Category Archive 'Willis A. Lee'

09 Nov 2007

65 Years Ago: One Marine, One Ship

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Vin Suprynowicz remembers the Autumn of 1942, when one Marine and one Navy ship changed the course of WWII.

One Hill, One Marine:

World War Two is generally calculated from Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939. But that’s a eurocentric view. The Japanese had been limbering up their muscles in Korea and Manchuria as early as 1931, and in China by 1934. By 1942 they’d devastated every major Pacific military force or stronghold of the great pre-war powers: Britain, Holland, France, and the United States. The bulk of America’s proud Pacific fleet lay beached or rusting on the floor of Pearl Harbor. A few aircraft carriers and submarines remained, though as Mitchell Paige and his 30-odd men were sent out to establish their last, thin defensive line on that ridge southwest of the tiny American bridgehead on Guadalcanal on Oct. 25, he would not have been much encouraged to know how those remaining American aircraft carriers were faring offshore. …

As Paige — then a platoon sergeant — and his riflemen set about carefully emplacing their four water-cooled Brownings, it’s unlikely anyone thought they were about to provide the definitive answer to that most desperate of questions: How many able-bodied U.S. Marines does it take to hold a hill against 2,000 desperate and motivated attackers?

The Japanese Army had not failed in an attempt to seize any major objective since the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. Their commanders certainly did not expect the war to be lost on some God-forsaken jungle ridge manned by one thin line of Yanks in khaki in October of 1942. …

..the American forces had so little to work with that Paige’s men would have only the four 30-caliber Brownings to defend the one ridge through which the Japanese opted to launch their final assault against Henderson Field, that fateful night of Oct. 25.

By the time the night was over, “The 29th (Japanese) Infantry Regiment has lost 553 killed or missing and 479 wounded among its 2,554 men,” historian Lippman reports. “The 16th (Japanese) Regiment’s losses are uncounted, but the 164th’s burial parties handle 975 Japanese bodies. … The American estimate of 2,200 Japanese dead is probably too low.”

Among the 90 American dead and wounded that night were all the men in Mitchell Paige’s platoon. Every one. As the night wore on, Paige moved up and down his line, pulling his dead and wounded comrades back into their foxholes and firing a few bursts from each of the four Brownings in turn, convincing the Japanese forces down the hill that the positions were still manned.

The citation for Paige’s Congressional Medal of Honor picks up the tale: “When the enemy broke through the line directly in front of his position, P/Sgt. Paige, commanding a machinegun section with fearless determination, continued to direct the fire of his gunners until all his men were either killed or wounded. Alone, against the deadly hail of Japanese shells, he fought with his gun and when it was destroyed, took over another, moving from gun to gun, never ceasing his withering fire.”

In the end, Sgt. Paige picked up the last of the 40-pound, belt-fed Brownings — the same design which John Moses Browning famously fired for a continuous 25 minutes until it ran out of ammunition at its first U.S. Army trial — and did something for which the weapon was never designed. Sgt. Paige walked down the hill toward the place where he could hear the last Japanese survivors rallying to move around his flank, the gun cradled under his arm, firing as he went.

The weapon did not fail.

Coming up at dawn, battalion executive officer Major Odell M. Conoley first discovered the answer to our question: How many able-bodied Marines does it take to hold a hill against two regiments of motivated, combat-hardened infantrymen who have never known defeat?

On a hill where the bodies were piled like cordwood, Mitchell Paige alone sat upright behind his 30-caliber Browning, waiting to see what the dawn would bring.

One hill: one Marine.

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One ship:

Admiral Bull Halsey himself broke a stern War College edict — the one against committing capital ships in restricted waters. Gambling the future of the cut-off troops on Guadalcanal on one final roll of the dice, Halsey dispatched into the Slot his two remaining fast battleships, the USS South Dakota and the USS Washington, escorted by the only four destroyers with enough fuel in their bunkers to get them there and back.

In command of the 28-knot battlewagons was the right man at the right pla4ce, gunnery expert Rear Adm. Willis A. “Ching Chong China” Lee. Lee’s flag flew aboard the Washington, in turn commanded by Captain Glenn Davis.

Lee was a nut for gunnery drills. “He tested every gunnery-book rule with exercises,” Lippman writes, “and ordered gunnery drills under odd conditions — turret firing with relief crews, anything that might simulate the freakishness of battle.”

As it turned out, the American destroyers need not have worried about carrying enough fuel to get home. By 11 p.m. on Nov. 13, outnumbered better than three-to-one by a massive Japanese task force driving down from the northwest, every one of the four American destroyers had been shot up, sunk, or set aflame, while the South Dakota — known throughout the fleet as a jinx ship — managed to damage some lesser Japanese vessels but continued to be plagued with electrical and fire control problems.

