Willis Augustus Lee, Jr., born on 11 May 1888 in Natlee, Ky., was appointed to the Naval Academy in 1904 and graduated in 1908. During the summer following his graduation, Lee, a crack shot, served as a member of the Navy rifle team and was assigned to Idaho (Battleship No. 24) from October 1908 to May 1909, when he returned to the Navy rifle team for the summer of 1909.
Ordered to duty in the cruiser New Orleans that autumn, Lee was assigned in that warship from her re-commissioning on 15 November 1909 until May of 1910, when he was transferred to Helena (Gunboat No. 8) on the Asiatic Station. Detached in January 1913 to return to the United States, Lee participated in the national rifle match that summer, again as a member of the Navy team. Rejoining Idaho in July 1913, he was subsequently transferred to New Hampshire (Battleship No. 25) that December for a tour of duty that lasted for two years. During that time, Ens. Lee participated in the occupation of the Mexican seaport of Veracruz in April 1914, as a member of his ship's landing force.
In December 1915, Lee reported for duty as the inspector of ordnance at the Union Tool Co., Chicago, Ill., and held that assignment for three years. In November 1918, Lee went to Queenstown, Ireland, and there joined O'Brien (Destroyer No. 51). He subsequently served in Lea (Destroyer No. 118) from December 1918 to June 1919 before returning to the United States to participate again in shooting matches as a member of the United States Navy rifle team.
Upon completion of those matches in September 1919, Lee joined Bushnell (Submarine Tender No. 2), the flagship for Submarine Division 15, Atlantic Fleet, as her executive officer. In the summer of 1920, Lee was a member of the American rifle team that competed in the Olympic Games at Antwerp, Belgium, winning, with Capt. Cyrus T. Osburn, nine gold, two silver, and two bronze medals, winning personally five firsts, one second, and one third.
Commanding Fairfax (DD-93) from September 1920 to June 1921, he assumed command of William B. Preston (DD-344) at Newport, R.I., and took her to the Asiatic Station, via the Suez Canal. Detached from that command in July 1924, Lee served a tour of shore duty at the New York Navy Yard from November 1924 to November 1926. He had two more tours of sea duty in the late 1920's, in Antares (AG-10) and as commanding officer of Lardner (DD-286), before completing the senior course at the Naval War College in the spring of 1929. From June 1929 to May 1930, Lee was the Inspector of Ordnance at Naval Ordnance Plant, Baldwin, L.I. Between those tours of duty were shooting matches in which Lee served as captain of the Navy team.
After duty in the Division of Fleet Training, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, from the fall of 1930 into the spring of 1931, Lee joined Pennsylvania (BB-38), the flagship of the United States Fleet, as her navigator, and he later became the battleship's commanding officer. Detached from that duty in June 1933, he returned to Washington to serve as the head of the Gunnery Section, Division of Fleet Training, from 1933 to 1935; and later, from 1935 to 1936, as head of the Tactical Section.
Returning to sea in the fall of 1936, Lee commanded Concord (CL-10) until July 1938, when he joined the staff of Rear Adm. Harold R. Stark, Commander, Cruisers, Battle Force, of which Concord was flagship. In December of 1938, Lee became Admiral Stark's chief of staff, serving in that capacity until May 1939, when the flag was shifted to Honolulu (CL-48).
In June 1939, Lee became the Assistant Director of the Division of Fleet Training and, in January 1941, fleeted up to become the Director of that division. In February 1942, he became assistant chief of staff to the Commander in Chief, United States Fleet (CinCUS), remaining in that assignment until August 1942, when he headed for the Pacific theater to become Commander, Battleship Division 6, with his flag in Washington (BB-56). Subsequently, Lee (by that time a rear admiral) commanded the Pacific Fleet's battleships, with additional duty as Commander, Battleship Division 6, and Commander, Battleship Squadron 2.
During his service in the Pacific theater, Rear Admiral Lee commanded a task force that intercepted Japanese forces attempting to recapture positions on Guadalcanal. In an action that occurred on the night of 14 and 15 November 1942, Lee's force sought out and destroyed a more powerful one, sinking the Japanese battleship Kirishima; during the engagement, his flagship, Washington, performed sterling work, maintaining steady and accurate fire with her 16-inch guns. Despite heavy losses suffered by the American force, heavy damage to South Dakota (BB-60) and the loss of two destroyers, they won a decisive victory.
Following the capture of the Gilbert Islands in November 1943, Lee commanded a task force that attacked Nauru Island. Carrier aircraft pounded the island while the battleships subjected it to a heavy bombardment, starting large fires and destroying a number of enemy planes on the ground. In January 1944, battleships under his command screened a carrier task force as it pounded Kavieng, New Ireland, heavily damaging two Japanese cruisers in the process.
