by Paul Stillwell
Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2021. Pp. xviii, 340+.
Illus., maps, append., notes, biblio., index. $27.50. ISBN: 168247593X
America’s Finest Battleship Sailor
Careless of appearance - even in uniform; a champion with rifle and handgun in spite of poor eyesight and thick glasses; a prankster; a brilliant analyst whose prime concern was nevertheless always the practical; mild-mannered and forgiving and beloved by his staffs and his crews, Willis “Ching” Lee was a most unusual career naval officer. In this splendid biography, Paul Stillwell does justice to all these different sides of Lee’s personality, illuminating both how the man himself behaved and lived his life as well as his great achievements during World War II in the Pacific.
Born in 1888 in Kentucky, Lee, the fourth of five children, had a comfortable upbringing allowing him a considerable amount of independence. His father was a county judge and Lee was bright and well educated but he was also adventurous. Through his father’s political connections, he gained appointment to the US Naval Academy at Annapolis in the summer of 1904, when he was only sixteen. For so many well-known naval officers of World War II, the Academy was their common experience. Marc Mitscher, for example, later commander of fast carriers in the Pacific, was a plebe at Annapolis with Lee, as was Thomas Kinkaid, commander of the US Seventh Fleet at Leyte when Lee was serving there under Admiral Halsey, another Naval Academy graduate. Until the navy ramped up rapidly during the course of the war, theirs was a small club with members who knew each other well, many of them personally, others at least by reputation. After graduation they often served together at various stations ashore alternating with stints afloat, like Lee on the China Station or with the Atlantic Fleet in the Gulf of Mexico. Lee served on destroyers in the 1920s and then on battleships starting in 1931, where he came into his own, gradually promoted to ever more important leadership positions. This was the age of the battleship and gunnery was always of supreme importance to Lee. He practiced his crews rigorously, regularly winning in competition with other ships. He was also a superb ship-handler. Whatever Lee was interested in he pursued with energy, enthusiasm and deep analysis, but that did not extend to routine paperwork and many other necessary tasks which he was notorious for delegating to his aides.
Lee’s favorite battleship – and as often as possible his flagship once he attained flag rank – was the Washington. To illustrate the huge and speedy expansion of the US Navy in response to the war in the Pacific Stillwell notes that when Lee began his tour on Washington in 1942 as a rear admiral he had a staff of two, but by 1944, then a vice admiral, he had nearly two dozen.
In addition to gunnery, among Lee’s qualities that Stillwell extolls is his very early recognition of the future importance of shipborne radar and his profound study of its technology and use. This served him well in his most significant victory, the night action against the Japanese off Savo Island in November 1942 during the Guadalcanal campaign. Admiral Chester Nimitz (who graduated from Annapolis the year Lee arrived), had a high regard for Lee as warfighter, and had sent him there with his battleships for just such an occasion. From then on Nimitz kept Lee in the war zone for the next three years without relief so he would be there to command the battle line again when the right circumstances arose. But the nature of naval war was inexorably changing and the leading role of big gun battleships, which they had had in the 1930s, was giving way to the dominance of carriers and their air power. During Lee’s career the mission of battleships morphed from the Navy’s main weapon to using their guns to provide carriers with protection against air attack and, secondarily, for shore bombardment. Unfortunately for him, Lee never did get another chance at a climactic clash with the Japanese battleships.
Perhaps Lee’s greatest regret was that he missed what turned out to be a last chance for just this sort of decisive engagement. That was when Admiral Halsey, in a much-criticized move in October 1944, ordered Lee’s fast battleships to accompany Halsey’s carriers on what turned out to be a wild goose chase to the north during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Lee had believed at the time that it was a mistake to rush north instead of continuing to guard the Leyte landing forces against the advancing Japanese surface fleet. He had told Halsey so as forcefully as he felt he could. But when Halsey ignored his advice Lee, although deeply disturbed, as was his nature did not push further. From then on, the Japanese battleships were too few and too weak to mount any serious challenge. In the next campaign off Okinawa it was the kamikazes that posed the most serious threat.
Stillwell’s book on Lee is more than just a biography of a key player in the naval war in the Pacific. It also offers a keen look at the development of the US Navy both before and during the war. Stillwell gives detailed accounts of many of the most important engagements, whether or not Lee was directly involved, and he includes cameo appearances by a vast number of naval officers and sailors including, often, their background and training. Sometimes the very profusion of names can be overwhelming, but for the most part Stillwell includes them for the insights they offer into Lee’s character, ability and leadership style. For the same reason Stillwell digs deeply into the work of many well-known historians in the field, like Richard Frank, Trent Hone, and Norman Friedman, to name just three. He not only cites their books but also explains how they worked and what sources they used. In many cases he quotes them directly, thus providing a valuable resource for understanding the scope and the depth of the scholarship on the US Navy from the 1930s through World War II.
All in all, Battleship Commander is a deeply researched and fascinating look at the naval war in the Pacific. While many books have been written about other leaders like Admirals Nimitz, Spruance, Halsey and Mitscher, and there are many fine accounts of the campaigns there, until now the important contribution of Willis A. Lee has been largely neglected. Perhaps that is due in part to Lee’s own modesty – indeed, he always shunned the spotlight. Stillwell’s welcome examination of this key player gives a very important perspective on a complicated and multifaceted war that continues to reveal new insights.
Our Reviewer: Prof Williams, a military historian, former visiting professor at Annapolis, and sometime Executive Director of The New York Military Affairs Symposium, is the author of several books on navies and technology, including Secret Weapon: U.S. High-Frequency Direction Finding in the Battle of the Atlantic, Grace Hopper: Admiral of the Cyber Sea, The Measure of a Man: My Father, the Marine Corps, and Saipan, and most recently Painting War: George Plante's Combat Art in World War II. Prof Williams’ previous reviews include The Trident Deception.
Note: Battleship Commander is also available in several e-editions.
StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium