Today in History, November 14, 1942:
The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal and a (mostly) forgotten heroic Admiral.
Most of us know about Admiral William “Bull” Halsey. Admiral Raymond Spruance. Admiral Chester Nimitz. And well we should.
Yet there are others who to most are “also rans.” If you’ve read about WWII battles, you read their names, but little more.
Admirals Scott and Callahan, the only American flag officers to die in combat during the war, who both died on the same night in Iron Bottom Sound off Guadalcanal.
And my subject for this article, Admiral Willis A. “Ching” Lee.
There were numerous battles around Guadalcanal in the late summer and fall of 1942 as the US and Japan fought over the toehold in the Solomon Islands, and more specifically it’s airfield.
There were daytime actions with aircraft carriers, which Pearl Harbor had proven were now the primary fleet units.
And there were numerous night actions involving surface ships such as Battleships, Cruisers and Destroyers. The IJN was attempting to offload reinforcements and to devastate American transports doing the same at Guadalcanal.
The USN was out to prevent that from happening.
During several night actions the USN lost several combatants, but mostly prevented IJN attempts. Not entirely, but often their sacrifices paid off for the Marines ashore, who got some respite from Japanese naval gunfire.
The First Naval Battle of Guadalcanal took place the night of November 13 in what would become known as “Ironbottom Sound” off Guadalcanal. US intelligence had warned US Navy forces that the IJN planned to bombard Henderson Field and land reinforcements on the embattled island. Admirals Callahan and Scott took their forces to interdict IJN Admiral Abe’s forces. In a fierce, confusing, intense night action the Japanese won a tactical victory by sinking more American ships, while the Americans won a strategic victory…Henderson was not bombarded and the American troop ships remained undamaged. But it came at a heavy cost for both sides. Admirals Callahan and Scott would be the only US Admirals to be killed in direct ship to ship combat in the war, and aboard the USS Juneau, the five “Fighting Sullivan” brothers would all be lost.
For the Japanese; surviving battleship Hiei, among others, would fall prey to repeated air attacks from Henderson, Espirito Santo, and the USS Enterprise when the sun came up. And this was only the beginning of the battle.
The Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. Late on the 14th, early on the 15th, IJN Admiral Kondo was sent with a force of cruisers and destroyers built around the battleship Kirishima to take another shot at Henderson Field and the transports off shore. Most of the effective American combatants had been either sunk or put out of commission in the first battle, so Admiral Halsey detached a significant portion of the screening force for the USS Enterprise to protect the airfield and the transports. The Battleships USS Washington and USS South Dakota, along with the 4 destroyers with the most fuel took the job. This US Task Force made better use of their radar and spotted the Japanese ships first. The American destroyers sacrificed themselves to fight off Japanese cruisers and destroyers; the South Dakota had nothing but trouble after losing her electrical systems. As the Kirishima and others focused on the nearly defenseless South Dakota, the Washington closed within 9,000 yards of the Kirishima and tore her apart with her main and secondary batteries. Kondo ordered a retreat. Some IJN supply ships beached and began unloading, but by the time US aircraft and an American destroyer were done with them, only about 3,000 troops were ashore…without any supplies, munitions or food…making them more of a detriment than a help. The major significance of this battle is that it was the last time the IJN attempted an all out assault; now they would only offer meager supplies with the use of the “Tokyo Express” up the “Slot”…not enough to support their armies on Guadalcanal. By December 31st the Emperor had agreed to abandon Guadalcanal to the Allies. The most amazing thing to me is that in ’42 the Americans won or lost by scraping together a few ships to fight…at this point Enterprise was the only US Carrier in the Pacific…by this time in ’44, American combat ships were numerous and almost invincible as a whole.
Now back to Admiral Lee. Probably the first thing that should be said is, no, he was not of Chinese descent. He obtained the moniker “Ching” or “Chink” due to his time and success on the “China station” gunboats earlier in his career.
