In those days, I used to drive right up Grand River. I thought, what’s going on? My car radio finally told me that there were some problems, but they were under control. Like hell they were! I’m out there and I called back into Detroit headquarters and told them, I can’t send it; I only have one good engine. I had three engines, four really, but only one that was good. The LeFrance. I wasn’t going to risk that during the riot. They’d fire me so fast if anything happened to that engine. “What are you doing down in Detroit?!” I decided that I would send a police car down. I called around the off-duty people. Three of them volunteered right away. That made four of us, that was enough. Dick Faulkner, Dick retired as deputy chief of the city of Novi, deputy chief of police. He had a very good job. The other two officers got promotions in Oakland County departments. At any rate, with my crew all assembled, four of us, we came into Detroit on Sunday afternoon and we left Wednesday afternoon.

HS: So you were in Detroit in the capacity of a policeman?

LB: Oh, yeah, we were.

HS: Okay.

LB: We worked out of the [phone rings] Seventh Precinct, which was brand new then, at the corner of Gratiot and Mack. It was there for years, then they finally tore it down, it was just a vacant lot. A brand new Seventh Precinct opened about four weeks ago. That one is really nice. Before that, they had a police demonstration in Detroit. They went crazy. They closed all the precincts. A precinct was a little city. The officer just worked that precinct. They knew the good guys, the bad guys, they knew the crime cycles, but they consolidated them like this area, East Grand Boulevard. If there’s any type of anything going on, or any of the residents wanted to call and report a crime or talk to a detective or anything, we had to drive all the way out to the west side to Nevada, and I only went up there once; that was enough for me. It was a total failure. And here crime just raged unceasingly. Anyway, this Sunday, when I thought that we were going out to my real job, which was naturally Novi, and I saw the smoke and all that, so I got out there and received a few calls. I had no full-time firemen for this reason: I had no firemen at all; what I had was public safety officers. They were police and fire. Four was all I wanted to spare, in case something happened in Novi, [phone rings] which, of course, it almost did. We went, the four of us drove into Detroit, reported for duty, and were sent to the Seventh Precinct. Our first duty was to run back outside, jump in our car, and drive to 261 East Grand Boulevard to see if my mother was okay. Well, she was.

I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Gary Malgarven. Gary was the man on the street for station WWJ. He drove around, every night, from about four to three in the morning. Through crime scenes, and he’d come on the radio. We worked with Gary that night. Any place that his dispatch sent him, if there was a fire or something. Finally, he couldn’t keep up with it, and neither could we. It was wild. There’d be one fire, and two houses down you’d see flames pouring out the windows. We’d go down there, there’d be no fire engine, no fire engine would arrive, we didn’t do anything. I mean, what could we do? We had a police car. That kept up all that night. Went back to Novi in the morning, just enough to gas up the car, get more protective equipment and come back down. It kept us busy every minute, all night long, including one house right back, back of me here. As we pulled in the front here, I looked in the back, and that was burning like mad. [phone rings] We get on the radio, call for the fire department, which was difficult because our frequency was not a Detroit frequency. We had to really—and, “No, no fire apparatus available.” “What?! This house is burning!” “No fire apparatus available. Get the people out.” I said, “Hell, they’ve been out for 20 minutes.” Well, all we could do was watch it burn. Right in the middle of that, then we see flames down the Boulevard. There was the Lafayette and Field, big frame house, a four-family house going up. All around here, things were going up. We spent all night running from one fire to the next. We didn’t do much actual fire-fighting. We’d pull the hoses occasionally, but basically it was traffic, so they wouldn’t run over the hoses, keep people away from the danger. We were working with Detroit Police, and the Detroit Fire Department. That kept up for several days.

HS: Those three or four days working, helping out in Detroit, did you experience any – how do  I want to phrase this? – any negative run-ins with rioters?