“Washington was now the only intact ship left in the force,” Lippman writes. “In fact, at that moment Washington was the entire U.S. Pacific Fleet. She was the only barrier between (Admiral) Kondo’s ships and Guadalcanal. If this one ship did not stop 14 Japanese ships right then and there, America might lose the war. …

On Washington’s bridge, Lieutenant Ray Hunter still had the conn. He had just heard that South Dakota had gone off the air and had seen (destroyers) Walke and Preston “blow sky high.” Dead ahead lay their burning wreckage, while hundreds of men were swimming in the water and Japanese ships were racing in.

“Hunter had to do something. The course he took now could decide the war. ‘Come left,’ he said, and Washington straightened out on a course parallel to the one on which she (had been) steaming. Washington’s rudder change put the burning destroyers between her and the enemy, preventing her from being silhouetted by their fires.

“The move made the Japanese momentarily cease fire. Lacking radar, they could not spot Washington behind the fires. …

“Meanwhile, Washington raced through burning seas. Everyone could see dozens of men in the water clinging to floating wreckage. Flag Lieutenant Raymond Thompson said, “Seeing that burning, sinking ship as it passed so close aboard, and realizing that there was nothing I, or anyone, could do about it, was a devastating experience.’

“Commander Ayrault, Washington’s executive officer, clambered down ladders, ran to Bart Stoodley’s damage-control post, and ordered Stoodley to cut loose life rafts. That saved a lot of lives. But the men in the water had some fight left in them. One was heard to scream, ‘Get after them, Washington!’ ”

Sacrificing their ships by maneuvering into the path of torpedoes intended for the Washington, the captains of the American destroyers had given China Lee one final chance. The Washington was fast, undamaged, and bristling with 16-inch guns. And, thanks to Lt. Hunter’s course change, she was also now invisible to the enemy.

Blinded by the smoke and flames, the Japanese battleship Kirishima turned on her searchlights, illuminating the helpless South Dakota, and opened fire. Finally, standing out in the darkness, Lee and Davis could positively identify an enemy target.

The Washington’s main batteries opened fire at 12 midnight precisely. Her new SG radar fire control system worked perfectly. Between midnight and 12:07 a.m., Nov. 14, the “last ship in the U.S. Pacific Fleet” stunned the battleship Kirishima with 75, 16-inch shells. For those aboard the Kirishima, it rained steel.

In seven minutes, the Japanese battleship was reduced to a funeral pyre. She went down at 3:25 a.m., the first enemy sunk by an American battleship since the Spanish-American War. Stunned, the remaining Japanese ships withdrew. Within days, Yamamoto and his staff reviewed their mounting losses and recommended the unthinkable to the emperor — withdrawal from Guadalcanal.

But who remembers, today, how close-run a thing it was — the ridge held by a single Marine, the battle won by the last American ship?

In the autumn of 1942.

Via the Barrister.

Earlier “Ching” Lee posting.

31 Aug 2007

“Stand Aside, This is Ching!”

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Rear Admiral Willis A. Lee, Jr., 1888-1945

2007 Admiral Lee Memorial Speech delivered recently to the United States Naval Academy Rifle Team by Floyd Houston, USMC (ret.) at Lee’s graveside.

Please stand at ease…
• “Four years together by the bay,
where Severn joins the tide.
• Then by the service called away
we’re scattered far and wide.
• But still when two or three shall meet
and old tales be retold –
• from low to highest in the Fleet
we’ll pledge the Blue and Gold.”

You all recognize this refrain from our alma matter. In three weeks I’ll be getting together with my classmates to celebrate our 30th. This refrain hits the nail squarely on the head in terms of what will be happening there.

One enduring lesson I’ve learned is that leadership should never be confused with being appointed to any particular position. In my opinion Webster’s incorrectly lists leadership as a noun. It’s not – its really a verb. Leadership is an action involving three parts, each of which we pray our appointed leaders, especially in wartime, are capable. One, Leaders simply do the right thing. Two, they do it for the right reasons. Three, and most importantly, they do it at the right times.

What is the “right thing?” What are the right reasons? How do you tell when it is the right time? With any luck, we’ll cover some of that today.

Our vehicle is an old tale that requires re-telling – honoring the career of a man named Willis Augustus Lee, Jr. Although Lee was a Midshipman one hundred years ago, his exploits still serve as an inspiration. We have a direct connection to him and he to us – through his lifetime of leadership.