A 1908 graduate of the US Naval Academy, Lee actually had a storied career and was well respected…somewhat of a sage, within the Navy.
He was stoic, easy-going and very approachable for those who served with him. He could likely be found chatting with a junior enlisted man on deck and spit and polish officers reporting aboard would likely report to their commander in his cabin wearing a t-shirt and going over gunnery stats.
Yet he was known as one of the most brilliant minds in the service. He was fastidiously analytical, and enjoyed delving into technical problems. As a result, he led the Navy in gunnery. He literally was a marksman, although plagued with eyesight so bad it nearly got him booted. He won medals at the Olympics for his marksmanship.
Through the years he moved up the ranks, commanding destroyers and cruisers and ending up commanding the DC staff unit which taught the Navy and researched gear.
In 1942 he was sent to the Pacific to command the battleships there. And there he stayed until almost the end of the war.
That night off of Guadalcanal would be his best shot at combat glory. It was his demeanor and wisdom that created the success. American ships were equipped with radar, but it was new and most commanders knew little about it or did not trust it. Not so Admiral Lee. He had studied it emphatically. So when the Washington’s nine 16” and 5” guns opened up, they sent dozens of explosive shells the weight of midsize sedans into the Kirishima, practically blowing her apart and eliminating her commanders.
After that battle, his newer, fast battleships served mostly as escorts for the aircraft carriers and the older battleships became quite adept at bombardment of shore facilities.
All of this left few opportunities for the battleship to battleship slugfests the old battleship Admiral had been trained for.
During the Battle off Samar at Leyte Gulf, Lee’s battleships should have been in a perfect position to pummel the Japanese battleships attempting to devastate American transports.
Famously, Admiral Halsey took the bait provided and set off after decoy IJN carriers. Halsey left none of his four task groups behind, not even the battleships.
Lee believed it to be a mistake, his staff asked him to complain, but he was a dutiful adherent to the chain of command.
When Taffy 3, the light carriers and destroyers armed for shore support began begging for help to fight off a vastly superior Japanese force, it still took a long while for Halsey to order Lee’s battleships back to the Philippines.
It was much too late. Not only did Lee miss the chance for a surface engagement in Leyte Gulf, he could not afterwards rejoin Halsey to use his talents against the IJN carriers.
During those battles the Japanese began using Kamikaze aircraft against the fleet to horrific effect.
In June of 1945, with only two months left in the war Lee had fought diligently since ‘42, which he had prepared for all his life, Lee was sent home.
Not because he had done anything wrong. Ships were being lost and thousands of sailors killed by suicide attacks. The powers that be in Washington wanted the Navy’s best and most analytical mind…the man who had been at the forefront of anti-aircraft development, to solve the problem. Lee had helped implement proximity fused shells into the fleet and then used them to great effect.
Lee didn’t want to go. But he had been assured he would soon be back on the bridges of his battleships.
When the war ended, he was in Maine working the problem.
Nimitz, Halsey, and many of the war’s important commanders were aboard the USS Missouri to witness the surrender. Apparently nobody thought to bring Ching Lee to the party. It had an effect.
One of his staff, Guil Aertsen, had followed him to Maine. On August 25th Aertsen and his wife had breakfast with Lee and his wife, then left for a new assignment.
Lee walked to the dock and boarded a launch, headed for his flagship. He had few prospects and likely faced retirement.
He never made it to his flagship or his retirement. In the small boat, the commander of fleets died from a heart attack.
Much like his contemporary, Admiral John S. McCain, Sr, he had apparently used himself up in service of his country. Senator McCain’s grandfather also dropped dead within days of the surrender.
Stillwell, P. (2021). Battleship commander: The life of vice admiral Willis A. Lee Jr.. Naval Institute Press.
Morison, S. E. (2007). The two-ocean war: A short history of the united states navy in the Second World War. Naval Institute Press.