Under his command, the fast battleships formed an effective unit of the task forces ranging the Pacific. Although the ships would see little action in their designed role (that of meeting enemy battleships in surface ship engagements) the fast battleships of the American fleet served as fast, powerful, floating antiaircraft batteries, screening the carriers that had displaced them as the kingpins of the fleet.
Lee's battleship forces operated with the Truk striking force in February 1944 and later protected the task forces raiding in the Saipan-Tinian area. From April through June, battleships under his command screened the carriers in numerous engagements. On 1 May, he directed the bombardment of Ponape, heavily damaging the enemy installations there. At the invasion of Saipan, his battleships opened the way for the landing forces. On 19 June 1944, when the American Task Force 38 was subjected to heavy air attack by Japanese carrier-based planes during the Battle of the Philippine Sea, Lee directed the deployment of the battleships in the screen with such great effectiveness that many enemy aircraft were shot down.
For his outstanding service and energetic and inspiring leadership, Lee received the Navy Cross, the Legion of Merit, and the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) and a gold star in lieu of a second DSM.
Unfortunately, Vice Adm.Lee did not live to see the final surrender of Japan. On 25 August 1945, 10 days after "V-J" day, he succumbed to a fatal heart attack while in his launch, returning to his flagship, Wyoming (AG-17), off the coast of Maine. He was buried, with honors, at Arlington National Cemetery.
(DL-4: displacement 4,730; length 493'0"; beam 50'0"; draft 14'0"; speed 30 knots; complement 403; armament 2 5-inch,-4 3-inch, 8 20 millimeter, 2 rocket launchers (Weapon "Alfa"), 1 depth charge track; class Mitscher)
Willis A. Lee (DD-929) was laid down on 1 November 1949 at Quincy, Mass., by the Shipbuilding Division of the Bethlehem Steel Co.; reclassified a destroyer leader, DL-4, on 9 February 1951; launched on 26 January 1952; sponsored by Mrs. Fitzhugh L. Palmer, Jr., niece of Vice Admiral Lee; and commissioned at the Boston Naval Shipyard on 5 October 1954, Cmdr. Fredericik H. Schneider, Jr., in command.
Following her shakedown at Guantanamo Bay, Willis A. Lee returned to her homeport, Newport, R.I., and began a career of operations with the U.S. Atlantic Fleet. She was deployed to the Mediterranean for the first time in July of 1955, cruising with the Sixth Fleet, the first ship of her type to operate with that force. Upon the conclusion of her first tour with the Sixth Fleet later that year, Willis A. Lee returned to the east coast and operated off the eastern seaboard in air defense exercises.
In February 1956, Willis A. Lee (reclassified as a frigate in 1955) sailed southward to the Dominican Republic, where she represented the United States in American Day festivities at Ciudad Trujillo, the capital city of that West Indian nation. The frigate then spent considerable time at the Boston Naval Shipyard before resuming active operatons. In November, whle participating in antisubmarine warfare (ASW) exercises, Willis A. Lee assisted the distressed fishing vessel, Agda, off Montauk Point, Long Island, fighting and extinguishing a blazing oil fire and thus saving several lives.
In February 1957, the ship carried His Majesty King Ibn Saud, of Saudi Arabia, to New York City during his official visit to the United States. Later that month, she sailed to Washington, D.C., to participate in ceremonies honoring the birthday of George Washington. That spring, Willis A. Lee played "movie star," when she was filmed by the Louis de Rochemont studios fora part in the cinerama production, "Windjammer," while she operated on ASW exercises in the North Atlantic. She subsequently participated in the International Naval Review held that summer at Hampton Roads, Va., before becoming part of a large combined NATO fleet that conducted intensive ASW and air defense exercises in the North Atlantic that autumn. During those maneuvers, Willis A. Lee crossed the Arctic Circle for the first time on 20 September.
Over the next two years, Willis A. Lee was twice deployed to the Mediterranean for operations with the Sixth Fleet, separating those tours with local operations out of Newport and in the Caribbean and off the coast of Florida, primarily on ASW and air defense exercises. In the summer of 1959, she participated in Operation "Inland Sea" as flagship for Rear Adm. Edmund B. Taylor, Commander, Task Force 47, on a cruise on the Great Lakes. During that historic voyage, she transited the newly opened St. Lawrence Seaway and visited the ports of Chicago, Ill.; Milwaukee, Wis.; Detroit, Mich.; Erie, Pa.; and Cleveland, Ohio. That autumn, Willis A. Lee returned to her schedule of maneuvers and exercises in the North Atlantic.
Willis A. Lee, with Commander, Destroyer Force, Atlantic Fleet, embarked, conducted an inspection cruise, commencing in February 1960, of Atlantic Fleet ports and installations that took the ship to San Juan, Puerto Rico; St. Thomas, Virgin Islands; and Ciudad Trujillo. Upon the conclusion of that cruise, the warship took part in Operation "Springboard," an annual exercise in the Caribbean.
In the summer of 1960, Willis A. Lee conducted a midshipmen's training cruise while participating in more fleet exercises. She subsequently visited Montreal, Canada, and New York City before she took part in various refueling-at-sea and replenishment exercises as part of LANTFLEX (Atlantic Fleet Exercise) 2-60.
After a brief trip to Charleston, S.C., in August, Willis A. Lee participated in Operation "Sword Thrust," a NATO fleet exercise in the North Atlantic which combined the efforts of more than 60 British, French, Norwegian, Canadian, and American warships. While carrying out simulated attacks on the European continent during the course of the maneuvers, Willis A. Lee again crossed the Arctic Circle. After calling at Le Havre, France, Willis A. Lee returned to Newport. In November, she entered the Boston Naval Shipyard for an extensive overhaul, part of the Fleet Rehabilitation and Modernization (FRAM) program.
During her FRAM overhaul, Willis A. Lee was altered significantly to enable her to perform her designed role more efficiently. When she finally left the yard almost a year later, she displayed a distinctly altered silhouette. She then had a helicopter hangar in place of the after 3-inch twin gun mount to accommodate the DASH helicopter system. She had also received topside antisubmarine torpedo armament. Her two "Weapon Alfa" mounts had been removed. Chiefamong the new equipment installed in the ship was a bow-mounted sonar dome, utilizing revolutionary new concepts in underwater sound-ranging.
Emerging from the shipyard in September 1960, Willis A. Lee participated in a rescue operation soon thereafter, embarking the crew from the storm-endangered Texas Tower No. 2, off the coast of Massachusetts. Willis A. Lee then stood guard over the early warning tower, fighting off Hurricane "Esther" as she remained in the vicinity of the abandoned "Texas Tower."
Willis A. Lee spent much of her ensuing career involved in sonar evaluations of her bow-mounted system. She ranged from the mid-Atlantic to the Caribbean, frequently operating with submarines, and upon occasion visited Bermuda. There were highlights, though, of that normally routine duty, such as in the autumn of 1962 when the United States and Soviet Russia stood at the brink of a possible nuclear confrontation over the issue of Soviet missiles in Cuba. Willis A. Lee operated on the Cuban "quarantine line" for 10 days, deploying in the Caribbean until President Kennedy called off the operation. She then resumed her sonar evaluations.
After spending January and February of 1963 at the Boston Naval Shipyard for more alterations and improvements on the experimental sonar system, Willis A. Lee operated in Haitian waters during March, conducting further sonar evaluations. She varied that duty with a brief in-port visit at Port-au-Prince during the troubled political situation there at that time.
That summer, Willis A. Lee was attached to Destroyer Development Group (DesDevGru) 2, a group of ships engaged in experimental work of various kinds, and finished out the year 1963 in the Boston Naval Shipyard undergoing extensive boiler repairs.
With the exception of two brief trips to Newport, Willis A. Lee remained at the Boston Naval Shipyard until 29 April 1964, when she returned to her home port to prepare for a southern cruise. Underway on 6 May for type training in Guantanamo Bay, the frigate conducted further sonar evaluations later that month en route back to Newport before returning to her home port on 26 May. Willis A. Lee subsequently conducted three more evaluation cruises before she participated in Exercise "Steel Pike," the largest peacetime amphibious exercise in history. During those maneuvers, Willis A. Lee served as the flagship for Rear Adm. Mason Freeman, Commander, Cruiser-Destroyer Flotilla 2. To then round out the year, the frigate conducted another sonar evaluation cruise, calling twice at Key West during the voyage. She returned north on 11 December and spent the remainder of the year under restricted availability at the Bethlehem Steel Shipyard, East Boston, Mass.
Willis A. Lee resumed sonar testing operations in 1965 and operated twice in the Bahama area. She subsequently conducted type training off the Virginia capes and in the Narragansett Bay area before arriving at the Boston Naval Shipyard on 30 June to commence a lengthy overhaul to her engineering plant and modifications to her sonar system.
For the remainder of her career, Willis A. Lee continued in her routine of sonar development and testing, homeported out of Newport with occasional periods of yard repairs at Boston. During her final years, the frigate operated off the Virginia capes, in the Caribbean, and Narragansett Bay areas, and was deployed to the Mediterranean for the fourth and last time in November 1966. She returned to Newport on 20 May 1967, thus completing her first extended deployment since 1961.
Placed out of commission in December 1969, Willis A. Lee was stricken from the Navy list on 15 May 1972. She was sold to the Union Minerals & Alloys Corp., of New York City, and taken under tow for her final voyage on 5 June 1973. She was subsequently scrapped.
Robert J. Cressman
31 March 2021