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.
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.
A new Navy fighter, the F6F Hellcat, flies for the first time.
When WWII started, the F4F Wildcat was the primary Navy fighter. Both built by Grumman, the cats served their pilots well.
The Wildcat was too slow and ungainly to compete with the Japanese Zero well, but it held it’s own. It was so well built that it was hard to knock out of the Pacific skies, and it’s weight made it better in a dive.
Grumman took it’s advantages and improved on it with the Hellcat, which was just as tough but faster than the Zero, and armed with 6 .50 cal. machine guns.
The Hellcat and the F4U Corsair would sweep the Pacific of Japanese air power. But the Hellcat would hold the title…having downed 5,271 enemy aircraft, she holds the title for destroying more enemy aircraft than any other fighter type.
The University of Oklahoma Sooners win at the Orange Bowl.
30 games into a historic 47 game winning streak, legendary OU football coach Bud Wilkinson led his team to victory at the Orange Bowl. Wilkinson set the standard for the program.
All of that very nearly never happened.
Wilkinson had been part of several football victories in Minnesota during the thirties.
When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Bud did what many American heroes did, he put his life on hold and joined up. In his case, it was the U.S. Navy.
So it was that Bud became a member of yet another legendary team. The crew of the USS Enterprise had earned 20 Battle Stars during the war.
On May 14, 1945, Lieutenant Charles “Bud” Wilkinson was the Hangar Deck Officer. The Big E was maneuvering violently to avoid an onslaught of Kamikaze planes off the coast of Japan. Finally one of the suicide planes got through, and crashed into the flight deck just aft of the forward aircraft elevator. The explosion sent a large part of the 15 ton elevator 400 feet into the sky. Fourteen men were killed, 60 wounded.
The hangar deck was devastated, 25 aircraft aboard were destroyed.
Lt. Wilkinson happened to be standing on the opposite side of a girder from the blast…by Bud’s reckoning, had he been three feet closer to the explosion, he would have been killed. (Barrett Tillman, “Enterprise”, 2012)
How many Bud Wilkinsons did we lose? And how many owe their success in life to a matter of seconds which saved the coach’s life that day?
Bud Wilkinson would begin his OU odyssey two years later, leading the program from 1947 to 1963.
In order to direct Germany in the direction they wanted, the Nazis believed that they had to give the people someone to blame, someone to hate, for their misfortunes. The Jewish people of Germany and Austria were the perfect targets.
The Nazis used the murder of a low level diplomat in Paris as an excuse.
Hitler ordered storm troopers to ACT as if they were citizens angered by the murder and to vandalize and destroy Jewish businesses, thus “The Night of Broken Glass” from the broken windows.
Many Jews were killed and 30,000 men were arrested and sent to concentration camps. They were released if they promised to leave Germany….100,000+ did so. Kristallnacht would eventually lead to the Holocaust, during which 6,000,000+ Jews were killed in the Nazis attempt at genocide.
Casus Belli: : an event or action that justifies or allegedly justifies a war or conflict
“I will provide a propagandistic casus belli. Its credibility doesn’t matter. The victor will not be asked whether he told the truth.”
— Adolph Hitler.
The Gleiwitz incident, an assault on a German radio station near the border with Poland, as part of Operation Himmler, takes place.
The assault was conducted by GERMAN SS troops, posing as Polish troops, upon a German radio station. The ruse went so far as to leave Polish prisoners, captured previously, dead at the station as “proof” of the assault.
The next day, already prepared, German troops invaded Poland in “response” to the atrocity.
Thus began the conflict which would cost millions of military and civilian peoples of many nations their lives. In a real sense, WWII had been raging in Asia and through limited German actions already, but September 1, 1939 is considered the beginning.
The victors will not be asked whether they told the truth. Unfortunately this is usually accurate, similar to “to the victor go the spoils” and “the victors write the history books.”
Either contemporaries are actually trusting, or to fearful the wolf will turn on them, to act.
We should remember our history. We are MERELY human, and always shall be. It is arrogance to believe we will not achieve the same mistakes.