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 easeâ€¦
â€¢ â€œFour years together by the bay,
where Severn joins the tide.
â€¢ Then by the service called away
we’re scattered far and wide.
â€¢ But still when two or three shall meet
and old tales be retold â€“
â€¢ from low to highest in the Fleet
we’ll pledge the Blue and Gold.â€
You all recognize this refrain from our alma matter. In three weeks Iâ€™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 Iâ€™ve learned is that leadership should never be confused with being appointed to any particular position. In my opinion Websterâ€™s incorrectly lists leadership as a noun. Itâ€™s not â€“ 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 â€œright thing?â€ What are the right reasons? How do you tell when it is the right time? With any luck, weâ€™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 â€“ 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 â€“ because he was a Naval Academy Team shooter and his individual scores added to or detracted from his teamâ€™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 storiesâ€¦
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 Hampshireâ€™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 â€œguts matchâ€ doesnâ€™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 â€œman overboardâ€ on your bridge watch will go as smoothly as youâ€™ve mastered the â€œman overboard drillâ€, and ground combat goes exactly as well as youâ€™ve trained. There are no nerves, no second thoughts, it just happens EXACTLY as well as youâ€™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 didnâ€™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 Oâ€™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 Americaâ€™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 Marinesâ€™ 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 â€“ just the sort of training top rifle competitors conduct to prepare for high-level competitions â€“ what ifâ€™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 attackâ€“ 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, â€œStand aside, this is Ching Lee, Iâ€™m coming through.â€
Just before midnight the actual American and Japanese forces DID engage, destroyers first â€“ 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 Leeâ€™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 Washingtonâ€™s starboard side â€“ 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. Leeâ€™s audacity and Washingtonâ€™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 nationâ€™s second highest award for valor â€“ 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 â€œthe savior of Guadalcanal.â€ 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. Itâ€™s a noun â€“ a name implying leadership. Leadership, as exercised by Willis Lee was a series of actions he executed regularly throughout a long career â€“ 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.
This is an outstanding speech. I would welcome the chance to cite it more fully in connection with my writing. If Mr. Houston would let me know the date and location etc. of his talk, I would be grateful. Admiral Lee was a great and gallant naval officer.
It is ironic that the names of Ching Lee and Adm Fletcher are vaguely remembered, while everyone knows “Halsey of the Pacific”, who blundered his fleet into not one but two typhoons which were well known, and fell into the trap at San Bernardino Strait in 1944, narrowly avoiding disaster. These men had seen huge changes in ships, distances, fire control and tactics, indeed Lee was one of only a few BB commanders in WW2 who engaged enemy surface ships and destroyed his enemy completely with trivial damage to his own command. Constant practice, ceaseless vigilance, and raw courage proved leadersip is not conferred, it is practiced till perfect. These stories should be read and remembered by those aspiring to leadership (although few of our present leaders have guts to go in harm’s way). Like the captain of the Johnston, a DD who charged a battleship force in Leyte Gulf because she was the bravest ship in the area Halsey had abandoned due to hubris and Japanese deception, and had no chance of survival, real courage should be honored and remembered. Thanks for the article. All Americans should know these tales of true courage
I greatly admire this speech. It was very well researched and expertly crafted to fit that occasion. It not only informed one of the arduous preparation, but the considered judgment and gutty leadership of one of our greatest naval combat officers. Thank you
David for this inspiring selection!
Joseph Ned Stonbely Sr.
Thanks so very much for this tribute to Admiral Ching Lee.
I can’t start expressing how his bent on Training was The Key to our victories over the Japanese Navy.
A US Admiral, nicknamed Ching, tells the embattled US forces in plain English that HE is coming through; not a squadron, not his ship, not the US Navy.
In today’s parlance he said, “Stand down. I got this.” And then ripped the heart out of his enemy.
The right man, with the right weapon, in the right place, at the right time. Thank God.
Willis A. Lee, Jr. was amazing in so many ways. In addition to his undoubted expertise in gunnery, he embraced the use of radar at a time when many flag officers were reluctant to use it.
He also pushed for the fast-tracking of the proximity (so-called “VT” fuse) which saved many lives by downing many enemy aircraft. Importantly, he recruited and mentored many subordinates, many of whom also reached flag rank. Ever modest almost to a fault, when he received the Navy Cross, he simply told his shipmates, “You won it. I wear it,” which shows how much he valued those around him. A true leader, in every sense of the word.
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