In the annals of United States Naval history, Vice Admiral Willis Augustus Lee Jr. (May 11, 1888 – August 25, 1945) is a relatively unsung hero. He’s certainly not a household name amongst amateur war historians in the same vein as “Bull” Halsey, Raymond Spruance, Chester Nimitz, Arleigh Burke, or Charles A. Lockwood.
This is a bit of shame, as he certainly made history as the winner of one of the only two battleship vs. battleship engagements of the Pacific Theatre of WWII. Now, thanks to accomplished naval history author Paul Stillwell – himself a former battleship officer on the USS New Jersey – and his book Battleship Commander: The Life of Vice Admiral Willis A. Lee Jr, this outstanding sailor and naval warrior will finally start getting the attention he truly deserves.
The Bio Brings VADM Lee to Life
Mr. Stillwell was generous to take some time out of his busy schedule to discuss the book and the Admiral with the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS) NAT Book Club last year. In the book and his discussion alike, the author describes Willis “Ching” Lee as a very humble, down-to-earth man who eschewed publicity, definitely not fitting into the stereotype of the prima donna “Academy ring knocker” flag officer. This goes a long way in explaining why Admiral Lee is not a more famous name to American military history buffs. In addition, Lee tragically passed away from a heart attack a mere 10 days after WWII ended – he chain-smoked Pall Mall cigarettes – and therefore didn’t live long enough to write an autobiography. But then again, as Stilwell opines, going back to Ching’s deliberate avoidance of the spotlight, he probably wouldn’t have written it even if he had lived long enough to do so.
Growing up in rural Kentucky, young Willis was intellectually gifted and with incredible marksmanship skills to boot but also had disciplinary issues due to a knack for pranks and tomfoolery. He matriculated into the U.S. Naval Academy in 1904 at the tender age of 16 in spite of not yet having attained his high school diploma. Among his fellow plebes was future Admiral Marc A. “Pete” Mitscher.
His brains and talents notwithstanding, there were two concerns about his ability to succeed at a service academy: his aforementioned discipline issues, and his poor eyesight stemming from one of those childhood pranks literally blowing up in his face – which fortunately didn’t leave him permanently disfigured but did force him to wear glasses the rest of this life.
In spite of these personality quirks and physical impairments, “Ching” graduated from the Academy in 1908, and ranked a middling 106th out of 201 graduates, which doesn’t sound terribly impressive until you learn that 82 of his original classmates didn’t even make it to graduation.
As a young officer, Lee performed such legendary feats of marksmanship – again, in spite of having to wear corrective lenses – that for many years the USNA Rifle Team has visited his grave at Arlington National Cemetery on the Sunday nearest the anniversary of his untimely passing. These marksmanship feats were demonstrated not only at the 1920 Olympics – whereupon he helped the U.S. team win 7 medals (5 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze) – but in the harsh reality of real-world combat, namely the 1914 Battle of Veracruz. During this controversial episode, then-Ensign Lee coolly picked off multiple Mexican snipers (whether these were Mexican Army regulars or Francs-tireurs isn’t quite clear), thus earning a glowing written commendation from his C.O. His incredible accuracy with small arms would eventually carry over to naval “big guns,” i.e. antiaircraft guns and battleship main guns alike, in the Second World War.
Killing the Kirishima
Long story short, then-RADM Lee’s crowning achievement took place during the Second Battle of Guadalcanal on 14-15 November 1942. It pitted Lee’s flagship, the North Carolina-class battleship USS Washington (BB-56) – skippered by Capt. Glenn B. Davis – along with USS South Dakota (BB-57, though not an actual sister ship to Washington, numerical sequence notwithstanding), and four destroyers, intercepted a numerically superior Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) task force consisting of the battleship Kirishima, four cruisers, and nine destroyers.
South Dakota was rather inauspiciously rendered hors de combat due to electrical failures that soon led to her sustaining multiple Japanese shellfire hits to her superstructure – which fortunately didn’t threaten her buoyancy. However, she would quickly be avenged by Washington, as described by my 19FortyFive colleague Peter Suciu:
“Washington single-handedly engaged the Japanese force, which included not only Kirishima but also two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and nine destroyers. Using her radar-directed fire, the American battlewagon pummeled the Japanese battleship with upwards of twenty hits from her 16-inch guns and more than forty hits by the 5-inch guns. Just after midnight, Kirishima was sunk along with a Japanese destroyer. The rest of the Japanese force withdrew. It was the first, and only, one-on-one battleship kill of the Second World War.” (emphasis added).
That Japanese destroyer in question, incidentally, was the Ayanami. A total of 249 Japanese sailors perished in the engagement. In exchange, Admiral Lee lost the destroyers USS Walke, Benham, and Preston, along with 242 officers and enlisted men KIA. The sinking of the Kirishima was a revenge factor for the U.S. Navy in more ways than one, as the Japanese battlewagon’s 14-inch guns had been directly responsible for the killing of RADM Daniel J. Callaghan during the First Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.
This major victory earned “Ching” Lee the Navy Cross as well as his promotion to VADM in 1944. However, he never saw any major surface engagements afterward, and sadly, as Paul Stilwell noted in his presentation to NOUS, Lee seemed to be in a bit of a funk in that brief interlude between the Japanese surrender and his fatal heart attack. His beloved widow Mabelle Allen “Chubby” Lee, née Elspeth, outlived him by four years. His gravesite can be found in Section 6 Plot 5691 of Arlington National Cemetery.
Postscript: A Quick Look at Lee’s Opponent
In the interest of being “fair and balanced” and the truism that “the enemy also gets a vote,” it’s also worth our while to get some perspective on the IJN Admiral who was “Ching” Lee’s chief adversary during the Guadalcanal battleship duel. That adversary was IJN Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo. A brutally frank peer assessment of Kondo’s abilities and personality was provided by former IJN officer Captain Tameichi Hara in his bestselling 1961 book Japanese Destroyer Captain:
“Admiral Yamamoto, who was stern with Abe, was strangely lenient with Kondo. Many of Kondo’s officers were ashamed of him and of themselves. They preferred not to talk about the battle. Kondo was the British-gentleman sort of man. He was amiable and affable to everyone and was known as a scholar. He was always good to me and I had great respect for him. But I must say that it was one of Yamamoto’s greatest errors that he so greatly overvalued Kondo’s fighting ability. Kondo might have been a great commandant of the Naval Academy, but he was a misfit as commander of a naval fighting unit.”
Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS).