Admiral Willis A “Ching” Lee

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.

“Uncommon Valor was a Common Virtue”

Today in History, February 23, 1945:

After a hard fought battle, the US Marines reach the top of Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima.

5 Marines and 1 US Navy Corpsman raised the US flag at the peak, and photographer Joe Rosenthal caught it on camera.

3 of the flag raisers would be dead before the Battle for Iwo Jima was won. After many deaths and the earning of 27 Medals of Honor (half posthumous), the tiny island was deemed “secure” on March 16. Then B29 Superfortress bombers and long range fighters could use the airstrip in the bombing of Japan.

The photo became famous, and inspired the US Marine Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.

The first flag was considered too small, and a second larger flag, scrounged up from one of the landing ships, was raised to replace it.

Admiral Chester Nimitz described the battle as one “where uncommon valor was a common virtue.”

Pappy’s Air War Ends

Today in History, January 3, 1944:

Moments after he became the top fighter ace in the Pacific Theater by shooting down his 26th enemy plane, USMC Major Gregory “Pappy” Boyington was himself shot down over the Japanese base of Rabaul.

He would be captured by the Japanese and held prisoner, brutally treated until rescued from a Japanese prisoner of war camp.

Boyington had been one of the American servicemen to resign their commissions to serve in the AVG, the American Volunteer Group, or “Flying Tigers” in China prior to America’s entry into the war. After Pearl Harbor he rejoined the Marines and fought in the Pacific.

Boyington was a Medal of Honor recipient. A warrior. And a drunk. In his good will tours after the war, he stated bluntly, “Show me a hero, and I’ll show you a bum.”

Consequences of Propaganda

Today in History, July 9, 1944:

Victory at the Battle of Saipan. The US Marines defeat the Japanese military on Saipan, the first island with Japanese civilians to be taken by the US.

It was a difficult battle, made all the more so by the existence of a civilian population. The Marines set up well lit camps for the civilians to be safe from battle.

Fearing that his citizens would find out that the Americans were not the vicious, heartless enemy projected by propaganda, the Emperor issued a communique to the civilian population of Saipan, telling them that if they committed suicide they would receive the same treatment in the afterlife as Japanese soldiers that died in battle.

American servicemen were horrified as Japanese civilians threw their children from cliffs, then followed them to the rocks below. The newly won island would be used as an air base for B-29 Superfortress bombers that would bomb the Japanese mainland.

The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot

Today in History, June 19, 1944:

Reversal of Fortunes, exhibited by “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot”, or the First Battle of the Philippine Sea.

US Marines, supported by their parent service, the US Navy, are invading Saipan and other islands in the Marianas Islands, which is such a threat to Japan that the Imperial Japanese Navy finally comes out to fight a definitive battle.

When the war began the Japanese had the most advanced aircraft available, while the US Navy lagged sorely behind. The Japanese Zero, for example, was much faster and more maneuverable than the American Wildcat fighter. But by 1944 the American industrial complex had engaged fully. As late as 1943 the USS Enterprise stood alone in the Pacific against numerous IJN Carriers.

But by June of 1944 the Americans put to sea 15 Aircraft Carriers in 4 Task Groups equipped with modern aircraft that far out matched Japan’s aircraft, which had not been updated since the war began. In addition, Japan’s air service had lost nearly all of it’s experienced pilots, while the Americans had thousands of combat hardened, well-trained pilots and crews.

When the IJN sent it’s carriers and their crews against TF 58, they were massacred. In two days the Japanese lost over 400 aircraft and their crews, 3 aircraft carriers they could not spare, and the Americans lost 29 aircraft (some of the crews were rescued) and no ships. So many Japanese aircraft fell from the skies that a Lexington pilot referred to it as an old time turkey shoot, and the name stuck.

The air crews of the task force had been launched late in the day on the 20th to attack the Japanese fleet. When they returned, it was well after dark and they began landing their planes in the sea, unable to see the carriers well enough for landings aboard.

With the threat from enemy submarines and aircraft during the war, blackout conditions were the rule. Admiral Marc Mitscher wasn’t going to lose his boys and their planes, however. With his order the fleet lit up, and the planes began landing on fumes.

Today in History, December 28: 1867 –

The United States annexes it’s first territory outside of the continental US, two tiny specs of coral land halfway to Asia in the Pacific, first known as the Brook Islands for the man who discovered them, later renamed Midway Atoll.

The Navy attempted unsuccessfully to build a coaling station on the island, and later the Commercial Pacific Cable Company used the island as a link for telegraph lines across the world’s largest ocean.

In 1903 President T. Roosevelt stationed 21 US Marines there to ward off poachers. In the 1930’s Pan American Airways began using Midway as one of the stations for its now romantically famous island hopping China Clipper. And of course the “Goony Bird” filled islands became known to most of us for it’s part during the Battle of Midway during WWII.

“Before We’re Through With ‘em, the Japanese Language Will be Spoken Only in Hell!” -Adm. William F. Halsey

Today in History, December 8: 1941 –

The US Navy Task Force focused around the USS Enterprise (CV-6) aircraft carrier, short on supplies and fuel, enters Pearl Harbor in the dark of night to re-provision as quickly as possible. Uncertainty reigns; nobody knows if the surprise attack by Japanese aircraft was the precursor to an invasion…

The men of the Task Force are horrified by the destruction they are witnessing; mighty ships they had seen just days before lay smoldering and efforts to rescue untold numbers of their friends trapped in the ships were ongoing. The stench of burning oil and bodies permeates the night air.

The commander of the Task Force, Vice Admiral William Halsey observes the carnage from the bridge of the Enterprise and angrily utters one of what will be many memorable quotes from him during the war, “Before we’re through with ’em, the Japanese language will be spoken only in hell!”

Today, of course, Japan is one of our closest and most faithful allies. But on December 8, 1941, and for years to come, the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and other allied basis left no room for anything but battle.

The China Clipper Adventure

Today in History, November 22:

A Martin M-130 flying boat owned by Pan American Airways takes off from San Francisco, flies under the yet to be completed San Francisco Bridge on it’s way to the Orient.

With this the China Clipper inaugurated commercial air service via Hawaii, Midway, Wake Island, Guam to the Philippines. If you had the money, a romantic 7 day trip across the Pacific Ocean was now possible.

The Whaleship Essex

Today in History, November 20: 1820 –

Loss of the whaleship Essex. Since 1711, the whaling industry had been an important aspect of the American economy. This was the time before crude oil, and the oil, blubber and bone from whales brought good money. Hundred of ships from New England made a living sailing to the Pacific and back.

The Essex had sailed from Nantucket and was hunting 2,000 miles west of the South American coast when and angry whale struck the ship twice, capsizing her and setting her twenty man crew adrift in open long boats.

During the next 83 days three of the men would be marooned on a South Pacific island. Only five others would survive after being picked up by other ships near the South American coast.

The ordeal would inspire Herman Melville’s novel “Moby Dick.”

US Exploring Expedition 

Today in History, August 18: 1838 – At Hampton Roads, Virginia, The United States Exploring Expedition, consisting of USS Vincennes, USS Porpoise and others, weighs anchor and begins a four year adventure. The US government had made the decision to fund a scientific venture around the world, but specifically to explore the Pacific. Also known as the “Ex. Ex.” and the Wilkes Expedition after it’s commander, US Navy Lt. Charles Wilkes, the group of sailors, scientists and artists would face terrible weather, murderous natives, intrigue and sometimes poor leadership. 

 Not all of their ships, nor all of their crews would make it home. On the way they discovered parts of Antarctica, previously unknown species and islands. They collected thousands of samples, many of which would be lost. 

 America was placed on the scientific map by the men of the expedition. If you want a good read, it’s “Sea of Glory” by Nathaniel Philbrick, which details their exploits.

Wilkes place in history did not end with the Expedition. He would operate in the Naval Observatory in Washington on the scientific side. Then during the Civil War he would create an international incident when he commanded ships which would stop an English ship and sieze two Confederate emissaries enroute to London. The US would eventually release the Confederates…preventing England’s entrance into the war.