Born 11 May 1888, Willis Lee grew up in Owenton, Kentucky and his family was related to the Lees of Virginia. He was appointed to the US Naval Academy in 1904 at the age of 16, and already had a reputation as a good shot at the time he entered the academy. He was a star athlete on the Rifle Team. He prepared himself so thoroughly as an athlete that when given the opportunity to participate in the US National Rifle and Pistol Championships one hundred years ago in 1907, he became the only American ever to win both the US National High Power Rifle and Pistol Championships in the same year and he did it with a borrowed pistol! He did the right thing in preparing himself mentally and physically for high-level competition. He did it for the right reasons – because he was a Naval Academy Team shooter and his individual scores added to or detracted from his team’s performance. His timing was impeccable as he peaked at the National Championships. He also lived a life like most Midshipmen, being noted for drawing cartoons for the LUCKY BAG, getting put on report, and eventually graduating in the middle of his class in June 1908.

Lee was known throughout his life for his self-confidence, his analytical ability, his genuine modesty, for the twinkle in his eye, a wry sense of humor, and his kindness to subordinates. He was never known to brag of his own exploits, although he could have told some amazing sea stories…

For example, in April 1914 the whole world was in turmoil and World War One was about to break out. The Navy and Marine Corps were ordered to occupy Vera Cruz, Mexico to improve the stability of the government. As a Company Commander of the battleship New Hampshire’s landing force, his men took fire. He borrowed a rifle, dialed in his long range zero, assumed a textbook sitting position out in the open, drew fire as was necessary to locate the muzzle flashes from rooftops further inland, and dispatched three of the snipers at long range.
It sort of gives new meaning to a finals competition or a “guts match” doesn’t it?

During the summer of 1920, then LCDR Lee was a member of the U.S. Olympic rifle team that competed in Antwerp, Belgium. He was the high medal winner of those games, taking home five gold medals, one silver medal, and one bronze medal – an accomplishment that made him the Michael Phelps of his time. Being an intense competitor in high-level competition has crossover value as you live out your lives of leadership and service. By that I mean specifically that as pilots, during emergencies, you will react exactly as well as you trained, a “man overboard” on your bridge watch will go as smoothly as you’ve mastered the “man overboard drill”, and ground combat goes exactly as well as you’ve trained. There are no nerves, no second thoughts, it just happens EXACTLY as well as you’ve trained beforehand. All of you will experience this. Most of you will agree with me later. Some of you, the unlucky or the ones who didn’t put in the training will die and worse yet, you will probably take good folks with you.

Olympic fame notwithstanding, Admiral Lee was expected to serve with the fleet and serve he did. He sailed on the cruiser New Orleans, the gunboat Helena, the battleship Idaho twice, and the battleship New Hampshire. He also served on the destroyers O’Brien and Lea, and tender Anteres.

He did shore tours when assigned, even though he preferred sea duty, and met his wife Mabelle of Rock Island, Illinois during one such tour.

He was XO of the tender Bushnell and the battleship Pennsylvania. He commanded the destroyers Lardner and Preston, the cruiser Concord, and was widely regarded as an expert in ship handling, gunnery, and surface tactics. Just prior to the war he was assigned as the Assistant Chief of Staff for Fleet Readiness. In this position he immersed himself in learning and applying radar technology. He would later use that self training in high stakes combat.

Early in World War Two, he commanded Battleship Division 6, with his flag onboard the battleship Washington. He was a senior leader for America’s greatest generation as they left the farms, factories, and schoolhouses of this great nation to go out and save the world.

By mid-November 1942, the situation in the Solomon Islands was critical. The Japanese had swept virtually undefeated across the Pacific. The Americans, who had hastily landed the 1st Marine Division on the strategic Island of Guadalcanal in August, were now down to one aircraft carrier — Enterprise — after the loss of Wasp in September and Hornet in October. Japanese surface units were subjecting the Marines’ on Guadalcanal to heavy bombardments while landing supplies and reinforcements with disturbing regularity. The Japanese, based on their mastery of night surface gunnery and their superb torpedoes, tended to make their moves at night, while Allied planes controlled the local skies during the day. Night naval combat off Guadalcanal was a disaster for the US. Efforts to halt the Tokyo Express cost so many US ships that the offshore waters became known as Iron Bottom Sound. In fact, the very night before Admiral Lee was sent into the breech, two Navy flag officers along with 700 of their men perished in combat there.

The situation boiled to a crisis as Japanese Admiral Kondo led the Tokyo Express with his flag on the battleship Kirishima, escorting a convoy of 8,000 fresh troops with orders to land and wipe out the beleaguered US Marines ashore, sink any remaining American Naval Vessels, bomb the Marine airstrip off the face of the map, and return north by early morning on 15 November. In addition to the battleship Kirishima, he had two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and six destroyers all of whom had steamed and fought and triumphed together as a well-oiled team.