LB: Oh yeah, every minute. One I’ll never forget: the precinct was up at Mack and Gratiot, and we’re in the precinct and all the lights were out because someone was firing at us from across Gratiot. One light remained on [phone rings]. We went to gas up the car, it was to dangerous. We went out there and shot the lights out, and put gas in our car, and while we were doing that, the bullets were flying around us. So the guy was firing from the upper window from the building on the corner of Gratiot and Mack. That would be on the northeast corner. We went over there, left our car in the middle of Mack, and ran up the back stairs and got the guy. All of a sudden, we looked out, and there was an army tank operated by the Army National Guard that swung in below us, and they started spraying our windows with bullets. So we all lay flat on the floor, and these bullets are coming under the window. All along the window sill there were steel radiators, steam radiators. So we’re down there and these bullets, I don’t know if they’re .50 caliber or .30. I didn’t want to look. They were binging at us and these steel radiators. Finally they ceased fire, looked up and a Detroit cop was running across Gratiot. Somebody shot at him and he spun like a circle and went face-down. And I thought, and he got one hand around his stomach, and I thought, man, he’s had it. So as soon as [phone rings] the shooting stopped, we ran out there, and what at happened, the bullet had hit his cartridge case and he wasn’t hurt a bit. But he was cool enough to stay down. So I rolled him over, I said, “Are you okay?” He said, “Hell, let me up.”

GS: A lot of people have different terms for what happened. We hear “riot” a lot, but other people say “uprising” or “rebellion” or things like that. Would you call it a riot or would you call it one of these other terms?

LB: It was a riot. People who were doing the rioting were a mixture of black and white people. There was one store on Woodward and they kind of surrounded us in there, and I saw some pictures later that were taken and it was both. The mobs were made up of both white and black people. Everybody was having fun. You’d see them running with – a TV was a priceless possession. They’d have these small TVs. They were rioting. They were looting. They did everything. It was a very busy night. The second night was just as bad.

GS: Really?

LB: Oh yeah. Down in front there was a restaurant on Woodward, Greenfield Restaurant.  Right in front of that [phone rings] there was a fire engine there. Somebody was firing at the fire engine. The bullets were hitting the control panel, so we kept the hell away from that engine. That type of sniping went on all that night. Whoever was firing apparently didn’t want any fires put out. The engine never went into action. Not until we cleared them out of that upper apartment. Used to do a lot of that house to house stuff because one of the experiences I had was in Italy – I arrived there as an infantry replacement. They found out I had never been in the infantry. I didn’t even know what trench mortar was. So I had a four-week course called the Infantry Conversion Course. It converted people from the artillery and the air corps, whoever was surplus, and they were going to put him into the infantry. So we had to spend this four-week course learning how to handle a new element of rifles, learning what a trench mortar was, how you drop shells. Learning the difference between a .16 and .18 millimeter. Things like that. So basically, when we – and it didn’t happen to me. They kept me on the staff – because I had been in the army quite a while. We had, [phone rings] let’s say, they claimed what people learn in the infantry basic training, which took about three month, we mastered it all in about four weeks.

GS: Oh wow.

LB: That was our claim. Once I knew better, I knew it was a dammed lie. God. There was something else. That was the Italian campaign. People overlooked it. D-Day came along, we knew nothing about D-Day of course. People back home. But the same day that D-Day took place, June 6 or 7, I forgot – that was the day the 36th division, Texas National Guard Division, entered Rome. They went into Rome that day, and we followed them in. I was walking there into Rome, a red hot day, down the Via Nazionale with my – I had a carbine, I didn’t have the M-1 rifle on my shoulder, and Cary Gordy from Augusta, Georgia was walking next to me. Went by this café with tables out on the sidewalk and, what do you know, I was so tired. We were just walking into Rome. The American Army took Rome, about simultaneously when D-Day occurred, the 6 or 7 of June. Of course, people in the States – we didn’t even know that [phone rings] France had been invaded – but the day American Army, I was with them, but I sure as hell wasn’t up front when we went into Rome. Really they didn’t resist. The Germans went out one end of the city, we went in, and I’m walking along with this carbine and some other junk, and this café had a round table with two chairs so I said to Cary, let’s sit down. So we fell out of ranks, sat there and watched our unit march by, out of nowhere came a waiter who says in very broken English, “You want something to drink?” I said, “Yes, bring me some kind of alcoholic beverage.” It had been a hot day, as the American army walked by us into Rome. When we finally finished two or three of these each, where in the hell is our unit? Took us a while to get readjusted. That was the capture of Rome, completely was Città Aperta. Open City. It really was something. Later on, there was one of the guys, he had been a movie person in the States before joining the service, he made a movie about Rome and that’s when I met two Italian actresses in that movie. And my squad, [phone rings] we were extras. We were the ones that – I forget what it was all about, but it made film history. About the open city. So we were in the movies, and it was fun. But that ended my experiences in the army and I came home to this address. Oh, I came home on a hospital ship because I had smashed up a British Triumph motorcycle, stick shift motorcycle. I was in the hospital. We landed at Staten Island. They took me to Camp Kilmer, the army hospital at Camp Kilmer. I was there a while. Finally, a weekend came along, and the doctors said, “You can go home for the weekend if you want to.” I said yeah, so I decided I would, but I didn’t call my mother and tell her or my father or anybody. I don’t know what was wrong with me, but I was glad to get out. Took the train back. In those days, Grand Trunk had a station down near the river, that’s the station my train came into. I was walking out and I had a captured German rifle and I was carrying that. This red-haired woman came up and she grabbed my arm and she was hanging onto it [phone rings] as we went into this huge crowd leaving the train, I thought, look lady, she must need an escort or something. We get through this huge crown and I was going to brush her off. I looked at her real closely and it was my mother. I hadn’t recognized her. What happened was that she decided that she and my dad were going to go over there to Camp Kilmer that weekend, so she called and asked for the nurse in my ward, and I knew her although I never saw her again. Anyway, she said, “Hell, Mrs. Begole, your son left. He’ll be going out at Grand Central just about now. Just meet his train.” So my mother got off the phone and went down there. She met me, and my dad was outside in the car. What do you know? I’m the only guy that can say that I didn’t even know my own mother.

