The aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CV6) was at sea, returning to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii after delivering a squadron of Marine fighter planes and their pilots to Wake Island.
Seas had been rough, and the Task Force’s speed was not what they wanted.
The sailors were looking forward to Saturday night on Oahu and Sunday morning relaxing on the golf course or at the Royal Hawaiian.
Instead the destroyer sailors spent the night being tossed about; the Enterprise crew, aboard a larger ship, sat down in the hangar deck to watch the now famous motion picture, “Sergeant York” about a heroic soldier from WWI.
Some of the viewers were considered lucky because they would be aboard the scout flights assigned to fly ahead to Pearl the next morning, and would be dead within hours.
The rest would be the lucky ones…because of the delay, the Enterprise was not at her berth on the morning of December 7th. I wonder if she would have been the most decorated ship of WWII if she had been?
“I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”
-Edward Everett, popular orator that spoke with President Lincoln at Gettysburg to commemorate those that died there during the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg earlier in the year.
President Lincoln spoke briefly, and his speech was criticized at the time by some media, but has become legendary for it’s prescience. See below for the full text…
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
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.
Stephen Dodson Ramseur was born in Lincolnton, North Carolina in 1837. In 1860, he graduated the United States Military Academy at West Point in the US Army.
The next year he was one of many in the US Army who left the service to join the Confederacy…because it encompassed their “Country”. Young “Dod” proved to be a daring, impetuous, and courageous leader and quickly rose to be the youngest Major General in the Confederate Army.
At the Battle of Malvern Hill in the Peninsular Campaign, he was seriously wounded when shot in the right arm, temporarily paralyzed.
He drew the attention of Gen. Robert E. Lee and was promoted. At Chancellorsville his brigade scored a major victory, fighting with Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart. Ramseur was wounded in the leg during this battle. At Gettysburg, it was Dod’s Brigade that chased the Union forces back through the town in a rout. In the Wilderness Campaign he fought valiantly at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, being shot from his horse, once again hit in the right arm. Taking over Jubal Early’s division, he fought courageously at Cold Harbor and Petersburg. During the Shenandoah Valley Campaigns, he again fought hard… On October 19, during the Battle of Cedar Creek, he was shot from his horse again. He mounted a second horse, and was again shot from it.
Mounting a third horse to continue the fight, he was shot twice through the lungs, finally bringing him down.
He was loaded into an ambulance to be treated…and his ambulance was captured by Union forces.
The Union took him to Belle Grove Plantation for treatment by Union doctors, but it was no use.
Next is the most telling part of Dod’s fascinating story.
Word of his capture and condition spread quickly. As he lie dying, many of his friends…Union officers including George Armstrong Custer that had been his contemporaries before the war, rushed to his side and held an hours long vigil, keeping him company until he passed on October 20, 1864.
President Gerald Ford signs an act of Congress promoting Lieutenant General George Washington to General of the Armies, what would be a six star general if the insignia existed.
This act promoted the former President over numerous US Army Generals and US Navy Admirals, which was the point.
In the military and paramilitary services such as police, rank matters. To the extent that if two officers of the same rank are involved in an action, they will be comparing dates of rank to see who is in command.
During the Civil War, when General Ulysses Grant was given command of the Union Armies, he was promoted to Lt. General to ensure he outranked all other commanders.
During WWI and WWII the same actions were taken to ensure American commanders would not be outranked by their Allied contemporaries such as Bernard Montgomery in the British Army.
This resulted in several 5-Star Generals and Admirals. Generals of the Army (singular) or Fleet Admirals.
In WWI Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing had been made a General of the Armies.
At the nation’s bicentennial, it was considered unacceptable that the father of the country should be outranked by any fellow officers, much less so many.
The act not only promoted Gen. Washington above his fellows, it stated nobody can be promoted above him.
As most know, on April 12, 1912, RMS Titanic struck an iceberg and sank within 4 hours.
The nearest ship to receive her distress signal was the RMS Carpathia, which sped at full speed for two hours to the disaster scene. Upon her arrival, she rescued 705 survivors from the freezing waters of the North Atlantic.
The Carpathia’s crew became heroes, being awarded medals. Her Captain, Arthur Henry Rostron, was knighted and was a guest of President William Taft in the White House.
During WWI the Carpathia served as a troop ship, transporting thousands of American soldiers across the Atlantic to the war in Europe.
One of those doughboys was Frank Buckles, who would become the last surviving American Soldier from WWI before his death in 2011.
He was a prisoner of war in the Philippines during WWII (as a civilian) and a strong advocate for a WWI Memorial, which…led him to be a guest of President George W. Bush in the White House.
On this date in 1918 the Carpathia was sunk by German U-Boat U-55. All but 5 of her crew managed to escape to lifeboats.
They were in turn saved by the Sloop HMS Snowdrop, which arrived and drove off the German sub before it could machine gun the crew in their boats.
Everything is connected in history…you just have to find it. We usually know only a snippet of people’s lives. But they normally touch so much more.
Also on this date, in 1763, John Jacob Astor was born in Germany. He would immigrate to America and become America’s first millionaire. His grandson, John Jacob Astor IV, the world’s richest man, would die during the Titanic disaster.
1863 – The Union and the Confederates first clash at The Battle of Gettysburg, and both send reinforcements. The first day went badly for the Union, but the largest battle in North America had three more days to go, and would become a major turning point in the Civil War.
1898 – The Battle of San Juan Hill becomes a major victory for the US in the Spanish-American War as the US Army’s Fifth Corps takes the heights over Santiago de Cuba. It also set the stage for Colonel Theodore Roosevelt to become President as he became famous for leading his Rough Riders up Kettle Hill (not San Juan).
1916 – The Battle of the Somme in France; after a week’s bombardment with over 250,000 shells, the British launch an attack into no-man’s land. The Germans had retained many machine guns despite the bombardment, and the British soldiers were slaughtered. With 20,000 dead and 40,000 wounded in one day, it was one of the worst defeats for the British military’s history.
1942 – The Battle of El Alamein; In North Africa Erwin Rommel’s army had routed the British and their allies, driving them back so quickly that they had to leave much of their equipment behind. But on today’s date the British Army, resupplied by Americans and reorganized, turned the tide back on Rommel at El Alamein.