Unwilling to risk his only remaining carrier, Admiral Halsey, played his last trump card, two fast battleships located 300 miles south of Guadalcanal under Willis Lee. In contrast to Admiral Kondo, Halsey ordered Lee to command a pick-up team, warning him to be ready for a flank-speed run north to Guadalcanal. The brand new fast battleship South Dakota was fresh from the shipyard and not fully prepared. Of the four US destroyers that were selected as escorts for the two battleships, none had ever operated together before as a team. They were chosen simply because they had the most remaining fuel in their tanks. All were of different classes and from different divisions. On the battleship Washington, however, Lee had the advantage of having trained this ship and this crew since the early in the war – just the sort of training top rifle competitors conduct to prepare for high-level competitions – what if’s, tactics, gun drills, aiming practice, new radar-directed firing, and lots of target practice. As Lee’s ships sped through the dark waters of Iron-bottom Sound, his radio operators heard American radio traffic. PT-boats were reporting Lee’s moves in plain English and they swung in to attack– thinking Lee’s ships were more Japanese. Using his Naval Academy nickname to identify himself, he personally radioed to the PT boats and to General Vandegrift ashore, “Stand aside, this is Ching Lee, I’m coming through.”

Just before midnight the actual American and Japanese forces DID engage, destroyers first – and sadly, as is oft the case with pick-up teams, they lacked night training and cohesion. Destroyer Preston sunk quickly at 2336. Destroyer Gwin was hit at about the same time Preston went down. At 2338, the destroyer Walke took a torpedo in her magazine, killing close to a hundred. Another torpedo blasted off the destroyer Benham’s bow. All four of Lee’s destroyers were now out of the fight. He was down to his battleships. Washington found the Japanese destroyer Ayanami and sunk her. Then, at very the height of the pitched fight, the new battleship South Dakota lost electrical power. Inadequate pre-combat engineering training was the likely culprit. None-the-less, radar, fire control, turret motors, ammunition hoists, radios–everything went out. Admiral Lee’s Battleship Washington was now the only intact ship left in the force. In fact, at that moment, Washington was the entire U.S. Pacific Fleet. She was the only barrier between Kondo’s ships and Guadalcanal. If this one ship did not stop 14 Japanese ships right then and there, America might lose the war.

Lee turned Washington so the burning destroyers were between himself and the Japanese, effectively negating the superior Japanese night optics and torpedoes. As he sailed by, they cut free life rafts on Washington’s starboard side – there were literally hundreds of men in the water. Washington crewmen reported hearing cheers from the survivors in the oily water urging Washington forward. At this point Kirishima flashed its spotlight to target the helpless South Dakota and in so doing, revealed herself briefly to the absolute master of guts matches, Willis Lee. The Japanese ship was 8,400 yards away on the starboard beam. Kirishima and Washington exchanged fire. The men who trained and fought under Olympic champion Willis A. Lee later said, “Fire control and battery functioned as smoothly as though she [we] were engaged in a well-rehearsed target practice.” In short order nine 16-inch and forty 5-inch rounds struck Kirishima. The ship sank shortly after. Admiral Kondo, stunned, turned his still superior force around. Lee backed Washington off slightly, hoping to keep Kondo literally in the dark about the fact that only Washington remained. As dawn broke, US aviation wiped out the transports and most of the ground reinforcements. Lee’s audacity and Washington’s performance under his leadership had prevailed against all odds. FDR proclaimed it one of the great naval battles of the war. The truth of the matter was that Lee won that fight during pre-combat training both of himself and of Washington.

For his actions that night, Olympic Champion Willis A. Lee was decorated with this nation’s second highest award for valor – the Navy Cross. Tragically, Admiral Lee died of a heart attack shortly after VJ Day. At his funeral right here on this very spot in 1945, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal called Lee “the savior of Guadalcanal.” How do you learn how to perform leadership under such pressure?

It starts in the crucible of Bancroft Hall. It is hardened in the discipline necessary to make this team, to perform in intercollegiate and national competition. It is flexed in odd places from the bridges of ships to urban combat while young. It is polished in Olympic competition and tested in life and death struggle in positions of great responsibility.

Just like Lee in 1904, you have accepted an appointment in the US Naval Service as a Midshipman. It’s a noun – a name implying leadership. Leadership, as exercised by Willis Lee was a series of actions he executed regularly throughout a long career – doing the right things, for the right reasons, at the right times. When you execute your daily schedule, is leadership an action YOU perform regularly through attention to detail, dedication to your team, through living an honest, decent, and humble life? Or like some, do you glide along pulling your oar only just hard enough to get by? Each of us visualize ourselves like Admiral Lee here with National Championship titles, Olympic medals, and battlefield prowess, but what are you doing every day to prepare yourself for the high stakes competitions which are sure to come? I invite each and every one of you here today to look at this grave, know that you are standing on the shoulders of the giants, and to dedicate yourselves to a life that is worthy of it.

Thank you.


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