GS: So kind of thinking about the riots and your participation and everything you’ve seen, did you see any kind of changes after the riot in Detroit?

LB: Yes.

HS: Could you elaborate on that a little bit?

LB: Yeah, one of the big changes, after the riot we stayed on duty quite a while in Detroit. The action was only the first two or three days, though. The fourth day we had to leave and go to Pontiac. They were having a tough situation and they were from the Interlake Police Chief Association [phone rings] and they called us. It was nothing compared to Detroit. Absolutely nothing. We drove all around the loop in Pontiac. Never saw any action. Was there two days; it was a waste of our time. But there was plenty of free food.

GS: That’s always good.

LB: Anyway, the changes I saw were not abrupt but it sure changed things. There was a definite sense of, "it happened once, it could happen again." Things were changing. The whole atmosphere was different. That was in 60-whatever year that was, I think–

GS & HS: 67.

LB: Yeah, that was the big one. Later on, about three years later, there was a minor one. Didn’t amount to much, though. The first one, I saw looting and any store you could break into, they did. Most cases, they had remove planks and everything else, break the glass. They looted the hell out of places. Woodward was bad on looting, and every other street downtown. We were attempting to stop them. We had something unusual. We had—one thing at this precinct at the corner of Gratiot and Mack. There was a nurse working there and all kinds of injured people there [phone rings] and they wanted us to take her home. She lived at the Boulevard and Mack in a big apartment building there. Right across diagonally from Eastern High School which used to be there at the Boulevard and Mack. Big, beautiful high school. It’s King now. I didn’t go back to where I should’ve gone, I went over here. Martin Luther King Junior High School was what I pronounced it and the kids don’t like it. They think they’re going to a senior high school which they are. But when they tell people where they go to school, they say Martin Luther King Junior High School. So they think they’re in tenth grade. Anyway, the junior high school was a relic of the original Eastern High School. We took this nurse, the four of us in our patrol car, right to her front door. Boulevard and Mack. We stayed on Mack and she went around. We were there with her. Just then, a convertible – what do you call it now? You couldn’t drive, you couldn’t walk – it was a curfew. Then came a car from behind us. We’re heading east toward Grosse Pointe, parked on Mack. Here came from downtown, a car. Wow, it wasn’t a police car. What’s that doing out at night? There was a few shots and the car heeled over to the left, smashed onto the curb, up over the curb. We all jumped out, the four of us, jumped out and went over [phone rings] to the driver’s door, pull the driver out. He’d been shot. Bad shape. We carry him back to our car and we want to keep him full length because there was blood coming out so they put him on the hood. Right across the hood, held him on there and that was difficult to do. I wasn’t driving. We drove back to the Seventh Precinct thinking there would be an ambulance there. There was but it was loaded so we brought him back but whether he made it or not, I do not know but he was shot right there by Eastern High School – intersection of Boulevard and Mack. About three weeks later, I was upstairs in the Novi police station. They said there’s two guys down there who want to speak with me. I went down and they looked like detectives. “You guys want to see the chief?” “Yeah.” “What’s going on?” They pulled out IDs; they were both from the FBI. They said, “Well, you were active during the riot?” And I said, “Yeah, we were.” “You guys wear the gold helmets?” I said, “Yeah, here’s one of them here.” And I showed him. “Oh, well, we’d like to speak with you.” So turns out that there was a Free Press photographer up in Eastern High School and he took pictures [phone rings] of us bringing the guy out of the car, laying him on the hood, and I was there and I had my big .357 magnum in this hand in case anybody was going to shoot at us, we were going to shoot back. We all had out guns out; we were justified doing so. At any rate, the FBI decided we’d shot the guy. They interviewed us. Dick Faulkner, he had his own camera and he’d taken pictures of the whole thing from the time we got out of the car until we got him back to the ambulance. We convinced the FBI we were probably saving his life. We weren’t sure. There was quite a few killed in that riot and he may have been one of them. The only lucky one I saw was that Detroit cop who was shot in his cartridge case. That was quite a night. We saw a lot of looting, stopped some of it, made some arrests, carried on Mack, but never had to appear in court because there was a big move at the time as soon as these police patrols brought people in, they were transferring them over to the bath house over on Belle Isle. I knew that bath house pretty well. My brother was the chief lifeguard. It was unbelievable that the arrests that were made were thrown out at court which was probably the thing to do anyway because everybody was doing it. I have pictures somewhere [phone rings] if I can find them. They were taken that night by Dick Faulkner. The first time I saw police brutality was that night. They were bringing in a bunch of people. This young Detroit officer had a carbine. They carried them down the stairs into the basement of the precinct and he was clubbing them with the butt of his carbine. And I thought, Geez, what the hell is he doing? But he got away with it. He went a little too far. If I wasn’t so busy and bullets weren’t flying around at the gas pump and we had to take care of that, I probably would have arrested him for mistreating prisoners. It was quite a night.

