Battleship Commander: The Life of Vice Admiral Willis A. Lee, USN

I was pleased to read this book, written by Paul Stillwell published by US Naval Institute Press.

Admiral Ching Lee was one of those brilliant men who found himself in the right place at the right time with the right instrument to make a big difference in the American/allied war against the Japanese in the Pacific.

Willis Lee grew up in Kentucky, and unlike most admirals, he was a down-to-earth, modest, forgiving, friendly, man who had a wry sense of humor. Lee eschewed the media and, to the extent possible, left administrative details to others.  He was a man who. personally understood how and why things worked on a battleship and was one of the few flag officers of his generation who understood the tactical advantage of radar, especially during night battles.

USS Washington BB-56

In 1942 Willis Lee became commander of the first division of fast battleships to operate in the Pacific. During that service, he commanded Task Force 64, from USS Washington in the waters off Guadalcanal, on the night of 14-15 November, in company with the battleship USS South Dakota, and four destroyers.

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On November 13, the US Navy and Imperial Japanese Navy mauled each other off Savo Island. It was a point-blank range battle between US cruiser and destroyers and Japanese battleships, cruisers, and destroyers. One could say that the US won because the Japanese turned back with the loss of the battleship, Hiei, and were unable to destroy Henderson Field, but the win was at a horrible cost to the US.

Reportedly furious, Admiral Yamamoto relieved Admiral Abe of command and ordered Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondō, commanding the Second Fleet at Truk, to form a new bombardment unit around Kirishima and attack Henderson Field on the night of 14–15 November.

Following the engagement with US Navy cruisers and sinking or crippling almost all of them, the Japanese were confident that they would not be facing US battleships when the Second Fleet sallied forth to dislodge US Marines on Guadalcanal. They were wrong.

The U.S. forces arrived in Ironbottom Sound on the evening of 14 November and began patrolling around Savo Island. The U.S. warships were in column formation with the four destroyers in the lead, followed by Washington, with South Dakota bringing up the rear. At 22:55 on 14 November, radar on South Dakota and Washington began picking up Kondo’s approaching ships near Savo Island, at a distance of around 18,000 m (20,000 yds). The Americans had radar and the Japanese did not.

In a confused battle that led to the sinking of destroyers and a self-inflicted wound that made South Dakota ineffective, while back-lighting her to the Japanese fleet and making her a bullet sponge – the US fleet left the area with the exception of Washington. It was going to be Admiral Ching Lee’s finest hour.

At 00:25, Kondo ordered all of his ships that were able, to converge and destroy any remaining U.S. ships. However, the Japanese ships still did not know where Washington was, and the other surviving U.S. ships had already departed the battle area. Washington steered a northwesterly course toward the Russell Islands to draw the Japanese force away from Guadalcanal and the presumably damaged South Dakota. The Imperial ships finally sighted Washington and launched several torpedo attacks, but she avoided all of them and also avoided running aground in shallow waters. At length, believing that the way was clear for the transport convoy to proceed to Guadalcanal (but apparently disregarding the threat of air attack in the morning), Kondo ordered his remaining ships to break contact and retire from the area about 01:04, which most of the Japanese warships complied with by 01:30.

Washington opened fire on Kirishima without taking any damage herself. Kirishima capsized and sank an hour. later. The engagement was one of only two battleship-against-battleship surface battles in the entire Pacific campaign of World War II, the other being at the Surigao Strait during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

While Lee’s wartime successes and failures make for compelling reading, what is here in this biography is a balanced look at the man and officer.

10 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for the review. I’ll have to add that book to my Naval Section in the library.

    My Dad was there for that battle. I remember him telling me stories about the “Big ships slugging it out”, and how they could see the flashes, like heat lightning, and then the sound would come rolling in. He said it reminded him of a big thunderstorm off in the distance back home in Illinois.

    • Those Naval battles at Ironbottom Sound off Guadalcanal were horrible, and in many ways, those and a few others like them gave way to the modern navy, which has not fought like that since.

      • On the anniversary the Battle of Samar read an article telling the story of the Gunnery Officer on the USS Johnson DD-557. One comment was the bad aim of the Japanese gunners. Was this the case at Savo?

        • They didn’t have radar-directed gunfire until late in the war, and what they did have was crude. They had good optical sights, but we could fire beyond visual range, or through fog and smoke, and they couldn’t. The Japanese relied on different colored dye markers in their shells, so the spotter knew what rounds their own ship fired, and would make adjustments accordingly. The Commanders of the ship under fire would “Chase The Salvos”, steering his ship towards where the previous shells had landed.

          But they had good guns, and when they hit something, it was bad news for the receiver.

        • The Japanese surface navy during WW2 outstripped the US and won much of the time with a few notable exceptions. Their officers were good and their sailors were good. Their submarines had excellent torpedoes but their tactics were often lacking. At the outset of the war, Japanese aircraft were exceptional.

          The engagement above was a pleasant exception.

          BUT, the US learned, and there was an endless supply of ships and logistics that the Japanese couldn’t match. And they lost the initiative at Midway. US submarines savaged the Japanese supply lines and they never had enough oil to run their navy.

          • Yes, the Zero was an exceptional airplane, but it wasn’t further developed. And they had lost a LOT of their experienced combat pilots, while we sent ours home to train the young uns.

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