Thursday, April 21, 2022

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

By Paul Stillwell

Reviewed by Lee Duckworth
HRNM Docent
Paul Stillwell’s biography of Vice Admiral Willis A. Lee Jr. is a book 40 years in the making and finally published in 2021. It details the life of Lee and focuses on his leadership experiences in the Second World War. Lee’s early life is unremarkable, other than the fact that he was an expert marksman. This shooting ability figures prominently during his time at the US Naval Academy (1904-1908) and participation in the 1920 Olympics. After graduation, Lee had assignments to various ships, including a battleship, cruiser/receiving ship, gunboat on the Yangtze River Patrol, and submarine tender. Stateside, his earliest shore duty was with the Bureau of Ordnance and later with the Fleet Training Division of the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations, where he made his reputation as a gunnery and fire control systems expert.
Lee as a US Naval Academy midshipman in 1908 (NHHC)
The author cites numerous examples of Lee’s ship-handling and tactics abilities that further his career as a surface warfare officer. Interestingly, Lee never had command of a battleship but was commanding officer of two destroyers. Two additional tours in Washington, D.C., with the Fleet Training Division (OPNAV 22) solidified his position as a gunnery expert, and his pioneering efforts in development of a Combat Information Center (CIC) set the stage for the major portion of the book and his career: World War Two.

The author details Lee’s preparations and conduct in battle in the Pacific during his three years as “Battleship Commander” and highlights three decisive battle opportunities. At Guadalcanal, Rear Admiral Lee was commander of a task force consisting of two battleships and four destroyers. The November 14-15, 1942, night battle was the first time his units had operated together, and Lee had no opportunity to publish a formal Operations Order, nor was there any common doctrine. U.S. Navy forces opened the battle and had the advantage of radar, but in short order the destroyers at the head of Lee’s column were out of action. The battleship USS South Dakota sustained significant damage and was also out of the fight. Through Lee’s perseverance, the Japanese battleship Kirishima was sunk and a few hours later the Japanese forces withdrew. Lee’s utilization of radar in this battle proved to be the deciding factor and the turning point in the six-month fight for Guadalcanal. He later received his third star and was assigned as Commander, Battleships Pacific Fleet, where he was responsible for fleet battleship doctrine and procedures.
ADM Raymond Spruance, VADM Marc Mitscher, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, and VADM Willis Lee in Feb 1945 (NHHC)
The second opportunity for Lee came on June 19, 1944, at the Battle of the Philippine Sea. The officer in tactical command urged Lee to pursue the Japanese fleet at night and force a surface action. Lee declined, reasoning that there was a lack of training in fleet tactics at night. Although senior US Navy admirals were disappointed, they took no action against Lee. It is ironic that the man who—two years earlier—led a night engagement successfully with a unit that had never operated together would not enter this fight. Lee neglected to take action that could have destroyed a major portion of the Japanese fleet.
VADM Lee in 1944 or 1945 (NHHC)
The final opportunity for Lee to see major combat was on October 24-25, 1944, at Leyte Gulf. The failures at this battle are well-known, especially regarding Admiral William Halsey. Lee was designated commander of Task Force 34 with four fast battleships, seven cruisers, and nineteen destroyers. The battleships had all operated together under Lee a month earlier, practicing tactical exercises. But most of Halsey’s task force, including Lee’s ships, went north in search of Japanese aircraft carriers. Lee sent two messages to Halsey, stating Task Force 34 should remain to cover the San Bernardino Strait, but received no reply. Lee’s battleships went far north of the strait and, when finally detached from the rest of Halsey’s ships, returned too late to face the retreating Japanese navy. Lee could have applied more pressure to make sure Halsey was aware that there was no U.S. Navy coverage at the strait. As a three-star admiral and the officer designated to take over if something happened to Halsey, Lee bears some responsibility for the failure.
RADM Lee receiving the Navy Cross from Admiral Halsey after the Battle of Savo Island in 1942 (NHHC)
Research for Battleship Commander began more than 40 years ago, but little recent research is evident. It is a fair, balanced view of Lee’s life and highlights his superb reputation as a marksman, ship handler, and loyal shipmate. In summary, the author concentrates on Lee’s lasting accomplishments in improving the Navy’s readiness in the areas of shipboard radar, fire control systems, anti-air gunnery, proximity fuses for 5-inch projectiles, and perhaps most important, the development of the CIC concept. VADM Lee is indeed worthy of the title “Battleship Commander,” given his recognized leadership during three years of intense fighting at sea in WWII. I recommend this book, filled with vignettes from family, friends, and shipmates, to learn more about the battleship admiral who spent three years in the Pacific during WWII, and whose total focus was on the readiness of the US Navy.

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