GS: Quite a night.

LB: You’re making quite a study of that riot, aren’t you?

HS: Yes, it’s a big project.

LB: I want to find my notes from that night. My report and some of the pictures.

HS: Yes, we’d love to see those.

LB: Yeah, well I saw the riot almost from the start. Sunday morning until Thursday. At first, the Detroit Police Department had a precinct, I think it was number 13, on Canfield between Woodward and John R. I saw a crowd of people down there and some blue smoke in the air. When we went down there, that blue smoke was tear gas. We were all crying. We ran like hell back to Woodward [phone rings] and all of a sudden, down Woodward came about a full infantry company dressed in blue uniforms. On their right shoulders, each one carried a shotgun. Oh my god, but they cleared that street and people were firing form the high apartment over on John R. These shotguns had probably, I didn’t look at them that closely, probably had instead of birdshot or anything like that, they had a ball in there or just a slug. So this group of state troops cleared that street, including us. We go the hell out of it. There was some military in Detroit but they were state troops. They weren’t in the Army National Guard which was no longer existing. We hadn’t put it back on duty yet. It didn’t have any members. But this group in the front of the Canfield station, they had the police locked in there. That was something. The police were using tear gas grenades so there was a lot of action, daylight action, in Detroit as well as night action. I’ll see if I can find any of those reports. Remember that was what like, over 50 years ago.

HS: Almost. Almost 50.

GS: Was there anything else you’d like to add before we finish up?

LB: Yeah, I would like to add one thing. It was awfully hard to process any of the cases because of the cases of the people firing at the fire engine. We caught them but the unit came along, a unit was two or three cars loaded with cops followed by a real police car. The others were civilian cars. They would pick up all those people that were under arrest. This unit came along, picked these guys up we were holding for shooting up the fire truck. We never saw them again. Don’t know what happened. There was no, there were more people there. They had no business firing at firemen. It was more or less functioning but it was disorganized. You’ll find very incomplete reports, including ours. I’ll try to find one. Of course, I had to account for our absence. In fact, one person during the board meeting said, “We were left defenseless out here while you guys were in Detroit.” I said, “No, instead of them coming out here, we went there to stop them in their tracks. And we did." That was taken very well by the spectators. 

Original Format



1hr 17min


Giancarlo Stefanutti
Hannah Sabal


Lee Begole


Detroit, MI




“Lee Begole, June 22nd, 2016,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed April 12, 2024, http://oralhistory.detroithistorical.org/items/show/428.

Output Formats