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Lee, Willis Augustus, Jr. (1888-1945)


Photograph of Vice Admiral Willis Lee

U.S. Naval Historical Center Photo #80-G-322412

"Ching" Lee was the premier battleship admiral of the U.S. Navy in the Pacific War. Born in Kentucky and a 1908 graduate of the Naval Academy, he participated in the Vera Cruz operation and commanded destroyers in World War I. Between the wars he graduated from the Naval War College (1929) and held a wide variety of command and staff assignments, including serving as senior member of the Anti-Aircraft Defense Board that recommended adoption of the Oerlikon and Bofors guns.

The outbreak of war found Lee serving as director of fleet training. In August 1942 he took command of the fast battleships in the South Pacific (Battleship Division 6), a post he held until nearly the end of the war. He was an expert in radar-directed gunnery and developed the Navy's doctrine for cooperation between fast battleships and carriers. He was present at the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal (at which he was the victorious commander in the second round), the Battle of the Philippines Sea, and Leyte Gulf and saw service off Okinawa. He died of a heart attack while commanding Task Force 69, a research organization in the Atlantic formed to find ways to deal with kamikaze attack.

Lee, who was not of Chinese ancestry, was nicknamed "Ching Chong China" by his Academy classmates because he had thoroughly enjoyed a posting to China early in his career (1910-1913), and possibly also because his features looked slightly Oriental. His nickname became a sort of code signal at one point during the Guadalcanal campaign, establishing Lee's bona fides when it became necessary to send clear voice transmissions:

This is Ching Chong China Lee. Refer your big boss about Ching Lee. Call off your boys!

Lee wore wire-rimmed glasses and had the appearance of a quiet, scholarly man. However, he was a crack shot with a rifle, killing three snipers during the 1914 Vera Cruz expedition and sharing seven Olympic team medals in marksmanship during the 1920s, five of them gold. He was also a highly intelligent and innovative commander with a dry sense of humor. He accepted the displacement of the battleship by the carrier as queen of the fleet with better grace than most surface admirals. However, he expressed the fear that constant carrier escort duty had left his battleships poorly trained for a night surface engagement, which may have influenced some important tactical decisions by his superiors, such as Spruance and Mitscher (Tuohy 2006):

MITSCHER TO LEE: Do you seek night engagement? It may be we can make air contact late this afternoon and attack tonight. Otherwise we should retire eastward tonight.
LEE TO MITSCHER: Do not, repeat, not believe we should seek night engagement. Possible advantages of radar more than offset by difficulties in communications and lack of training in fleet tactics at night.

Lee attempted without success to get Halsey to let him cover San Bernardino Strait during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Lee's staff gunnery offer later recalled (Tuohy 2006):

We told Admiral Lee to tell Halsey to leave something out there watching the strait, because they were bound to come out and everyone seemed to know that. But the reaction was, if you tell Halsey to do something, that's the one thing he won't do.... In my opinion it was the greatest tactical blunder of the war.

Service record

1888-5-11     

Born at Natlee, Kentucky
1908
Midshipman     
Graduates from Naval Academy
1908-10

BB Idaho
1909-5
Ensign
Navy Rifle Team
1909-11-15     

CL New Orleans
1910-5

PG Helena
1913-1

Navy Rifle Team
1913-7

BB Idaho
1913-12

BB New Hampshire
1915-12

Inspector of ordnance, Union Tool Company, Chicago
1918-11

DD O'Brien
1918-12

DD Lea
1919-6

Navy Rifle Team
1919-9

Executive Officer AS Bushnell
1920

U.S. Rifle Team, Olympic Games
1920-9

DD Fairfax
1921-6

DD William B. Preston
1924-11

New York Navy Yard
1926-11

AG Antares
1928-11

Commander, DD Lardner
1928

Naval War College
1929-6

Inspector of ordnance, Baldwin, Louisiana
1930

Division of Fleet Training
1931

BB Pennsylvania
1933-6
Captain
Head, Gunnery Section, Division of Fleet Training
1935

Head, Tactical Section, Division of Fleet Training
1936

Commander, CL Concord
1938-7

Staff, Cruisers, Battle Force
1938-12

Chief of staff, Cruisers, Battle Force
1939-6

Assistant Director, Division of Fleet Training
1941-1

Director, Division of Fleet Training
1942-2

Assistant chief of staff, U.S. Fleet
1942-3-27
Rear admiral     
Commander, Battleship Division 6
1943-4-16
Vice admiral Commander, Battleships, Pacific Fleet
1944-12-15

Commander, Battleship Squadron 2
1945-6-16

Assistant Chief of Staff for Readiness
1945-8-25

Dies in the line of duty

References

Bureau of Ordnance #75: Guns and Mounts (accessed 2013-3-30)

Dupuy et al. (1992)

Hornfischer (2011)

Naval Historical Center (accessed 2008-3-5)
Pettibone (2006)

Tillman (2005)
Tuohy (2007)


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